Opinion

Marco Pierre White and me: the interviews from hell

As well as opening a new restaurant in Singapore, Marco Pierre White will return to Australia’s TV screens next year with cooking contest Hell’s Kitchen. In the publicity push that will doubtless precede the show, Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll hopes journalists will have a more pleasant time with the grumpy chef than he experienced in a series of excruciating encounters earlier this year with the former Masterchef judge

Dean CarrollIn journalism, a thick skin is never listed in job descriptions. It should be.

At times, my run-in with the former ‘enfant terrible’ of the culinary world felt like an out-of-body experience.

Marco and I met when he was in Dubai promoting a cookbook and I worked for a local publisher.

Having been asked to do a series of three interviews with him before an audience, I agreed – on the condition that the events were not simply stage-managed publicity stunts to promote his book.

I was warned later – after agreeing to the interviews – that Marco would want to see my questions because “he’s a worrier”. Reluctantly, I agreed.

At our first extremely-brief meeting, I showed him the topics we would cover.

Without reading them, he grunted: “I’m not answering all of those questions. You only need to ask me three things, Dean: What was it like growing up in Leeds? How did you come to go to London? And why did you give back the (Michelin) stars?”

As he walked off without even listening to my reply, I realised there was trouble ahead.

When we met again on stage later that evening, in a high-end hotel venue packed with 300 leading aviation and hospitality executives, I did not stick to Marco’s script.

Of course I asked him about giving the three Michelin stars back when at the peak of his powers. It was on my list anyway, if he had bothered to read it.

But I also questioned him about the details of the biopic reportedly on the cards, the director Ridley Scott having bought the rights to Marco’s autobiography White Slave.

Other discussion points included the cult of the celebrity chef, TV cooking shows and the advice he would give our specialist service industry audience in order to deliver the ultimate customer experience.

The event went relatively well on the surface, although Marco appeared truly flummoxed at times. There were Pinteresque pauses, rambling answers and a generally hostile demeanour.

At the time I didn’t think too much of it. Surely he hadn’t been serious in demanding to write my interview questions for me?

Surely he wouldn’t expect people to listen to the same anecdotes he had been telling in relation to those (his) three questions for more than 20 years? Well, I thought, I’ll find out tomorrow night when we do it all again in front of another audience at a different venue.

This time the setting was a private members club where most of the patrons are millionaires, if not billionaires. It was more intimate with only around 80 people in the audience. What could possibly go wrong? In short, everything.

I arrived before ‘the talent’ to scope out the location. After a bit of networking, I took my seat at the front of the room and awaited the legendary firebrand who had allegedly made tough guy Gordon Ramsay cry back when he was the, equally fiery, Scottish chef’s mentor.

On arrival, after accepting my offer of a handshake and sitting down next to me, Marco told me: “Dean, last night was the worst interview I’ve ever had. Just stick to those three questions I gave you.”

He then grabbed the sheet of paper with my questions out of my hand and tried to cross them out with his pen. I reached out and grabbed them back. It would have looked comical to the audience had they not been distracted by the wine and nibbles at the back of the room, and in the process of taking their seats.

At this juncture, I grasped the nettle. I didn’t much care for the snarling figure in front of me, but the audience had paid good money to buy the chef’s book and attend the event.

Therefore, I wanted to be professional and give them the show they came for. So I reached out to Marco to console him: “Look, I’m sorry if last night upset you, but we can’t just do your three questions in what is scheduled for a one-hour Q&A. We will cover that ground, but I want to speak about other things too. The trick to journalism is looking for that gap in the knowledge.”

With a steely stare, he retorted: “You are very arrogant. I know more about journalism than you do, I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

Still on a charm offensive of sorts, I told him: “OK Marco, let’s agree to disagree and just give these good folk what they came for.” At this point, it was nearly curtain up time. We sat in cold silence, not acknowledging each other’s presence.

I decided to break the ice with a bit of housekeeping. Taking out my dictaphone, I asked: “Is it OK if I put this on the table to record our conversation Marco, as I want to write it up afterwards for a piece. And of course, I’ll mention you’re in town to launch your new book and so on.”

With a shrug came the reply: “Sure.” Then I set the dictaphone to record so as not to fiddle about with it once the eyes of the audience were focused on us.

Thinking we were starting to build a bridge, I asked about his day. Without going into too much detail with direct reporting of his words, he complained bitterly about an endless round of interviews and public relations duties. He told me how he hated anything “superficial” like public engagements, disliked doing television shows and much preferred to be on his farm in peace.

