Dubai; As Titanic opens its portholes this evening at the new Melia hotel in the rather odd location of Bur Dubai, FooDiva meets the man who many say instigated the UK celebrity chef trend in 1995 at the age of 33, when he became the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars.*
Marco Pierre White already has three franchises in the UAE – MPW steakhouse and Frankie’s at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Abu Dhabi, plus Frankie’s Dubai. He retired from the kitchen in 1999, yet has expanded his restaurant empire to 23 restaurants – so why another opening and why Dubai?
Meet Marco as he regales FooDiva in Titanic’s lounge with many a Michelin, Afghan and stock cube tale (interspersed with footie chit chat – he’s an Arsenal fan by the way, not Chelsea given his restaurant at their football club). I forewarn you grab a cuppa or a tipple of something stronger as you’ll need a few minutes to digest.
1. You have three franchises in the UAE already. So why another restaurant here in Dubai and why Titanic given your original restaurant in London closed down?
I like the Middle East – it’s easier. Australia is too far away. America, you’re like a splinter and many of my friends have come back home with their tail between their legs – you’re a threat to them. Dubai opens its arms to you. They want individuals with brands, with talent, with stories.
I like Titanic – it’s straightforward. If it’s just MPW, then you’re expecting that three-star Michelin. Titanic is much more casual – you can sit and have your dinner here [in the bar lounge area]. I’m a smoker, so I don’t want to sit in the main restaurant. I like casual dining. I don’t want to dress up. I like simplicity. It’s all about lifestyle, about enjoying yourself, sitting with your friends and loved ones and having a nice dinner. A nice portion of food – big piece of halibut, chunk of tuna, nice proper steak with a bit of salad on the side. It’s about eating. I like romantic environments. I like music in a restaurant. I like the visual side of restaurants and to smell the food. I don’t want the formality. I don’t like 18 courses of knick knacks and lukewarm food. I get bored. It’s a way of chefs controlling what’s in the kitchen for when they’re not there.
2. And why with Melia Hotels?
It just happened one day. You sit down, a glass of wine. Now I am trying to buy another hotel in England. I didn’t try and buy it. I just sat down for brunch one day and all of a sudden I am buying a hotel. You walk down your road in life and things cross your path. It’s quite interesting and that’s the beauty of the restaurant business – all those individuals you meet.
3. Clearly you’re not going to be in the kitchen here. So who’s in charge?
I am not going to live a lie and pretend am behind the stove. To do what I do, I can’t be behind the stove. It’s as simple as that. Frederic [the hotel’s Executive Chef] has worked in many Michelin star restaurants with Mark Meneau and Joel Robuchon. Titanic’s Chef Beeknoo has spent time with us in Wheeler’s in London. This morning I was in the kitchen with them. I like sharing my knowledge, my story. I like my freedom now.
4. Titanic’s cuisine is described on your website as European. Tell us about the food. Where is the produce sourced from?
Food is clean. You have to take the weather into consideration here so it’s sunshine flavours, almost Mediterranean. The quality of the produce is of a very good standard. Very little is local, like the whole of Dubai. Tuna, veal, foie gras – all very good quality. In time, people will start to create more farms which will supply [the trade].
5. But what about educating the diner on local, sustainable fish by adding it to the menu?
The local fish should be used as a fresh fish special of the day I feel. I do think given the expat population here you need your classic fishes – your halibut, tuna, salmon, lobster which are beautiful, great quality. Clientele may not know what the local fish is so it’s about creating a menu with recognisable ingredients. You can’t educate people – you can only inspire people. It’s whatever the demand is.
6. What’s your view on Michelin? Does it help or hinder?
Winning three stars is the most exciting journey on earth for any chef that receives it [to win one, two and then three]! Can you imagine winning three stars in day one today – where’s the journey, the value? But retaining three stars is the most boring job on earth because it’s very repetitious. If you have your big specialities, you can’t really change your menu that much, because people are coming to you for those specialities. Also the reason why you don’t change is because it’s too high risk and too much is at stake. You spend your life winning three stars – now you have to defend your position, your reputation. Movement on the menu is very slow.
