Before there were cable television networks devoted entirely to cooking and chefs with serious bad-boy personalities and perfectly coiffed hair became cultural icons, British chef Marco Pierre White was honing a reputation for himself on both sides of the Atlantic.
That reputation, depending on whom you talked to, was that of a brilliant and innovative chef who created some of London's most talked-about restaurants that catered to the (eclectic) likes of Michael Caine, Madonna and Prince Charles and who became Britain's first chef -- and the youngest in the world -- to win three Michelin stars for his culinary genius.
On the other hand, as others will be happy to point out, White's also the first chef to ever call Michelin and announce that although his name remains above the door of the restaurant, it's no longer him behind the stove and to come take its stars back; these people remember a short-tempered, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking and pot-throwing culinary bad boy whose Bacchanalian lifestyle was the fodder of British tabloids for good reason.
White, who continues to oversee a collection of award-winning restaurants in the United Kingdom, is also working on some new locales -- Jamaica, Las Vegas, Singapore and Dubai -- while simultaneously serving as the new host of the television show, "Hell's Kitchen."
Cigar Aficionado caught up with White while he was in the United States for a three-week book tour for his latest book, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef, (Bloomsbury USA) to talk about how the U.S. and the U.K. match up in arrogance (culinary and otherwise), his disdain for health bans, his admiration for the lowly Knorr's bouillon cube and why sometimes you really do need to throw a cheese plate at the wall.
CA: You're a cigar smoker; how easy is it to smoke in London these days?
MPW: London? It's easy to smoke in London right now…we've no smoking ban yet. The smoking ban comes in on July 1, it's very restrictive, a blanket ban, and people restaurants who have outside terraces have a value, more of a value than before. I'm not happy about the ban and in one of my restaurants I'm giving away free cigarettes between now and July.
CA: Your personal act of rebellion, a sort of Boston Tea Party?
MPW: Now that's an interesting way to think of it! I think people should have options, independent options. You should have a choice whether you wish to have your environment be smoking or nonsmoking. I hate being controlled by bureaucrats [and] they're not my mother. Chicago? The bureaucrats in Chicago have banned foie gras. That's crazy.
CA: In your new book The Devil in the Kitchen, you caught a lot of attention and grief for praising the lowly bouillon cube, the foil-wrapped seasoning cube that any Joe Schmoe can buy in a grocery store…
MPW: It's the best fucking ingredient in the world, let's not kid ourselves. Knorr chicken-stock cubes? Genius product.
CA: You spent the evening in New York last night with friends Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain; how's a night out on the town in the United States?
MPW: Brilliant. I only came to the United States, my first visit, two years ago, but I love it here. I love America. I feel more at home in America than I do in England. Remember, I may live in London but I'm an [Italian] immigrant in the U.K. When I hear about the "American Dream," I don't think about it as the American Dream, I think of it as the immigrant's dream. America is born out of immigrants. Many of the English are not nice people [when it comes to immigrants].
CA: Do you want to take a shot at comparing the dining scene in London and the dining scene in New York or elsewhere here in the States?
MPW: What impresses me about most of my dining experiences here in the U.S. is that people worry about their ingredients. The average diner in the U.K. looks at the brand, not the product. Remember, England has a caste system which is born out of blood, not born out of money, and London is very tribal. So certain tribes hang out in certain restaurants not because the food's good but because of the brand above the door and the people who eat there. It's very shallow. I don't see that in America. I ate at fabulous restaurants in New York. I ate at fabulous restaurants in Seattle. Fantastic. I had a great hot dog in Chicago, the best hot dog of my life. Americans are great diners. They love their food.
CA: And were some of those meals followed by a cigar?
MPW: Absolutely, a few of them certainly were, but not all of them. There's a time and a place for a cigar and a moment. When you smoke them every day, then they're no longer special…they're just another cigar. It's like if you drink delicious wines every day, it's just another bottle of wine. You get bored of it and [laughs] I don't like to be bored.