Chef Marco Pierre White On Indian Cuisine And Generous Dining
Image Credit: JW Marriott Bengaluru For Marco Pierre White

Chef Marco Pierre White is a culinary legend who has revolutionised modern British, French, and Italian cuisines. He is also a passionate advocate for Indian cuisine, which he believes is one of the great cuisines in the world. The culinary luminary, who is also known as 'the first celebrity chef,' sat comfortably, exuding an air of relaxed authenticity.

Chef Marco Pierre White, credited with training culinary legends like Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, Curtis Stone, and Mario Batali, recently graced Bengaluru in collaboration with World On A Plate (WOAP) for the second time, hosting a masterclass, signing memorabilia, and serving brunch to delighted guests at the JW Marriott on Vittal Mallya Road in Bengaluru.

In an engaging conversation, he delves into his evolving experience with Indian food, the art of generous presentation, and why he finds India's culinary scene so captivating. Chef Marco Pierre White's words offer a tantalising glimpse into the intersection of culture, cuisine, and emotion. He shares his perspective on Indian cuisine's rising global reputation, his love and respect for Indian spices, the essence of fine dining, his classical approach to cooking in a modern world, and the emotional impact of a well-prepared meal.

He reflected on the importance of generosity in presentation and said that he prefers Indian food that is prepared traditionally and served generously to modern Indian cuisine, which might often be overplated and pretentious. He shared the importance of staying true to classical cooking in a modern world and his appreciation for Bengaluru's greenery and, surprisingly, its traffic jams. Here's what he said:

Chef, having caught a glimpse of you enjoying an Onasadhya or a South Indian meal on your previous visit to India, let us know your take on eating a meal from a plantain leaf and without cutlery.

My favourite way to eat is with my fingers. I think it is the most natural way to eat and the most natural way to taste. To use a knife and fork may be seen as being sophisticated, but actually, I think there is no greater satisfaction than when you see people who eat with their fingers. And the way they do it here in India, where you use your thumb to eat, I think it's one of the best ways to eat. And let's be honest. Eating food with your fingers always tastes much better.

As a mentor to many acclaimed chefs, what do you believe are the three most important attributes for a chef to have in order to deliver perfection and consistency at all times?

Well, as a cook, the first thing you have to learn is how to absorb pressure. By absorbing pressure, you never feel tired. If you can't absorb pressure, how can you be consistent? Secondly, you have to stay focused. And thirdly, you must be disciplined. And only then can you deliver consistency. If you do not have these qualities, you cannot deliver consistency day in and day out.

How has your Indian food experience evolved since the first time you visited India in 2019?

In my humble opinion, I think that Indian cuisine is one of the great cuisines in the world. I don't think it has the rightful position on the world stage of gastronomy that it deserves. But what I have noticed over the years is that slowly, Indian cuisine is elevating and gaining its reputation. So now you see restaurants with Michelin stars. You can see the rise of Indian restaurants where they've never survived before, like in America.

So, interest in Indian culture and cuisine has spread enormously. In England, we've loved Indian cuisine for years because of our long association with India. We've been eating spices for years. So, we like Indian food. In certain countries, like France, for example, their palates are not used to spice like the British. So, if they do eat curry, it is very mild.

But I do think it is one of the great cuisines in the world. In my opinion, nobody knows how to use spices like the Indians do. There are no scales; they just use their fingers as a measure. It is something that has been passed down. And they can do that because they've been working with spices for centuries. And the way they build the layers of flavour just by cooking slowly is lovely.

With Indian cuisine gradually earning the recognition it deserves, what are your thoughts on the increasing trend of Indian restaurants in London and the United States?

I'll speak more about London. What's interesting in London is that, if you go back 50 years, Indian restaurants tended to be very small and very basic. Now, you see Indian restaurants in Mayfair, Belgravia, St. James, and there are other grounds. Therefore, it has changed enormously from a curry house in the 60s, 70s, and 80s to a restaurant with proper service. And finally, they can charge accordingly because, for many years, Indian restaurants were devalued. Now, the British will spend a fortune on Indian cuisine.

How do you view the diverse regional cuisines within Indian cuisine, and do you think Indian restaurants in England have succeeded in offering this diversity, especially when some attempt to fuse Indian and Western culinary styles?

I think the English look at Indian cuisine as one. They don't think that the cuisine in Delhi is different from the one in Bengaluru. What they do, though, is enjoy very good Indian cuisine. And that's what's amazing. I worked with a lot of Indian chaps on cruises. And I've had that great privilege where a young chef who would cook my lunch was supposed to give me food from their region. The chefs would change every day. So, that way you can see the differences where in certain cuisines it's very gentle with spice and in other areas a bit more generous with spice.

