When we asked Marco Pierre White what he wanted to do for his guest-editorship of The Caterer, one idea came quickest: "Let's do a lunch with Raymond." Mark Lewis joined them at White's Luciano restaurant in London
There's history between these two giants of British cooking. In 1984 Marco Pierre White joined Raymond Blanc‘s brigade at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. The year he spent there would provide the final phase of his culinary maturation.
He entered as a young chef with an awesome knowledge of classical French cuisine and a voracious appetite for hard work. He left with a clear sense of his own culinary personality. Of the two, White was the one who would go on to graduate from two to three Michelin stars. But Blanc was the man who enabled him to do so by unlocking his palate.
This fact defines their relationship. The affection, respect and antagonism that underlies our lunch together all spring from it. What follows is a pale reflection of our meeting: many of the best stories are either off the record or too blue to repeat White's phone rings constantly, breaking his flow and Blanc speaks of gastronomy with all the fervour of a TV evangelist, making it at times impossible to keep pace with his line of thought. Yet, amid the tales of jam volcanoes, bulls' balls, goldfish in brandy glasses and inappropriately placed pigs' trotters, I get a glimpse of their complex relationship.
We've spent the morning capturing the masterclass that appears on page 24. Masterclasses typically take half a day. White's takes 20 minutes - though an hour is lost while we wait for the correct lobster to arrive from a nearby restaurant, White all the while cursing the hapless chef who mistakenly ordered a Canadian lobster. The first bottle of white wine is already open by the time Blanc arrives at noon, smart-casual in a pink striped shirt and dark corduroy jacket. White, by contrast, is in white T-shirt, Levi's, brogues and no socks.
The two men hug warmly, ask after families and enquire how business is. Formalities out of the way, I ask White what memories he has of his time at Le Manoir.
"I'd done Tante Claire and Gavroche. The Gavroche taught you how to season food. Raymond taught you to question things. Raymond is the most multidimensional chef this country has ever seen. No one has a palate like him. He is the only genius I ever met in the kitchen - the rest do it by numbers.
"Every chef should knock on his door. He taught me to be wild. He dragged the personality and flavour out of me and brought my palate out of me. He was doing molecular cuisine years ago."
Blanc concurs. "Marco's cooking was a copy of who he was and what he looked like - he wore a long black coat and had his hair long: he wanted to portray himself as an artist. He was lacking in honesty and total truth but his technique was the best I'd ever seen. [In terms of taste and texture] he wasn't going deep enough. I wanted him to show the Marco inside."
Blanc set about helping White to reveal himself as a chef. "I think it's what I do best. I inspire people." But what does he make of his former student's description of him as a pioneer of molecular cuisine?
"Molecular cuisine? It's a great big bloody name, but what does it mean?" Blanc snorts. "There is nothing new about it. Food is a science, of course: when you whip egg white in a copper basin, there is amazing science. Molecular understanding gives the weaponry to young chefs to understand food. But to put chemistry in front of food is dangerous. Gastronomy should be noble, pure, ethical, and underpinned by fresh produce."
Heston Blumenthal has curiosity and knowledge, says Blanc. But his efforts will spawn a legion of followers without Blumenthal's craft and flair. "You think nouvelle cuisine was a nightmare? You wait for molecular cuisine! Do I want a bonbon of bicarbonate? I don't think so… "
Is Blanc troubled by his failure to win three stars? Perhaps, but he seems content with the career path he has steered. "You begin as a soloist with a gift, a young man with a dream. I wanted a little place, a centre of excellence. But then you grow up. What is really wrong with selling out? I am a very good cook with a strong vision, and a good businessman."
I ask the two how they view the world of cheffing today.
"There's not the same romance," White volunteers. "They step into the ring to be TV chefs - they interview you when they come for a job." Blanc agrees: "It's a more commercial world now, a culture of ‘moi'."
Yet Blanc is optimistic about the future. "England has made all possible mistakes. When food was the lowest common denominator, chefs had a role to play to embrace modernity and create a food culture. In future, UK food will be an eclectic, incredible thing.
"Here, we are at the beginning of our learning, but in France they have a template. Fernand Point created nouvelle cuisine in the truest meaning of the words. He was about simplicity and seasonality he reshaped and reinvented cuisine. Then Paul Bocuse created the era of the chef-patron almost single-handedly. He branded gastronomy as French. He's a sweet fox!"
We move off the white wine and on to red - a Bardolino from near White's mother's village. Blanc asks White when he started drinking. White recalls: "So, I'm 38 years old, and I've got this great big liver that hasn't been used… "
The two chefs giggle like schoolchildren as they recall a football match between Le Manoir's chefs and waiters. Blanc explains how he had hoped the game would bring together the British and French contingents on his team. "I tried to create some love, but both camps had been training at karate. Suddenly they went for murderous elbow movements," he says.
