The cover of Marco Pierre White’s 1990 cookbook, White Heat, features a grainy black-and-white photo of a brooding Adonis: Jean-Paul Belmondo meets Eddie Vedder, all full-lipped desire and shaggy-haired intensity. The original rock ’n’ roll chef—in his book Heat, writer Bill Buford calls him “the most foul-tempered, most mercurial, and most bullying” of all British cooks—White has served as mentor to everyone from Gordon Ramsay to Heston Blumenthal, and larger-than-life personalities from Anthony Bourdain to Mario Batali have admitted to styling themselves after him. But White didn’t just look and swear the part; he was, by all accounts, a genius behind the stove.
The third of four boys born to an Italian mother and British dad, White grew up in the industrial city of Leeds and got his first cooking gig at the age of 16. He arrived in London as a 19-year-old (with exactly seven pounds and thirty-six pence in his pocket) and, after talking his way into a job with Albert and Michel Roux, moved on to kitchens at Chez Nico, La Tante Claire, and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. By age 33, he’d become the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars and the first British chef ever to do so—an exceptional achievement in itself.
White’s attitude proved as fierce as his talent. He became a regular in the London tabloids, which chronicled everything from the patrons he ejected mid-meal for offending him one way or another to the time he responded to a businessman’s request for an off-the-menu side of fries by hand-cutting, personally cooking, and then proceeding to charge the guy 25 pounds for the order. Readers also got the story of the underling who complained of heat in the kitchen and had the back of his chef’s jacket and pants slashed open by his knife-wielding boss, and of the mink coat held hostage in response to a customer who was being overly impatient for his soufflé. (Also well documented were White’s exploits with the opposite sex; he has been married three times, including, in 1992, to a 21-year-old model, a union that lasted all of 15 weeks.)
But not long after reaching the pinnacle of the culinary world, Marco Pierre White decided to ditch it all. In 1999, at the age of 38, the bad-boy wunderkind renounced his stars and quit cooking altogether. “I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me,” he recently told a reporter, “so what was it truly worth? I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself. I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week, I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove, or I could give my stars back, spend time with my children, and reinvent myself.”