Depictions: The Odd Couple, Fine Dining Edition

A Fascinating Encounter Between Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc

I’ve had Marco Pierre White on the brain lately, mostly because I’ve been working with Paul Liebrandt on a book project. Coming of age when he did in London, Paul was heavily influenced by Marco, who towered over the dining scene there in the 1980s and 1990s. The first book that ever moved Paul was Marco’s classic and brilliantly titled White Heat, and for his second “proper” cooking job, Paul tried, and succeeded, in snagging a job at White’s celebrated The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel (now a Mandarin Oriental).

Before opening that eponymous establishment, Marco made his name at Harvey’s, and while there, the BBC shot and aired a fascinating miniseries of sorts in which the chef cooked for, and then dined with, four kitchen masters for whom he had once worked: Pierre Koffman, Albert Roux, Nico Ladenis, and—most memorably to my mind—Raymond Blanc, the eternally childlike optimist who ran then, and still runs today, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

Featured below is the third and final segment of the half-hour episode. The first two segments are here and here, and mostly concern Marco and his brigade preparing dinner; in other words, for two-thirds of the program, it’s a cooking show. But then, about 1 minute 15 seconds into part three, Raymond comes to lunch and you could cut the tension with any one of the knives just off camera in Marco’s kitchen. (The episodes featuring the other chefs are easily found on You Tube as well, and I recommend them all.)

Here’s the clip, with my time-stamped commentary below… if you can watch this just once, you have a lot more discipline than I do:

:38: Historical footnote: That plate is the Villeroy & Boch basket weave that become a darling of chefs in both London and the US around this time. Prior to its popularity, you’d have had a hard time finding oversize plates, so common in restaurants today, anywhere in the United States, not even at a restaurant show.

1:23: Sign of things to come: Raymond, full of enthusiasm, lifts his glass for a toast. Marco corrects him: “You’re supposed to do this at the end, Chef.” And away we go.

2:25: How far we’ve come.  Marco’s commentary on how ignorant his customers are of the sacrifice chefs make: “It’s not glamorous, it’s dirty, it’s sweaty.” Ten years before Kitchen Confidential, Marco himself would put an end to all that in White Heat, which features gloriously gritty black and white photography by Bob Carlos Clarke. It was a game changer in how chefs and their work are perceived.

2:55: This has nothing to do with chef-dom, but kudos to the camera-person for a marvelous, spontaneous cinéma-vérité-worthy zoom as the camera pushes in to capture Raymond’s revelation of the price he’s paid in the name of his craft, namely, that his “family life has been pretty much destroyed.”  The guy, who has come off as Mr. Sunshine up to that moment, reveals something totally unexpected and deeply private.

3:25: Marco goes on about how wives always feel secondary to your work.  Some things haven’t changed.

4:00: His hands are off camera, but note how Marco mops  the residue off Raymond‘s plate with (I assume) a piece of bread, then licks his fingers clean, and Raymond doesn’t seem the least bit bothered or offended. For all the tension between them, they are brothers of a sort, no?

4:27: Having said that, check out the nanosecond of unbelievably awkward silence that precedes the next course.  It’s a very quick cut, so must have been deliberately included by the editor, and it’s priceless. When there’s no food before them, they have nothing left to talk about.

4:45: Just hilarious, though you have to listen to catch it. Marco, singing the praises of Pierre Koffman’s pig’s trotter dish, says it’s the one dish he’d like to have before he died. Blanc responds that he doesn’t think about death and Marco (this is what you have to strain to hear) says, “I think about it every day.”

5:20: “At the end of the day you can’t reinvent the wheel.  The wheel has been invented and all we can do is put our own hallmark on it now.” For all his bluster, Marco was not only talented, but also wise at his young age. We’d have been spared a lot of silliness if all chefs, especially in the 1990s, understood this notion.

5:41: That chamber music, combined with the gourmet food and Marco’s threatening demeanor, always puts me in mind of the moment in Silence of the Lambs just before Hannibal Lecter eats the prison guards in Baltimore.

6:05: Regarding dessert, Blanc comments that, “When you taste it you want more.  Always a good sign.” A simple concept, but I love the phrasing.

6:20: Blanc’s observation that Marco’s food no longer “lies” is truly insightful and the kind of appraisal that probably could only be made by a fellow chef.

6:58: Marco: “It’s that little something which you can’t write into a cookery book. That inner feeling that comes from within, that feeling of what you’re working with.”  There will always be a gap between what chefs do and what the rest of us do. This was summed up well by Thomas Keller in The French Laundry Cookbook: “The idea of cooking and the idea of writing a cookbook are, for me, in conflict.  There is an inherent contradiction between a cookbook, which is a collection of documents, and a chef, who is an evolving soul, not easily transcribed in recipe form.”

7:00 to end: What’s this? A Hollywood ending? All of a sudden, the tough façade drops and Marco tells Raymond that he’s the one who first made all this clear to him, even though he was too ignorant to understand at the time.  (Bonus sign of the times:  Marco smokes at the table for the tv camera.) Note Marco’s broad grin at 8:00 when Raymond toasts him; it’s truly touching.

8:04: Yep, that’s a young Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen with Marco and the boys.

Last line: “You try every night.”  The chef’s life, in four words.

- Andrew

PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at andrew@toqueland.com.

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Published in Depictions, Paul Liebrandt

About the Author

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ANDREW FRIEDMAN has collaborated on more than 25 cookbooks and other projects with some of America’s finest and most well-known chefs including Michael White, Paul Liebrandt, Alfred Portale, and former White House Chef Walter Scheib. He co-edited the popular anthology Don’t Try This at Home and is a two-time winner of the IACP Award for Best Chef or Restaurant Cookbook. Andrew is an editor at large for TENNIS Magazine and the coauthor of American tennis star James Blake’s New York Times bestselling memoir Breaking Back. In 2009, he published his first nonfiction book, Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Bocuse d’Or, the World’s Most Prestigious Cooking Competition. He is currently working on a cookbook with chefs Walker Stern and Joseph Ogrodnek of Brooklyn's Battersby restaurant, and is writing an oral history of the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, to be published by Ecco Press in 2015.