All White on the night

Feeding frenzy ... Marco Pierre White is in charge on the new MasterChef.
Feeding frenzy ... Marco Pierre White is in charge on the new MasterChef.

HE MAY well be the ultimate chef, the ''godfather of modern cooking''. The one who reduced the hard man of gastronomy, Gordon Ramsay, to tears, if you believe the posters now plastered on buses and billboards around the country. The one who removed his toque at the tender age of 38, having already conquered his culinary Everest.

Right now, however, Marco Pierre White is killing the room with his song. At a Melbourne restaurant, the co-host of MasterChef: The Professionals, the latest spinoff of the cooking-show juggernaut, has 80 or so people in the palm of his hand, hanging on to every one of his softly spoken, carefully chosen and majestically delivered words.

The spiel - about his rough-and-tumble childhood, about witnessing the tail-end of the golden age of gastronomy, about the elation at seeing in the eyes of a young tearaway the promise of a great chef - is certainly well-rehearsed, but the sincerity and power is palpable. As seduction games go, Marco Pierre White has nailed it.

White's is a compelling rags-to-riches story. Growing up on a council estate and traumatised by the death of his mother, he dropped out of school and followed his father into the restaurant trade.

Still in his teens, he became enamoured of the great restaurants of France, and found shelter from his troubled life in the order and discipline of the kitchen.

At 24, he opened his first restaurant, Harveys, and by 28 he was the youngest chef to win two Michelin stars.

After winning his third Michelin star, he set his sights on winning the precious ''couverts'', symbolised by red knife-and-fork symbols to denote superior comfort, decor and service. The luxuries that earnt him five couverts included a calligrapher to write diners' bills and returning only freshly minted notes and coins to diners when their change arrived. ''You get to a stage in your life where you realise your dreams,'' White says. ''When I was 38, I realised my dream where I'd replicated the great French restaurants that had inspired me as a boy.''

The decision to leave the kitchen was greeted with surprise and derision. White has since set up and managed several restaurants in Britain, spruiked products and in 2007 took over as head chef in the competition cooking show

Hell's Kitchen, a role made famous by the notoriously fiery Ramsay, a one-time friend with whom White reportedly had a falling-out.

The MasterChef spinoff, which pits professional rather than home cooks against one another in a series of challenges, has spawned five seasons in Britain and is now the second-most successful show of the Shine-owned franchise.

The creative director of Shine Australia, Peter Newman, says White stood out when the company embarked on a global hunt for a chef-judge on its local version. ''He's the chef's chef, a chef-maker,'' Newman says, rattling off the names of Mario Batali, Curtis Stone, Shannon Bennett and others who have all worked in White's kitchens at some stage of their careers.

As ''a superstar of modern cooking'', White has the perfect credentials to be a judge alongside MasterChef stalwart Matt Preston, Newman says.

Though White's reputation as a reformed ''enfant terrible'', iconoclast, firebrand and obsessive perfectionist is a large part of the baggage he brings to the show, he regards his participation on the show less in the light of celebrity than as a mentor.

''I'm from the Escoffier world,'' White says, referring to the man regarded as the founder of classic French cuisine. ''I came in at the tail-end of Escoffier's world. I saw the golden age of gastronomy.

''One of the things I enjoy is inspiring the young. I go to training colleges and give a little insight to the old world.

''I don't regard myself a celebrity chef because I don't think many chefs have star quality. We're tradesmen, we should always remember that's what we are. When I was a boy, chefs weren't famous. What was famous was the name of the establishment, the Mirabelle, le Gavroche …''

''To be allowed to share your story with people is, in my opinion, one of the great privileges. To step onto TV and use that vehicle to inspire young men and women who are leaving school and might not have done particularly well, like myself. It's a wonderful industry to be in.''

White admits to ambivalence about TV cooking shows, having turned down five offers last year.

''I've worked on Hell's Kitchen, I've seen the cynicism of TV,'' he says, carefully distancing his hosting of the show from that of his indirect predecessor, Ramsay.

''Hell's Kitchen in the UK, before I did it, didn't portray the industry in a good light. That's why I stepped in, to give people a true insight to the industry. I gave them an insight into how a kitchen runs. There was no swearing. I think it's important to give insights to how a kitchen runs, to standards, knowledge. I think the stories of a person are equally important as the food.''

Eighteen chefs ranging in age from 19 to 43 are competing in The Professionals. As with other editions of the local-badged show, viewers can expect high production values and a focus on personal trials and tribulations of the contestants.

The new MasterChef HQ is at Melbourne Showgrounds, where a pavilion has been sound-proofed and refitted to include a slick commercial kitchen, charcuterie, pantry, dressing room, elegant lounge nooks and bars and a multi-purpose floor that can be set up as a dining room for 100. The new series of the ''vanilla'' MasterChef will be filmed there later this year.

''There's a warmth to the series, camaraderie, respect for what people are doing,'' Newman says. ''The heart of it is still food and people's passion for it.

''We're very conscious of the heritage the show brings. Audiences do not respond well to nastiness, bullying, shouting for shouting's sake. Audiences like people who are respectful to each other.

''One of the beautiful things about MasterChef is it's set up for people to achieve their best, not fail. People achieving greatness is at the heart of MasterChef.''

The point of difference, he says, is that as professional cooks, the contestants of The Professionals will be pushed harder than home cooks would be and the standard of cooking will be higher. ''These guys are putting their reputations on the line,'' Newman says.

Though White says he hasn't seen the trailer that portrays him as a cross between Hannibal Lecter and a sadistic drill sergeant, one suspects he has, and - despite protestations - isn't averse to the image it presents of a ruthless taskmaster who will broker neither disobedience nor a lemon tart that doesn't have a crisp pastry, a properly infused curd or the heady scent of fresh lemon. (Hint: line the pastry with coins when blind-baking, make the curd in the morning and serve an hour after baking.)

''What a lot of people don't realise is most of my reputation is a product of exaggeration. I was institutionalised in the premier league of kitchens with very hard taskmasters. Had I not been disciplined, I'd not have achieved what I achieved. I like wearing a uniform. That's what I've done my whole life. That's who I am.

''In reality, I'm very conventional, very respectful, very polite and it's just quite weird that the contrary [is depicted]. I'm not that hard man. I'm quite soft. I'm very caring of the contestants. As I say, before service I'm your friend, after service I'm your friend, but in service we have a job to do.

''When I was a boy, the first thing I was taught by my chef de partie is service is service. That means whatever the chef says during service, you say, 'Yes chef.'

''It's about getting the food out. It's not personal.

''It's a different world today. In those days there were a lot more chefs in the kitchen. If you go back [in time], there were a lot more chefs than establishments. Not everyone became a head chef.

''When I was a boy there were old men, 55, 60, cooking at service. You don't see that any more. They made the decision to be a fish chef, or a sauce chef. As a boy, every young chef dreamed of being a sauce chef because he was a soloist. It was a very different world.''

MasterChef: The Professionals begins Sunday January 20 at 7.30pm on Channel Ten

This story All White on the night first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.