I got to the stage in my life when I had realised my dream – to replicate the great French restaurants. I wanted two things – three Michelin stars, and five red knives and forks. That was my dream. In 1995, I won my three stars and four black knives and forks. In 1998, I still had my three stars and five knives and forks. I had everything I had set out to achieve. So when I was 38 years old, and getting up early, leaving home when your boys are fast asleep in your beds – you come home after a day’s work and your boys are fast asleep. Six days a week – it pulls on you. I was like the Christmas fairy sat on the top of tree. I became the boss of the world, but when you’re up there, it’s quite lonely. Your regulars are people that come twice a year – you’re cooking for strangers. Where’s the pleasure? So much to risk, why risk it? It’s almost conveyor belt cuisine, replication, consistency, day in day out – which won you three stars. You only change with the seasons. You can’t reinvent the wheel. So it was 1999 and I had realised my dream. I’d proved myself. I’d had my three stars for five years. So I decided to pluck up the courage and told Michelin I was retiring and gave them back my stars. The next day you are unemployed, but you have your freedom and have the time to grow emotionally. For 22 years, all my energy went into my food, not me as a person. So when I stepped out of the kitchen at 38 years old, I was quite socially inept, fearful of the outside world. I’d been institutionalised in the world of Michelin.
7. Do you think Dubai is ready for Michelin?
I would actually flip that question and say is Michelin ready for Dubai? I actually think Michelin doesn’t work very well outside Europe – I think it works in France, UK, Spain, Europe. Not really beyond, because I’ve been to Michelin star restaurants in America for instance and my perception of Michelin is ABC, and I sit in a Michelin star restaurant in New York for example and if that’s one star then there should be another 1,000 restaurants in Britain with Michelin stars. When Michelin took away Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin star from Claridges, what they were saying is that every one star restaurant in France is better than Gordon’s at Claridges. Not true. Michelin is now a very commercial monster – they go to Tokyo – year one, 14 three stars. They go to New York – year one, four, three stars. This is against the Michelin criteria.
When I was a boy to win three stars with Michelin you had to prove yourself and tended to only be proprietor-owned restaurants which won three stars and that showed consistency. You earn your first star, your second and then your three stars if you ever get that far. To start giving three stars straight away from year one makes you question Michelin and its value – they dish out stars like confetti now. I go back to the 70s when I became very obsessed with Michelin. Michelin does not have the credibility it had all those years ago. Michelin when it first started, supplied a service to clients that bought tyres. Today it’s a publishing arm that has to make money. It’s not a service anymore, it’s changed. Also to win Michelin stars you had to be behind the stove. Today how many chefs whose name is above the door are really behind the stove? When I won my three stars, Mr Brown and Mr Bulmer came to advise me [in advance of the public announcement] – when I walked them to the door and I shook hands with them, Mr Brown said ‘Marco never forget what made you great’. What he was saying to me was ‘stay behind the stove.’ If I am going to spend big money on a restaurant you want the great man behind the stove.
8. Tell me about your work in Afghanistan.
I’ve cooked in Basra, Kabul, Helmand – it’s non-political. I give the troops their Christmas lunch. The emotional impact is extraordinary – it’s very difficult to describe. When you’re there you don’t think of the dangers, only when you come home. So this year I fed the troops when they came home at their army base. It’s my little way of giving back – amazing how appreciative they are. Something as simple as a mince pie means the world to them. A little like Oliver when he asks for more. They made me an honorary member of their regiment and I have all these badges – it’s amazing.
9. You’re also due to open a Wheeler’s at DIFC with RMAL Hospitality. When will it open?
I own the global brand, the oldest fish brand in the world. I was part of Forte when the hostile takeover with Granada happened, so I ended up buying it because the brand may have died and that would have been very sad. We have six in the UK, 15 by the end of the year. Dubai will open soon – later this year.
10. And finally a question from a FooDiva follower, do you really believe a stock cube is as good as home-made stock?!
Firstly, I don’t use Knorr as a stock, I use it as seasoning, so instead of salt. I still make my chicken or fish stock for example, and add Knorr. It’s about taste and flavour. You have to loosen the blinkers. I use Knorr all the time.
Very well media-trained answer Marco! One hour and 45 minutes later our conversation came to an end (what you see is only a snippet) as Marco was rushed off for a Dubai One cooking demo. Gosh he had FooDiva mesmerised so I hope I’ve been able to transcribe a little of that magic. A chef-turned-restaurateur who swopped his Michelin stars for honorary badges (and the odd stock cube) – so passionate, so focused, so articulate, but most importantly so incredibly honest – he says it like it is. There’s just something so endearing about Marco, many an egocentric chef would be wise to soak up his advice.
But is brand Marco Pierre White enough to pull the punters to Bur Dubai, even if the boutique hotel at first impressions is rather sexy? Titanic, I sincerely hope your journey is not as ill-fated as your namesake. FooDiva will be watching as you set sail tonight and weave a little of that Marco magic.
Titanic by Marco Pierre White is located at the new Melia hotel in Bur Dubai on Kuwait Street. Click here for a peek of the menu – very well priced by the way! Licensed. Open daily for lunch and dinner. T; +971 4 3868111 E; email@example.com
*A record now held by Italian, Massimiliano Alajmo who won three stars at the age of 28 in 2002.