The Devil in the Kitchen: Marco Pierre White and The Making of a Great Chef

Chapter One. Marco Pierre White, when his maitre d’ fucks up a cheese plate:

I picked up the first cheese. “Not right!” With all my might I threw it against the wall.  It stuck to the tiles.  I picked up the second cheese “Not right! I chucked it at the wall.  Then I hurled the remaining cheese, one after another, at that wall.

Nicolas and a couple of cooks raced over to the wall, ready to pry off the cheese and clear up the smelly mess.  I shouted, “Leave them there. Leave them there. Leave them fucking there all night. No one is allowed to touch them.” The cheese had to stay on that wall all night so that whenever Nicolas came into the kitchen, he would see them glued to the white tiles and would never, ever make the mistake again.

What makes a great cook, who becomes a great chef?  What drives someone to work 17 hour days, 6 days a week?  Marco Pierre White’s memoir, Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, and Madness aims to answer these questions. Read it if you want to be a better cook. Read it if you want a career in the restaurant industry.  Read it if you’re stupid enough to consider quitting your well paying job to pursue your “dream” of owning a restaurant. Read it if you want to enter the mind of the Devil. Read it if you want to be the Devil.

White is considered the first post-modern “rock star chef,” and the youngest ever, at age 33, to win three Micheline stars. He’s Big Daddy O, a big fucking deal. We owe him (and Japanese food shows) the Food Network (otherwise we’d be stuck with Julia Child version 4.0 and Giada’s tits). He trained some of the guys we watch on TV: Gordon Ramsay (White claims to be the only person to break him); Mario Batali (quit after White threw how risotto at him); Curtis Stone; Heston Blumenthal, the list goes on. Lots of Micheline stars.  So how does he do it? His words:

You have to deliver the message that they must never take a shortcut. You can’t just say, “Come on, boys, let’s try to get it right.” That just won’t work. If you are not extreme, then people will take shortcuts because they don’t fear you. And to achieve and retain the very highest standards, day after day, meal after meal, in an environment as difficult and fast as a restaurant kitchen, is extreme, well, in the extreme.

Put simply: Fear, Respect, Love.  In that order.

Fear
White is a master at instilling fear because he’s able to  enter people’s spirit.  He has extraordinary observation skills. White biographer Bill Buford notes that though White dropped out of school at 16 — he was labeled a dumbass because of his dyslexia — and has always had difficulty reading, he found that White comprehends everything that’s read to him:”genius level comprehension ability.” What separates White from the mediocre is that he pays attention, and is able to do so for long stretches.  White is thus able to learn faster and to get to know people more deeply. He’s able to enter another’s spirit, understand what another perceives.

Here’s a rough Buford example of how White enters the spirit of an employee. White will ask him about his family, past, hopes, aspirations. From that he figures out his fears. Here’s how it goes down when this employee makes excuses or complains (some artistic license):

White: I knew you’re going to be just like your father, you fucking cunt. You’re going to beat your wife just as your father beat your mother.  You’re going to beat your children just as he beat you.  You’re going to be another drunk, useless, cunt.  Stand in that corner.

But psychological terror and humiliation (he really did make employees stand in the corner, even ran out of corners once) wasn’t enough.  He used the threat of physical punishment to cement their fear. He turned off the AC when employees complained about the heat.  He cut up the shirt and pants of an employee who complained about the heat. He threw all sorts of stuff at people, including hot risotto at Mario Batali.

Most didn’t last a week in White’s kitchen.  But enough stayed and some of them, like Gordon Ramsay, became great chefs.

Respect
White earned respect of employees, customers, and reviewers because he didn’t let any of them fuck with him.  Employees respected him because he was quick to eject pain in the ass customers. Customers respected him because his employees had his back, always ready to brawl. Reviewers respected him because he didn’t give a shit what they thought — returned all his Micheline stars and told them to fuck off.  He stuck to his convictions and learned to not let employees, customers, and reviewers run his business. He believed in himself. He stood for something.

Love
“Those bastards can come any day and take it all away.”  White doesn’t count on anyone to love him and resists the urge to mistake adulation for love. That’s why he never lets his guard down and is always trying to improve. White also understands love as an act, not as a feeling.  “Every man should build a monument to his mother” (his mum died when he was 6).  For White, words of love are meaningless.  There must be proof, and the proof is in the monument.

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While Devil in the Kitchen is primarily a story about how White reached the pinnacle of his profession, throughout there are snippets of advice for amateur cooks.  Not recipes, he’s primarily interested in teaching the proper mindset and methods.

Cook’s brain.  It’s that ability to visualize the food on the plate, as a picture in the mind, and then work backwards.  There’s no reason why domestic cooks can’ do the same thing.  Cooking is easy: you’ve just got to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Apply the cook’s brain and visualize that fried egg on the plate.  Do you want it to be burned around the edges? Do you want to see craters on the egg white? Should the yolk look as if you’d need a hammer to break into it? The answer to all these questions should be no. Yet the majority of people still crack an egg and drop it into searingly hot oil and continue to cook it on high heat.  You need to insert earplugs to reduce the horrific volume of the sizzle.  And the result, once served up in a pool of oil, is an inedible destruction of that greatest ingredient — the egg. Maybe that’s how you like it, in which case carry on serving your disgusting food.

This is the kind of advice that amateur and professional cooks need to improve results. For White, cooking isn’t about following recipes.  Cooking is reverse engineering whatever it is one wants.  It’s about entering another person’s spirit — understanding how someone experiences what you make for them. It’s about serving and pleasing other people, never the affirmation of one’s ego.

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