Thursday night was the kind of dilemma that a food writer dreams about. Do I go see one of my favourite food writers, Anthony Bourdain, duke it out with AA Gill and Tony Bilson at Sydney’s Town Hall, or do I meet a full-blown culinary legend, Marco Pierre White, in an intimate gathering?
It was a gruelling choice, really, but intimacy won out, so I agreed to be whisked away in a luxury car and taken to a private waterside villa to meet up with the great British chef. Later, I’d discover that it was the first time the great man had ever set food in Australia.
For those who don’t know who Marco is – and I’ve been amazed at how many people I’ve talked to in Sydney who don’t – he became the world’s youngest three-Michelin-star chef at age 33, and his kitchens have been proving grounds for such high-profilers as Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali and Heston Blumental. He’s also famous for being a kitchen terror, way before Gordon Ramsay popularised the formula.
I would’ve liked to have said that I enjoyed a 12-course degustation by God himself, but the night was far more humble. Marco was in town as the guest of Continental, demonstrating the best ways to use their new jelly stocks. For a guy like me who makes and freezes all of his own stocks from scratch, it wasn’t exactly how I would have wanted to see Mr White in action. But I get it – people are time-poor, so stock jellies and cubes make those big family meals happen with far less hassle. And, well, KFC or Bonanza could have brought Marco to Sydney, and I’d still show up.
Said ‘villa’ looked more like small mansion, and as I entered the grounds and into its chandelier-dangled hallway, I was handed a cold flute of Piper-Heidsieck bubbly. Yes, it’s days like this that I love my job.
Soon there was a gathering of some nine other food writers and bloggers – including Grab Your Fork’s Helen Yee, the Sydney Int’l Food Festival’s Barbara Sweeney, The Internet Chef’s Bridgette Davis and Inside Cuisine’s Rebecca Varidel. As we waited for the main event, we talked shop in the white-on-white living room, which looked so posh, I couldn’t help myself from calling it “the salon”.
As we progressed to the kitchen, we took our seats, perched less than a metre from the benchtop. Then Marco appeared, his trademark long hair wrapped inside a well-loved headscarf. He warmly greeted us. MPW informed us that he was going to cook us something that he had never made before but that he understood was popular in Australia – pumpkin soup. An asparagus risotto would follow.
That, understandably, may not sound incredibly exciting. In fact, it didn’t sound exciting, but the master found ways. First came the unique use of carrot juice to make the soup look more orange. “If I was making it for my daughter, she’d want it be bright orange,” Marco explained. “That’s what she thinks pumpkin looks like.” Then there was the zorro-like way MPW sliced into the lids of the stock packets, a circular cut and lift as effortlessly instant as a magician’s card trick. Next came the largest Japanese pumpkin any of us had ever seen: freshly picked from a private garden, and as voluptuous as a large watermelon.
But the main entertainment was Marco himself. He grumbled about the awfulness of having to use an induction stovetop, not seeming to be fussed that its maker, Electrolux, was a co-sponsor of the night. “You get excited when it finally beeps,” he grimaced as an assistant stepped in after he struggled to get a response from his finger pressings. Meanwhile, Marco made the case for gas cookers, “A kitchen should be hot; that’s what keeps the food warm.” The honesty was refreshing, although I was momentarily embarrassed for Electrolux – then I remembered that they also make gas cooktops. Travesty averted.
Marco acknowledged that it was hard to beat a homemade stock, but for the time-constrained, he was intent on making a stock with from the manufactured jelly that didn’t taste like one. So he changed the recommended water-to-packet ratio of 500ml to a less salty 700ml, and used the risotto’s asparagus and chervil trimmings (and some spring onion, too, I think) to lift it. “It’s certainly the shortest recipe in Sydney,” Marco said, as he served the soup in the whole carved-out pumpkin. He noted that there was no need to add salt, and asked us if we could taste if the soup was made from a stock packet. None of us could, although I admittedly wondered how much this good soup would approach great, livelier heights with a fresh stock.
Someone in the audience asked whether serving the soup in the pumpkin was a bit daggy, a tad old-school. Marco didn’t think so. “There’s something about putting something in the middle of the table,” he said before diverting into a talk about the lost art of entertaining. “There’s no theatre in restaurants these days.” He compared today’s modern restaurants and the penchant for small plates as to “going to a canapé party where you get small bites that are lukewarm.” A dig at molecular restaurants, perhaps?
Marco served up the pumpkin soup with a good sprinkle of parmesan, and we gleaned other tips as he moved on to the risotto. He demonstrated what he said was the only way to finely chop an onion, which was to quarter it, remove a single petal and then finely julienne it and finely chop it crosswise. He told us that stock is more forgiving than salt, so he sometimes takes a stock cube, turns it into a paste with olive oil and finely chopped rosemary, then coats the paste onto lamb chops or steaks. He also shared his love of ketchup vinaigrette, making an emulsion with tomato sauce, olive oil, chervil and white wine vinegar. When I ogled his Japanese knife, he shared that it was a Mac knife: “It’s the best knife on the market.” I’m not sure if Marco is sponsored by Mac, but a quick Google searched showed Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsay as additional proponents, so it’s either a killer knife, or there’s an all-star sponsorship program going on.
Marco became most animated when talking about Sydney, pointing to the harbour view behind him and gushing about how beautiful the city is. He also spoke highly of Australia’s statesman food writer, Leo Schofield, who impressed him with his insights into the restaurants of Marco’s era. “He was a very lovely man. Very knowledgeable,” he said, and then commended Schofield for being “a critic, but someone who look at things for what they are, not simply to criticise.”
In the end, MPW thanked me for my patience, and encouraged me to try using the store-bought stocks to lift my homemade versions. “Used correctly, they really enhance.” I’d normally be skeptical, but he said it with so much sincerity and conviction that I think I’ll have to give it a go, just to verify that I’m not being a food snob. On one hand, using a manufactured stock give me pangs of guilt – a sell-out of all things handmade and fresh. On the other hand, I need to stay open-minded. There’s certainly the justification that it’s better for people to make home meals with stock cubes and jellies than turn to pre-packaged or fast foods. Or maybe I’m just star-struck and bending over backwards. But there’s only so far you can bend a cynical expat New Yorker.
I don’t know who first called MPW an ‘enfant terrible’, but the guy I met was gracious and humble. It could have been the jet lag, or politeness in front of food media, but somehow I don’t think so. Maybe Marco has gone soft in his older age, but whatever it is, it was a pleasure to meet the English legend, and while shaking his hand, he made it seem as if the feeling was mutual. That’s something I would have never experienced at Town Hall.