Marco Pierre White is wearing pinstripes. The former three-Michelin-starred chef, who relegated his whites to the bin of culinary history three years ago, now looks every inch the imposing businessman.
And he's particularly excited about one of his latest ventures, he confides: Wheeler's of St James's. Earlier this year, in partnership with his friend Robert Earl (best known for his restaurant Planet Hollywood), he bought the last remaining outlet of the once mighty Wheeler's chain on Duke of York Street in Mayfair, London.
To some, this undoubtedly seemed like an odd move. After all, here was a restaurant that had been through numerous corporate hands in recent years (Forte, Granada and then Compass), that was shabby, tired and lacking investment, and that had a rapidly dwindling customer base. "But what's interesting is, although it had no love and attention for 20 years, people still know the Wheeler's name," White declares. "That tells you here was an old brand that was still very strong."
So, during the spring and early summer, White and Earl closed the restaurant and "threw money at it", White personally taking charge of its refurbishment and redesign. From the funky stained-glass windows to the herring-bone wooden floor, and from the gorgeous leather banquettes (made by the same manufacturer that produces the seats for Aston Martin cars) to the silver table lamps, White chose every detail.
"I wanted to create an environment that was comfortable and relaxed and that people enjoyed being in," he says. "To me, the problem with bringing in so-called restaurant designers is that they don't care about the diners. What they do is to create a space that looks great in photos so they can put it in their portfolio. How many restaurants have you been to that don't feel homely or comfortable, or in winter look cold?"
But wasn't going to such lengths and such expense rather over the top for a diminutive establishment that can barely seat 50 diners? (White won't say how much was spent, but his spokesman intimates that it was in the area of hundreds of thousands of pounds, rather than tens of thousands.) Not at all, says White, who is "trying to create one of Britain's great eating houses" at Wheeler's of St James's. "I want Wheeler's to be somewhere people will drop in and have a bite after shopping in Jermyn Street, and equally somewhere you might come in the evening to celebrate a birthday."
Moreover, the restaurant itself is merely a tiny part of what White has planned for the brand, he reveals. He also plans to launch a Wheeler's-branded fishmongers, a Wheeler's fish ‘n' chips caf‚, and a Wheeler's product range in supermarkets (Wheeler's smoked salmon, Wheeler's gravadlax, Wheeler's potted shrimps and the like) further down the line. "I'm not doing Wheeler's to make money from the restaurant," he says. "I'd be happy if it ‘washes its face' and shows a little profit. The purpose of the restaurant is to be the showcase for the Wheeler's product range."
It's impossible not to ask: what would the White of old have thought of such an enterprise? The man who made history as the youngest chef ever to win two and then three Michelin stars - and the first Briton ever to scoop Michelin's top accolade - fired up by launching supermarket products? Surely not?
Without a trace of irony, White earnestly replies: "Look, I came from humble beginnings and what I want to do is to take good eating to every sector of this country."
This motivation also partly explains why, earlier this year, he bought a share in chains Bagelmania and the Earl of Sandwich and became a partner in London's Planet Hollywood - as he says: to take good food to as wide an audience as possible. (This month, indeed, 12 White-designed dishes will begin appearing at Planet Hollywood and he is in the process of overhauling the rest of the menu.) And it makes sound business sense, he adds, to spread his interests as widely as possible, owning mass-market enterprises as well as top-end restaurants, such as the likes of Michelin-starred Mirabelle and L'Escargot.
"The way I look at it," he says, "I was in the last recession and I was at the top end, and I saw how that top end got hit very badly. And I've seen how the restaurant world has changed since the last recession, and what I like to have now is lots of eggs in lots of very different baskets. So, if the worst ever came to the worst, at least I'm not a person who just sings one song."
One can't help wondering if, despite the pinstripes and evident enthusiasm as he discusses his ventures, a part of him doesn't still hanker after the kitchen. Only just the wrong side of 40, he is, after all, younger than many working chefs.
On this subject he is absolutely clear - nothing would ever tempt him back to the stove. When he made his decision to quit, he had several reasons for doing so and none of these have changed.
First, his wife and four children are the most important part of his life, and being a cutting-edge chef is not conducive to being a good husband and father, he thinks. "I was in the kitchen for 22 years and I was in the kitchen six days a week, working long hours," he says. "But we change over time, don't we? And, when I made my decision, it was because it was important to me that I spend more time with my family."
