Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White








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The sensational title of Marco Pierre White’s memoir, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef, belies the underlying story: hard work produces results. There’s very little sex, a lot of pain (mostly that which comes from hard work) and the madness of the intensity of work to the exclusion of all else. And the title of this book when it came out in the U.K. was White Slave. Since reading about hard work rarely sells books, the photo of the author with a cleaver on the cover, and the sensational title is meant to attract readers with the expectation of the sensational. What’s sensational in this book is that the author dedicated himself to working hard, mastering his craft, and achieving recognition for his accomplished. He did this early in life, and then quit to do other things. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, “Dining with the Bear,” pp. 64-68:


My days at Gavroche came to a hasty, unexpected end in Sep­tember 1982, when Albert picked up a soup ladle and began waving it in front of my face in the middle of his three-star kitchen.

I was feeling grouchy anyway. For a week or so I’d been suffering from a stomach problem—the beginning of my ulcer, maybe—but I still turned up at the kitchen every day and worked late into the night. I was a sleep-deprived, mop-haired wreck with a stabbing pain in my belly, and when head chef René rounded on me with a thunderous verbal assault, I answered back. I can’t even remember what started him off; I have no recollection of what I was supposed to have done wrong. But Roux robots were not supposed to answer back—it showed a fault in the programming—and my attempts to defend my­self only increased the volume of René’s rant.

The sound of the commotion must have penetrated the glass walls of Albert’s office and he emerged at a galloping pace, swooping up a ladle from a kitchen surface. He was the knight embracing his lance, and he was heading toward me. Was he going to dispose of me with a long-handled, copper kitchen implement? Was I about to be ladled? Adrenaline pumped through my twenty-year-old body, but with my stomachache and exhaustion, I didn’t have the patience to stand there and take a bollocking from the boss. Albert stopped his charge when he was a foot in front of me and raised the upended ladle into the air, moving it in a pecking motion in front of my face.

The spoon part of the ladle came toward the bridge of my nose, then, before it could touch me, it was swiftly retracted. Forward, back, forward, back in pendulum fashion, though metal and skin never con­nected. Albert stared at me and, swinging his ladle, he uttered the words, “Now [peck] . . . you [peck]. . . listen [peck] . . . to [peck] . . . me [peck]. . . my [peck] . . . little [peck] . . . bunny [peck].”

“My little bunny”—now that was patronizing. By all means give me a bollocking and shout at me, I thought, but please don’t patronize me. I grabbed the spoon. “That’s it,” I said to him, as the rest of the ro­bots carried on mechanically with their chores. “I don’t like being pa­tronized. I don’t need this shit.” Then I marched. I marched out of the kitchen, changed out of my whites and buggered off. I don’t think Al­bert tried to stop me leaving, and anyway, I scarpered pronto. The magic chef’s little bunny vanished.

I found work at a small restaurant on the other side of the river, in Battersea Park Road. We only did about thirty covers a night, but boy did those customers eat well, because I was cooking them Gavroche­-style food at a fraction of the price. The kitchen was run by a man called Alan Bennett—no, not the playwright. We got on well and I would later work for him at the restaurant he owned, Lampwicks, in nearby Queenstown Road. When I look back on it now, I can see that Alan was a very gentle man, soft and kind, and perhaps I needed re­minding that the world was full of such people. In the kitchens where I had worked, there wasn’t much gentleness, no softness or kindness, and my social life was nonexistent: I didn’t have a girlfriend to give me affection.

It was in December that I bumped into Albert, and he was ex­tremely apologetic about the way it had all ended at Gavroche. “Why don’t you come back?” he asked, and I didn’t need much time to think about it. In the interim period of a couple of months I had reflected on the soup-ladle incident, and now I could appreciate the comedy be­hind my departure. My decision to leave had been irrational, I told myself, so I accepted Albert’s offer and pitched up to start my second stretch at Gavroche.

It didn’t last long. The magic wasn’t there anymore. In that short pe­riod of time, from September to December, my friends Roland Lahore, Danny Crow and Stephen Yare had gone, moved on. I saw the restau­rant in a different light. What had previously seemed grand, exquisite and stylish no longer had the same effect upon me. I wasn’t blinded by the silver anymore. At some point early in 1983 I left Gavroche once again, this time on the most amicable terms. I left the restaurant but I didn’t leave the company. I took a job at the Roux brothers’ spectacu­larly upmarket butcher shop, Boucher La Martin, in Ebury Street.

Based on the Parisian shop of the same name, Boucher La Martin was run by Mark Bougère, the highly gifted chef who had been Al­bert’s right-hand man when I had joined the company nearly two years earlier. We not only supplied Albert’s restaurants; we also pro­vided fine meat and poultry to the well-heeled shoppers of Chelsea and Knightsbridge. Being a butcher—or rather, a Roux butcher—has to be one of the toughest jobs I have ever done.