White remembers that his team's philosophy was that the ball might go past you, but never the player. "It was Agincourt. Fucking anarchy," he says, miming an arm to a nose in slow motion to make the point.
Blanc refereed the match himself ("Chef loved a whistle!" White laughs). In time, he had cause to send White off, a memory that has him out of his seat, waving an imaginary red card in White's face. White responded by telling him to fuck off, at which point Blanc told him he was sacked for his impudence. The two made up the following day, but the incident has them bellowing with laughter over lunch.
"The next day you'd never seen so many waiters limping during a service," White remembers.
The banter intensifies. Blanc points out that his success is all the more remarkable given that he never worked with the iconic chefs. White replies: "You had me, chef." Later, Blanc describes White as "a master of intrigue and shafting". It's telling that, when The Caterer's photographer starts snapping, the two quickly end up arm-wrestling for the lens.
By mid-afternoon, Blanc has given up any hope of getting back for evening service. As quickly as he can empty his wine glass into White's, White fills it again from the bottle. Their verbal jousting culminates in Blanc telling of the tale of the now-legendary kitchen duel between him and White.
The duel began when the two chefs crossed swords at 1am one morning after service, Blanc berating White for questioning him over a technical detail, White again telling Blanc to fuck off. Soon the confrontation had escalated into a culinary challenge: each would cook a terrine of rabbit and langoustines, and Blanc's staff would judge the winner. "What chance did I have?" asks White. "They were on the payroll!"
The scenario was straight out of a wildlife documentary: the young lion challenging the leader of the pride for ascendancy. Blanc knew his credibility was at stake. "If I'd lost the challenge, I'd have lost the business. Marco knew, too.
"We had silence. We were fighting to the death," Blanc recalls. "My God, I made my best terrine. I tried to bring out the sour-sweet in the langoustines and the sweetness of the rabbit.
White recalls Blanc using every pan in the kitchen. "The fucking washer was up to here," he cackles, pointing to eye level.
The two terrines were judged on presentation, creativity, and taste and texture. White drew first blood by winning on presentation. "My heart fell from here to here," recalls Blanc, gesturing from chest to stomach.
Honours were shared on creativity, leaving White still out ahead with one score to come. "It was the Rumble in the Jungle, and he was on the ropes," White chortles.
Then came the score for taste and texture, which carried half of the marks available. Decisively, this went to Blanc. The sorcerer had beaten his apprentice.
I ask if either would cook their terrine differently today. White tells me he would use tarragon and make a gelée rather than a mousse and Blanc? "I'd make it exactly the same way - and I'd still win," he announces gleefully.
Arguably, Blanc won the battle that night, but not the war. Armed with the confidence his year at Le Manoir built in him, White went on to win three stars. Blanc moulded himself as Raymond Blanc the gardener, chef and hotelier. Both are legends of the British culinary scene.
It's getting late. "Thanks for the most important year of my life," White gushes. "I'd never have won three stars otherwise." Blanc orders White to give him a "big embrace, you bloody big bear". And then it's time to go home.
Marco v Raymond: the TV showdown
The reunion came at an interesting moment for both men. Both have long spurned TV stardom, but when we met that was about to change.
The Restaurant (BBC2)
Last year Raymond Blanc branded TV restaurant shows a "disaster" for the catering industry, claiming that youngsters would be put off training as chefs because of them. A year later, he has had enough. The Restaurant, his mission to bring respect back to the industry, started last week. In it, nine couples compete for the opportunity to go into business with Blanc. Speaking to the Radio Times last month, he berated chefs who glorify violence and warned them that their bullying ways would see them in prison. Did he mean White?
"I do not like to speak about the people, but the culture they represent, which has a terrible influence on how people see this industry. When Marco takes over Hell's Kitchen, will he promote food craft, careful man management, or just this unfortunate aspect of behaviour which involves the degradation of people? I think he will respect what I am telling him."
Hell's Kitchen (ITV)
Earlier this week Marco Pierre White launched the third series of Hell's Kitchen, in which 10 celebrities bid to be crowned the UK's latest celebrity chef. Like Blanc, White has not dabbled in reality shows until now. He explained his decision to enter the world of TV cheffing to Caterer earlier this year: "Why I'm doing Hell's Kitchen is not about turning people into great cooks it's about inspiring them to want to cook. When I had my stars, I maintained my currency - I never appeared on TV. Now I don't have three stars, I'm in a position to do what I want to do. I want my emphasis to be on the food and the kitchens rather than the swearing."
Marco Pierre White and Hell's Kitchen
More articles on Raymond Blanc
Other Related Links