On Thursday night I was invited to a special ‘Meet Marco’ event at the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Grill on Level 25 of The Cube in the Mailbox, Birmingham.
I have been to the restaurant a number of times. This, however, was slightly different: Marco himself would be there, meeting guests and signing copies of his book. I was asked if I would like the opportunity not only to try new dishes from the menu, but to sit and talk with the great chef himself.
Along with Lauren Foster from What’s On Birmingham (check out the interview in their June edition) and a small media crew filming us, what was supposed to be a short interview became an informative and, quite frankly, rather hilarious chat that lasted well over half-an-hour. He’s an incredibly charismatic and charming character and while my nerves were obvious, it was easy to relax into conversation and enjoy his company.
Marco explained his inspiration for the new items on the menu, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and dishes in rotation while being conscious of vegetarians and vegan options. He revealed his own experiences with veganism, adopting a pure vegan diet and stopping all carbs, drinking and smoking for nine months which resulted in a massive five-stone weight loss. The philosophy? Understanding and talking about vegetarian and vegan food can only be done if you’ve practised it yourself. He told us about his visit to Sri Lanka and how the spices and seasonings in Asian and indeed, Italian foods were perfectly suited to vegan and vegetarian lifestyles and the importance of a balanced diet.
I asked him about the foods that he really dislikes.
The only thing that I’ve really struggled to eat in my life is chicken’s feet… it doesn’t do it for me. I’m really into strange food, don’t get me wrong. I like eating, eating is one of my great passions in life… I go to this restaurant in Singapore… (he explains about the chef bringing a dish out to him and the fact they are fascinated that he likes tendons) and I said, “What is it?”. “It’s a surprise.”
Cue giggles from myself and a long pause while we wait in anticipation for the answer.
Cow throat. Not for me… Can you imagine eating windpipe? I said, it’s not for me, but please apologise to the chef.
As an honorary Brummie and former teacher, I was particularly interested in the advice he would offer a working-class Brummie who wants to become a respected chef.
Firstly, the advice I would give is that when you go for a job, keep your fingers crossed and hope that you get it, and by not asking by how many hours and how much you’re going to get paid, your chances of getting the job have increased enormously… you’ll soon find out how you’re being paid, you’ll soon find out how many hours you’re going to work, and what I’ve learnt in my life is that knowledge is your passport to freedom. It really is, and my father gave me that advice as a young man. He also told me never to call in sick. You turn up for work if you’re ill, and the chef will see that you’re not well… So, I think the advice I would give, is conduct your interviews correctly, and that’s not just for chefs, that’s for everything. And what’s really important is always be punctual…
And I used to go for interviews and I would sit there with my fingers crossed and pray I get the job. I remember I went for an interview with Pierre Koffman who – we’re great friends, Pierre and I, and we have a business together… and he said “I have no position in my kitchen” and it was the first time I’d ever been turned down, and the only time. So I said (even though I could afford it) “I’ll work for nothing.” I worked for three weeks for zero money, I was really on the breadline… he called me in (Marco then explained that Koffman then employed him). Prove yourself…
I wanted to know his thoughts on the incredible food scene in Birmingham.
Well, it’s all of those cultures isn’t it? It’s a beautiful jigsaw, it’s a melting pot, and also because it’s the second city it’s brought all these businesses in which brings money, which allows people to pay… so Birmingham is one of those great gastronomic cities of Britain in my opinion.
Above all, my burning question was one that would hopefully solve the continuing argument that has raged between my friends and I for quite some time…
The big scone debate: cream or jam first? (Incidentally, he pronounced it to rhyme with ‘gone.’)
Well, you’ve got to look at logic. Logic must always dictate… the reality is that it looks prettier with the cream on first and then the jam, it looks way prettier, but you try spreading jam on cream… it’s not about etiquette for me. At the end of the day I take a scone, put my jam on and then put my cream on top.
And then, there was the big northern divide: Lancashire versus Yorkshire. As a proud Boltonian, and with Marco hailing from Leeds, the northern banter began as soon as I told him where I was from. We discussed Peter Kay (he’s got a kind face) and the fact that I haven’t been able to order garlic bread in public since Peter Kay became famous, Bolton Wanderers and ‘Big Sam’ and my Yorkshireman husband. I jokingly informing him that he was from the wrong side of the Pennines, he explained that Lancastrians are referred to as ‘long necks’ (I’d never heard of it, but it was because we’re always stretching our necks over the hills to find out what’s going on – we’re nosy, apparently) and that he always tells his sons to buy white roses instead of red because of the House of York. I took advantage of this to remind him that – *cough* – we won, referring to the War of the Roses. He laughed and joked with us throughout, seemingly enjoying the chat, and openly admitted that he likes interviewing the interviewers.
