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Humble culinary genius
Humble culinary genius

Marco Pierre White is regarded as the godfather of modern British cooking, an intimidating food force to be reckoned with who at 33, became the youngest and first British chef to win three Michelin stars. Then at the age of 38, White effectively retired from cooking and handed back the coveted stars to spend more time with his family and focus on his restaurant business interests.

White's personal life and feuds with the likes of his one-time employee Gordon Ramsay have made him tabloid fodder in the UK, where he is regarded as the original enfant terrible of British cooking and the first rock star of the kitchen.

In a July 2010 interview with GQ magazine, Piers Morgan described him as a culinary genius: "The craziest, most driven and incredibly talented cook this country has ever produced."

No surprise, then, that I was beset by a bout of nerves before sitting down to chat to the enigmatic White, who turns out to be polite, old-fashioned, charming and anything but scary.

"For the first 22 years of my career, I spent time in the kitchen, a lot of time in the kitchen," White says during our morning interview at Shannon Bennett's Bistro Vue in Melbourne.

"Today my role and my position is very different; I own restaurants, I own hotels. My main position is that of an ambassador within my industry. It is to inspire the young within our industry, to give a little insight into the world I came from which was an old-fashioned world, it was Auguste Escoffier's world, to share your story, to share your knowledge. I think that is important."

Which is how, despite his dislike of flying, White has ended up in Melbourne with Matt Preston filming MasterChef: The Professionals, which will see 18 professional chefs put to the test in what they are dubbing the toughest cooking environment in Australia.

"In something like MasterChef: The Professionals you have a lot of young individuals within the industry who have a dream, who have a want to learn and want to progress," White says.

"If Matt and I can assist them in realising their dream, helping them discover a little bit more about themselves as people, I think that is very important. This show is far bigger than cooking. It is about an emotional journey, it's about a journey of self discovery."

The "journey" - such a staple of reality television - has not been easy for some of these chefs Preston explains. "What unifies them is they are 18 people with unfulfilled potential," he says.

"Unfulfilled because things have happened in their lives where they have made the decision to step away from the path of becoming a top chef. Or to step away from the stoves to become an exec chef.

"One guy had a horrendous car crash which kind of stopped his career. Another guy, a really talented young cook; the pressure got to him and he ended up getting into crystal meth.

"He has been clean for four years and is now coming back; he has a prodigious talent and amazing palate.

"It's about helping them find their own voice. One of the hard things with chefs is they end up cooking everyone else's food and we are asking them to cook their own food and express themselves on a plate."

White believes dining in a restaurant should be "like going to see a clairvoyant".

"You should almost see their life story on a plate. That's what's important to me, the journey a man or woman had to put that on the plate."

What would White plate up to represent his story so far? "If I had to make something for you now, I would take you back in time, to when I was a little boy, and make you the simplest dish and the first dish I remember eating is my mother's lazy pasta."

White's Italian mother Maria Rosa died when she was 38 of a brain haemorrhage, two weeks after giving birth to his younger brother, Craig.

He was six years old but it is evident Maria Rosa is still a profound influence on his life. It's no coincidence, White says, he quit cooking when he was 38, or won his third Michelin star at 33, the age his mother was when he was born.

White shuns technology, preferring an old model Nokia phone. He says he has never sent an email and was too busy working to learn to drive.

He loves art, framing keepsakes and literature, though he later reveals he has never read a book in his life because he is dyslexic.

White says there was never any question he would be a chef.

"My grandfather was a chef, my father was a chef, his brother was a chef and my uncle was a baker.

"I came from a very humble world and you followed in your father's footsteps. My father happened to be a chef in a hotel so I went down that road."

White worked with some of the world's best and believes there's no such thing as a self-taught chef.

"Even if you buy a book of another chef you are taking his knowledge," he says, tipping his hat to his mentors such as his mother, Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffman and the owners of the Box Tree in West Yorkshire where he worked before heading for London at 16 as a commis chef under Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche.

·Sue Yeap visited Melbourne as a guest of Network Ten.

'I came from a very humble world and you followed in your father's footsteps. My father happened to be a chef in a hotel.'