Following the confessional, he looked down at my dictaphone. “Is that recording?” he said.

I replied: “Well, yes, I turned it on in order to avoid messing around with it once we start the interview and I indicated as much to you. But don’t worry, we were off the record so I won’t use those quotes.” I feel now I have to include at least some of that diatribe so that you the reader have the full context.

At this point, the cook reached boiling point. Looking me right in the eye, he said with a threatening but low voice in what seemed like a well-rehearsed manner: “I despise you intensely. And at some point tonight, I might just be tempted to tell them out there in the audience that.

“I should have known when I saw your jacket (I was wearing a blue jacket with white pinstripes). The wider the stripe the smaller the man. And look at your shoes. I should have known. I might just walk out right now.”

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He then aggressively demanded a car be waiting for him with the engine running so that he could make a swift exit straight after the interview.

This is where the whole thing started to feel like an out of body experience.

Here was this ageing guy, a father and international businessman, acting like the worst type of playground bully; and threatening to walk out of his own book PR event while hurling abuse in my direction.

This is how he must have belittled all those sous chefs in his kitchens over the years I thought to myself. This is how he broke them.

What made it even worse was that he was dressed in the scruffiest outfit – an ill-fitting blazer, Jeremy Clarkson-style jeans and old brown shoes combo. In response and perhaps because I was backed into a corner, I sardonically pointed out that his clothes probably cost a lot more than mine because I didn’t have his sizeable sartorial budget, but I was happy with the result of my limited spend all the same. “Don’t hide behind the cost, be a man,” he said, completely missing the irony.

As you can imagine, it felt like I was in a production of The Theatre of the Absurd. Internally, I was chuckling to myself and thinking what an entertaining dinner table story he had just given me to dine out on. Externally, I was composed and determined to get the job done. That is when the MC kicked in with intros for me and Marco. And so the interview began amid these surreal circumstances.

Our discussion that second night actually went very well, much better than the previous night. We both acted as if no prior incident had occurred and the punters definitely got value for money. At the end of that second encounter, Marco shook my hand and said: “Thank you Dean.” He actually stayed on to enjoy the after party. I went straight home.

I should have demanded a car be waiting with the engine running à la Marco,

Mercifully, I never saw Marco again. I refused to do the third and final interview scheduled for the following day. His promotional book tour had gotten quite enough free labour out of me. Plus I didn’t know how much longer I could hold my tongue.

On recounting the story to hardened fellow hacks, I’ve witnessed open-mouthed disbelief.

While 99 per cent of interviews are great and pass without incident, we have all had our character-building episodes in professional life.

For example, on one notable occasion, the second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin glared at me with venom during an interview. The reason? Because he brought his wife along (why?) and she was flirting with me.

Another time, the then President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy almost broke my hand with a shake that was the firmest I had ever experienced simply because I asked why the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo and British contrarian Nigel Farage had better political approval ratings than him.

On the whole though, interviews are conducted with great professionalism on both sides. You are both there to do a job. The journalist, to extract new and informative answers that go beyond what was said before and educate the audience. The interviewee, to provide information and accountability at the same time as attempting to push their own agenda to a certain target audience.

For Marco though, his endgame was different. His goal was a monologue, not a dialogue. And his behaviour was extreme. Even my peers think so. Although, in the interests of balance, I should say though that a couple of other journalists I know told me they had interviewed Marco and – in deep contrast – he was charm personified.

I’m told that when he visited Mumbrella House in 2013 to publicise Masterchef he was thoroughly personable.

Perhaps his expectations were different because of the book tour. Perhaps I just caught him on a bad day (or two). Or perhaps he just didn’t like the cut of my jib, as he had said.

Whatever the reason, I struggled to rationalise his behaviour right after the event and still do now today. So Marco, no longer a three-star chef but certainly a three-star bully.

I just hope he doesn’t try the same nefarious routine with another less experienced journalist, a cub reporter yet to grow that essential second skin. But if he does, be brave and write about it. From my perspective, he caused me no trauma. To be quite honest, I found it funny both at the time and in retrospect.

I wasn’t even going to bother writing about the incident at all (it happened months ago) until this week I received the Seven press release stating that the “godfather of modern cooking” who is “as famous for his fiery temper as he is for his kitchen prowess” is to host Hell’s Kitchen Australia. I guess the old adage is true, revenge is a dish best served cold. No pun intended. Welcome back to the APAC region, Marco.

Dean Carroll is the publisher of Mumbrella Asia

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