I think what's interesting in England is that the Indian restaurateurs and chefs tailor for the English markets. There is an Indian chef, Vineet Bhatia. He is an old friend of mine. And when he makes, for example, lamb rogan josh or chicken tikka masala, he makes it as good as anywhere on the planet. When the cooks stick to their classics, they cook like one's mother. The one thing with which I don't agree with modern Indian cuisine is when they try to make it French. When they plate three different curries on one plate, it doesn't work for me.

I like the way the Indians serve their food. Indian cuisine is all about generosity. You have the curry served fresh out of the pots. They prepare it fresh, and they serve it right up. Their generosity is that presentation. And I want to smell that food when it is hot and they bring it to the table. They lift off the lid, and you smell it. That's part of the indulgence. That's part of eating. That's part of the joy.

When they bring little portions of three different curries on one plate, yes, I can respect the talent, but actually, I'll go down the classical menu. I want something that is traditional, classic, and serviceable because I am a classicist. So, I like generosity. I like the old world of gastronomy. I want to indulge. I don't like little portions on a plate.

How does that apply to fine dining, then? And what are your thoughts on the evolving trends in fine dining?

The chefs of today have turned canopies into dinner parties. And I don't get it. I don't want 12 little knick-knack courses. If I go to an Indian restaurant, what I would like is a nice lamb rogan josh or a chicken tikka masala with some rice. and I'll indulge. And I'll go back next week and have something else.

I had the most delicious biryani in Mumbai. It was very generous. They took it off the kind of bread they wrap it in. They cut it open, you get the smell, and then you indulge. It was truly delicious. Instead, if I get one little portion of something that is a tad bit less, how can I indulge? Where is the emotional impact? For me, the chef who prepares food gives me great insight into who he is as a person and as a cook.

And I can indulge. I've got everything I want. My rice. I've got my lamb on the bone. And when I've finished eating, I take the bone and suck out the marrow. That's gastronomy. That is eating. It is a sensory experience. It's got to hit all the senses. The visuals, the smell, the ears, the touch, and the feel of it. Therefore, the biryani that I had, the balance of spices, and the cooking of rice and meat were sensational.

When you have a meal, what does it tell you about the person who prepared it?

It gives you great insight into the world that they came from. Because, look, you don't have to have Michelin stars to be a great cook, in my opinion. There are lots of cooks who are Michelin stars; their food is very technical. But is this food you want to eat? Like the biryani that I ate the other day. The one who made it may never win a Michelin star, but in reality, that food is more delicious than some of the Michelin-starred restaurants that I have been to before.

It is so because it is not wrapped up in finery. It is basic. And for me, it's all about the eating. It is about what is on my plate. I don't care about anything else. When I indulge and drown in it, it gives me great insight. The man who cooked it has a great understanding of spices. And he has a great understanding of food and cooking because his rice and lamb were cooked to perfection.

And it was so deliciously hot with the bread sealed on top. He served me a little bit and left the rest for me to help myself. Genious! And the generosity is in the presentation. Why would I want something that's small and pretty when I have to use tweezers? What they are saying is that the emphasis is on the presentation and not the eating. But for me, it is about eating, and that's why I say," Allow generosity to be your presentation."

What brings you back to India every time? And what are your favourite Indian dishes?

Oh, India is one of my favourite countries in the world. The only place that I enjoy being in a traffic jam is in India, because then I can see it better. If there were no traffic jam, look how much I would have missed. Being stuck in a traffic jam allows me to see everything around me. And there is so much to see! And it is amazing!

And there is no country in the world that emotionally impacts you to such a degree as India does. Everywhere I go in this world is beautiful. But what makes India special? It's the people and the food. I've never eaten a bad meal in India. But I can't say that about London, Paris, or New York.

Give me a lamb rogan josh or chicken tikka masala. Give me a butter chicken like the one I had in Delhi or the biryani I had in Mumbai. It was sensational. Also, I'll always have lamb biryani. Never prawns, and never chicken. If I'm going to have the chicken, then I want to eat it with the drumsticks and not the breast meat.

I find the desserts a bit too sweet for me. It is quite interesting to know how, in India, you like very sweet sweets like the ones you get in Iran or Lebanon. But I don't have a sweet tooth. And I don't like sticky fingers. But every time I'm in India, I'm taken on a gastronomic journey. I am taken down a road I've never been down before. Every street in India is very different. And the reality is, when I walk into a restaurant, I want to smell the food.

How is the food scene changing across the world?

If you look at the high-end restaurants, the Michelin-starred restaurants, for example, they are doing set menus. 12 courses, but in little portions. If I thought of the world that I came from, that would be very romantic. If you think of the old three-star restaurants like the Woodside, Le Gavroche, La Salle, Le Grand Prix, and Maxims-de-Paris, they are very romantic. The portions were generous, and the food was hot. Today, it's a canopy party, and the only thing that never goes out of fashion is 'romance'. Everything else goes out of fashion.