The whole experience went by so quickly – thirty minutes felt like more like five. Marco signed a copy of his book for us, inscribing ours as ‘Suzie and the Yorkshire Lad,’ and in one for our gastronomic friend (we were graciously given a book each), in which he signed it as being from ‘The Bird from Bolton.’ We took selfies and I added to my awkwardness by positioning myself so that I accidentally covered half of his face with my hair. I said goodbye, thanked him and shook his hand, and he told us to come and say goodbye to him after we had eaten.
We were then shown to our table, which was seated right next to the window with a a panoramic view of the city.
The menu for the evening focused solely on new dishes, with four options to choose from for each course.
The Starter options were:
Classic French Onion Soup À La Normandie with croutons, gruyère cheese and cider.
Poached Pear, Alex James Cheese Salad with candied walnuts and merlot vinegar (Vegetarian)
Wheeler’s Crispy Calamari with tartare sauce and fresh lemon.
Mr White’s Scotch Egg with Colonel Mustard’s Sauce.
The Bloke and I both ordered the Calamari – we both love seafood but often avoid ordering squid at restaurants as it is often a dish that can easily be overcooked and rubbery. This, however, was beautiful. Fried in a thin coating of very light and crispy batter, the calamari were piping hot and perfectly tender, and the punchy tartare sauce complimented them perfectly. I also loved the fact that the accompanying lemon was wrapped in a thin muslin to allow the juice to be squeezed without the pips falling onto the plate. It was a small touch, but the attention to detail made me smile.
For the Main courses our options were:
Honey Roast Bacon Chop with boxtree red cabbage, pommes fondant, Marco Polo glaze and honey roasting juices.
Creamy Polenta with Italian hard cheese, leaf spinach, Fricasée of woodland mushrooms and extra virgin olive oil. (Vegetarian)
8oz Rib Eye Steak with roasted vine tomatoes, triple cooked chips and béarnaise sauce.
Wheeler’s Salmon Fishcake with buttered leaf spinach, soft boiled hens egg and tartare sauce.
I ordered the steak – medium – and The Bloke had the fishcake. I often avoid ordering steak when dining out, finding the quantity of red meat a little too much for one sitting, but it seemed ridiculous not to try the dish that the restaurant is famous for. It was perfectly cooked – seared, full of flavour, juicy and beautifully pink and served with a classic Béarnaise sauce. The Bloke equally enjoyed his fish cakes – made from freshly cooked salmon and coated in a fine breadcrumb. The only slight disappointment was that I would have preferred the chips to be slightly warmer, but our main courses overall personified Marco’s notion that simplicity in cooking can produce exquisite results.
By the time dessert arrived we had experienced a beautiful sunset and the ambience of the restaurant had been enhanced by blue/purple mood lighting, in lovely contrast with the view of the lights from the buildings in the city outside.
For Dessert the options were:
70% Bitter Chocolate Mousse with hazelnut nougatine.
Mr White’s Rice Pudding with apricots and vanilla.
The Boxtree Mess.
Baked New York Cheesecake with blueberry compote.
(It’s worth noting that all of the dessert dishes were suitable for vegetarians).
I opted for the chocolate mousse (of course) and The Bloke ordered the cheesecake. I’ve commented during previous visits on the fact that the mousse was the best I have ever eaten and this was no exception. Rich and incredibly smooth, the mousse was complimented by the texture of the crunchy hazelnut nougatine and the sweet whipped cream piped on top, and was just the right amount to finish the meal before it became sickly or too filling. Click on the images for the full size…
What an evening! The Bloke seemed to enjoy himself as much as I did. As we were leaving, Marco was still signing books and I didn’t want to disturb him or interrupt another guest’s experience so I didn’t say another goodbye. However, this ‘Bird from Bolton’ thinks the Lad from Leeds well deserves his reputation as a fabulous chef – and also proved to be a lovely person…
Want to try out these new dishes for yourself? You can find out more information and book here
Disclaimer: I was invited to meet Marco Pierre White and review the new menu items free-of-charge, but was given no instructions or questions to ask and was under no obligation to provide a positive review. The interview was filmed with our permission.