Marco Pierre White needs no introduction. He is known for winning Michelin stars, but better remembered for returning them. He earned a huge fan base in India with the well-known culinary show, MasterChef Australia. In the country on his third trip — and in Delhi for the first time — the renowned chef talks about his love for the country, why he has no regrets about giving up the coveted status, and of course food.
It was in 2011 when you first expressed your desire to visit India. But that only happened many years later, in 2019. What kept you away for so long?
I travel so, so much and work 52 weeks a year; the opportunity to come to India hadn’t arisen for a long time. And then it was Kiran (Soans) who brought me to India for World On A Plate — first to Mumbai, then Bengaluru, and now Delhi. Before then, the closest I had ever got to India was Sri Lanka. But you know something? I am so excited to be back as it’s my favourite country in the world. It really is.
This is your first visit to Delhi, what are your expectations?
Well, I am not a person who has expectations. Metaphorically speaking, I blindfold myself, and when I arrive there, I take the blindfold off. So I see it for what it is. I get that full impact, emotionally and spiritually. But what is truly amazing is that the food I’ve had in Delhi — Bengaluru and Mumbai are good — but I think this is better.
What are your best memories from your last two visits to India?
India impresses me because it doesn’t try to impress me. India spoils me, without trying to spoil me. Indians showed me kindness without trying to show me kindness. It just comes naturally to them. When I left, my last words were, “India gave me more than I gave India”. So I always feel guilty when I come here as I always feel I’ve not given enough of myself in return for what I’ve been given.
You became a household name in India, courtesy MasterChef Australia, and also got the chance to taste Indian cuisine. Which has been your favourite Indian dish on the show?
While it was amazing, I don’t have a favourite, because they are all delicious. But what’s always fascinated me is that innate understanding of the use of spice that Indians have. They have this amazing natural ability to put exactly the right balance of spice in the right amount, and they cook it beautifully. I don’t think anyone uses spices in the world, or has an understanding of spice, like the Indians. Once a young Indian lady, not long back, cooked for me (I think it was beef). It was so good and she got through. I think she stumbled on a pastry, and (I think) ended in an elimination contest. But when it came to cooking food, it was amazing.
….and off the show? And what is it that you like about it?
I have my favourite moments, but not favourite dishes. But as I said, it’s the only country in the world I’ve never had a bad meal. I’ve only always had delicious meals in India.
Despite being home to many renowned chefs and restaurants, why do you think India has been unable to find a footing on the Michelin star restaurant map?
Well, there are Michelin starred Indian restaurants in England, but they don’t need it. They are that good. And you know something, the greatest guys are your customers.
You, however, gave up your Michelin stars at the age of 38, after winning them at 33. Do you ever regret your decision?
No, I have no regrets. Yes, I have given up the status, but in return, I was given my freedom. And that’s what allows me to be in India today; next month Australia, Singapore, Qatar. If I had the three stars in Michelin, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave my restaurant, because then people are paying that sort of money. If you go to a 3-star Michelin restaurant, I want the head chef — whoever’s name is above the door — to cook my dinner. I don’t sit down to be told he’s in America or India. I am sorry, I am paying that money because I want that man’s/lady’s food, because it’s not the same when the chef is out of the kitchen.
If there is one Indian dish you have heard a lot about, and look forward to trying?
I am looking forward to trying Butter Chicken. I’ve got told the best Butter Chicken in India is in Delhi. I’ve had it in England, and sometimes it comes in yellowy-orange, and sometimes it comes red. I like the idea of it, but I’ve never had a good one. So I am very excited.
Today, there is a lot of focus on presentation. How would you describe the food scene today?
Presentation is more important than temperature. A lot of that food is tepid — I have tried in Michelin-starred Indian restaurants. I prefer traditional dishes, but they try to present them like French food — but it’s not French food! Stick to what you do because you do it really well. And when I get a curry, for example, I want it in a dish, generous, piping hot, lots of sauce and then I get my rice, maybe some dal, naan bread, and I sit and eat like a Maharaja. But why dole little portions, because Indian food has to be served hot, else you don’t smell the spices. I want to smell the spice, I want to feel the glow of the heat on my face. I want the presentation to be generous.
Indian food is really aesthetic. It might not be artistic like French, but what it is, is generously beautiful. And that’s why Indian food is all about generosity and that becomes your presentation. And you go wow, and then you’ve got hot food!
You have travelled across the globe and tried various cuisines. Which is your favourite cuisine and why?
Indian, Cantonese, English, French, Italian, and Spanish.
Vada pav, chhole bhature, pav bhaji, litti chokha, idi/dosa, tikki, chaat — India is known for its street-style food. Have you tried any?
I’ve had little bits of street food, and I like it, it’s delicious. What makes it even more delicious is standing in the street, eating it with the people, because then you are eating their culture. When I go to a country like Jamaica, India, Sri Lanka, I want to immerse myself within the culture. I don’t go to some fancy restaurant. When I went to Poland, I only dined in traditional restaurants. I hated the modern ones, they are like the Emperor’s new clothes.
The chef was in Delhi for the recently-held DLF Food Excellence Awards which was held in association with World On A Plate
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