The working day started at five thirty in the morning. My first duty was to prepare the ducks. Entering the bird’s back cavity, let me tell you, requires the utmost skill. A lot of people are too heavy-handed, and when they’re finished, you could drive a bus up the back cavity. At Le Boucher I had to master the skill of opening up the cavity so that it was just large enough to get my fingers in and carefully scoop out the insides without staining the bird with its blood. The liver and heart were brought out whole, as were as the lungs, which had to be re­moved because if cooked, they add a bitterness to the final flavors. Each morning I would prepare about twenty ducks, their sharp bones stabbing my fingers. To ease the soreness I would have to wash with cold water and a bit of bleach.

The duck process took me about four hours and then I would tend to the customers in the shop. This was not the sort of butcher’s where you’d walk in and simply buy a chicken. Everything was prepared to order. If a customer wanted a poulet de Bresse for a fricassee, then I would chop it up accordingly; if it was a chicken for roasting, then the bird would be beautifully tied and trussed. I had to be disciplined with my knife and hands and I had to work quickly. In the end it shut down, but Boucher La Martin has to have been one of Britain’s finest butcher shops and is another credit to the legendary Albert.

Although money had never played an important role in my life, in the fall of 1983 I spotted an opportunity to earn a fortune and that is what seduced me away from the butcher shop and the Roux brothers’ empire. There was a pub called the Six Bells serving the punters who shopped in the hustle and bustle of the King’s Road and I learned that the landlord was looking for a head chef. When I turned up to see him, he seemed quite impressed by my experience and offered me the job. However, he was adamant about the money. “I’ll give you a staff budget of five hundred pounds a week,” he said. “That’s your budget. Spend it how you like.” Maybe he thought I’d have to take on a staff of five and a washer-up, but I had devised a way of earning a staggering amount of money. I paid myself £400 per week, which was a fortune for a chef then, and even by today’s standards would be good money for a pub chef. That left me with £100 from the budget, so I hired a sous chef who was about my age, an American lad called Mario Batali. There was no cash left for a washer-up, so Mario and I agreed to share the chore. I was quite proud of the deal—signs of my business brain were evident even back then. We did a menu of good lamb and sweet­breads and crayfish, that kind of thing.

Sturdy Mario, with his mass of red hair, was an interesting and spe­cial guy, but not half as interesting as he would later become. After get­ting a degree in Seattle, he came to London to train at Le Cordon Bleu, but he got bored with the college course and chucked it in—Cordon Bleu’s loss was my gain. He used to work hard during the day and play hard during the night and then he couldn’t get out of bed in the morn­ing. So he loved his sleep and he loved Joy Division (he’d incessantly hum “She’s Lost Control”), but he also loved his food. He was passion­ate about cooking. What he needed was a bit of discipline, so I found myself treating him as harshly as I had been treated by my former head chefs. I used to murder Mario every day, physically, mentally and emo­tionally. I called him “Rusty Bollocks” but he was funny and intelligent.

He responded to bollockings. Even though he may have faked it, he responded to them. If he cocked up a dish, then it would go in the bin and he’d apologize and pretend to understand. I would push him along—”Move it, Rusty Bollocks, faster, faster”—and after service we’d head off clubbing in the West End, though it was almost impos­sible to pull birds with him.

One day I sent him out to get some tropical fruits and he returned with a bag of avocados. To this day, I do not know if he was taking the mickey.

From the tiny kitchen of that pub I would eventually go on to win three Michelin stars while Mario returned to the States, where he’s to­day hailed as the king of New York’s restaurants and his places include Babbo and Lupa. He’s won a heap of awards and plaudits including “Man of the Year” from GQ magazine. Although we only worked to­gether for a matter of months, he regards me as a mentor, which is nice, and in interviews he often mentions me in entirely affectionate terms. For instance, in July 2004, he said, “[Marco] was a genius, and an evil one at that. Last time we spoke he had launched a hot pan of risotto at my chest in service.”

A few years after we’d worked together, Mario’s parents came for dinner at my restaurant, Harveys, and introduced themselves. They were very pleasant people, but I remember looking at his mother and thinking, I can’t believe something Mario’s size came out of you.

I finally jacked in the job at the Six Bells in spring 1984 because I missed working in fine kitchens. The pub wage, while amazing, was outweighed by an overwhelming desire to cook in the best restau­rants. There was also an incident with the barman at the Six Bells. We were having an argument one day when he said to me, “At least I’ve got a mother.” He saw a look of anger cross my face. Then he picked up a knife, as if to warn me off, and I tried to grab it. The blade sliced the palm of my hand and the scar is still there today. Once I had the knife, I chinned him. Motherless readers will sympathize.


White was the youngest chef at age 28 to win two Michelin stars, and was the first British chef to win three stars. The Devil in the Kitchen exploits how his perfectionism in the kitchen made him a boss who would not tolerate mistakes, and treated those who made them with fury. What can we learn from this memoir? Perhaps once you’ve achieved your goals, the best next step is to quit and do something else. Such success leads to freedom.


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2007



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