Second, White asserts that in many ways cooking had become boring to him, and no longer excited him as it did when he was young. "Winning three Michelin stars is exciting, it really is," he concedes. "You go from one star, to two, to three, and it's the most exciting thing in the world. But defending your reputation afterwards is pretty boring. You don't change your menu, you play to a formula, people come because they want to eat the specialities they've read about, so you have to keep doing them."
Third, he adds, he wanted to develop his career and, if he had stayed cooking, it would have prevented him from doing this. "If I'd never let go of cooking, I'd never have moved on to the next level and have developed as a person, and life should be about moving on to the next level," he believes. "I started out as a cook, then I became a chef-restaurateur, then I became a restaurateur and entrepreneur."
White pointedly adds that he could, perhaps, have "pretended" still to be cooking beyond 1999, but he didn't want to be a hypocrite. "You'll hear many stories about Marco Pierre White, but one thing no one can ever say about me is that I wasn't in the kitchen," he says. "There are certain chefs in London today who aren't in the kitchen and they must be terrified when the Michelin guide comes out because they are living a lie. I do not want to live a lie."
So, what about his future ambitions - is the aim to build a company that he could ultimately float on the stock market, as other restaurateurs have done in recent years? No chance. "There's nothing worse," he says. "I'd recommend to anyone, if they can keep their company private, then do that. If you're 60 years old and want to retire, fair enough - float your company, take it to the market. But, at the end of the day, I think the City breaks good businesses, is doesn't make them."
White simply wants to continue evolving as an entrepreneur and to grab opportunities as and when they arise. "I've got enough on my plate right now," he says. "But I walk through the streets of London every day and I observe and watch for opportunity - I find businesses, they don't find me. If they come to me, there's inevitably five or six others queuing up to buy it, and I don't get into auctions."
Gaby Huddart is editor of restaurant guide Square Meal andwww.squaremeal.co.uk.
Marco Pierre White: a potted history
11 December 1961: MPW born in Leeds
1978: MPW apprenticed as a chef at the Hotel St George, Harrogate
June 1981: MPW comes to London and, over the next few years, works for Albert Roux at Le Gavroche, Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico, and Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire
1984-85: MPW works with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
16 January 1986: MPW opens Harvey's in Wandsworth, London
1987: Harvey's is awarded a Michelin star
1988: Harvey's is awarded two Michelin stars
1992: MPW moves to the Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel, London, a move inspired by Sir Rocco Forte
1995: Restaurant Marco Pierre White wins three Michelin stars
1996: MPW moves to the Oak Room, Le M‚ridien, Piccadilly, London
24 December 1999: MPW returns his stars to Michelin and leaves cooking behind
- Belvedere, Holland House, Abbotsbury Road, London W8 (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- Criterion, 224 Piccadilly, London W1 (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- Drones, 1 Pont Street, London W1 (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- L'Escargot, 48 Greek Street, London W1 (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- Maison Novelli, 29 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 (in partnership with Jean-Christophe Novelli)
- Mirabelle, 56 Curzon Street, London W1 (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- Parisienne Chophouse, 3 Yeoman's Row, London SW3 - set to become Chez Max in mid-November
(in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London W1 (in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud)
- Wheeler's of St James's, 12a Duke of York Street, London SW1 (in partnership with Robert Earl)
White is also a partner in Planet Hollywood and has an equity and executive interest in Bagelmania and the Earl of Sandwich. And he is a consultant to Rocco Forte Hotels at the River Room, Manchester, and Tides in Cardiff.
Marco on Michelin
At one time, White confesses, Michelin stars were the be-all and end-all to him. These days, he believes the accolades are not what they were and are rapidly losing their sparkle. "In my opinion," he declares, "the Michelin Guide simply does not have the integrity that it had 10 years ago."
He explains that his belief is based on the fact that the revered guide's inspectors are now often in their 20s and without sufficient experience to judge top-flight cooking. "When you have two young boys from Michelin sitting at your table judging you, and they do not have the knowledge, experience or capabilities that you do, how can you possibly take it seriously?" he asks.
Furthermore, he argues, Michelin has begun to give stars in order to win newspaper headlines and attract publicity. He says: "In terms of giving pubs stars, for example, I think that is done for effect. In defence of Michelin, they are running a business and have to make money, but I think their strategy has unfortunately devalued their own currency."
White adds that he also believes too many stars are doled out these days, whereas a decade ago they were very rarely given.