The Original Hell's Kitchen

The Original Hell's Kitchen

By Aaron MacLean

Some men harbor a secret fascination with My Little Ponies; others enjoy eating store-bought birthday cake when it is not, in fact, anyone’s birthday.  My guilty pleasure is celebrity chefs.

Their food is the least important aspect of what I enjoy. By the time they have achieved a significant degree of celebrity, they have generally sold out, such that finding a kitchen actually led by one of them is about as common as finding a modern-day general accompanying a platoon of infantry into battle.

No matter.  I enjoy the commercial effluvia of the decadent, late-capitalist stage of their careers much more than I would enjoy eating the food that made them famous.  I mean the television shows, the ghostwritten autobiographies, even the meals at their crappy branded restaurants: and not just the vaguely respectable ones that adhere to some semblance of a fine dining standard.  I mean the ones run by the lieutenants of their lieutenants’ lieutenants, the kind you find in airport terminals.  A personal low point was eating at Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food at Heathrow, something I am confident Gordon himself has not done since the photo-op on opening day. If he even showed up.

I am well aware that my embrace of such slickly marketed cults of personality merely gives evidence of the human trait that makes the fascist form of government possible. I don’t mention this self-awareness by way of an excuse. Heidegger knew what he was getting into, and so do I.

The genus "celebrity chef" has been around for some time, and unmistakably so since the invention of television. But connoisseurs of the present-day species—the Ramsays, Mario Batalis, David Changs—will trace the evolutionary chain back to Thatcher’s London, a restaurant on Bellevue Road named Harvey’s, and its chef, a twenty-something madman from working class Leeds absurdly named Marco Pierre White.

And not just the connoisseurs—the chefs themselves will tell you so, something that becomes apparent upon paging through the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the cookbook that White published in 1990.  It was called, in the typically reserved manner of such men, White Heat.

The re-issue is replete with tributes to White penned by Ramsay and Batali (both of whom were trained and abused by White in their youths, Batali for only a few months before he quit), Chang (who calls it "the best cookbook ever written"), Anthony Bourdain, and members of an older generation that mentored the young Marco, including Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc.  Both the original and the re-issue are completely absurd and strangely fascinating. The recipes themselves are the least interesting aspect of the volume. What catches the eye are the pictures of White and his kitchen, shot in black and white by fashion photographer Bob Carlos Clarke and modeled stylistically, as White notes in an afterward, by "Don McCullins’ photographs of the Vietnam War."

A war of sorts it was back there. And as eros is typically paired with thanatos, there was sex, too—apparently a lot of it.  As White remarks in the book, "A lot of people say I look like a rock star," and the wild-haired, gaunt, driven kid from the north of England took great advantage of the opportunities available to him when he hit the big time.

His appeal to women went beyond the visual. There is something uncomfortably sensual about the prose in the cookbook: "That’s why I like to taste with my fingers and hands, because I need a natural, physical relationship with my food, I need the involvement and the understanding that the sense of touch brings. No fingers, no food. When I’m making the mashed potato in the morning, I give myself a fistful. Not a finger, a fistful." Whoa, tiger.

The rest of the time his hands were busy throttling junior chefs to get their attention.  In a profile of White included in his epic notebook dump Heat, Bill Buford recounted some of the stories from Harvey’s circa 1990:

“Patrons ("fat ugly bastards") who ordered meat well done were an insult to the kitchen, and on two occasions Marco ordered them to leave his restaurant before they completed their meals. ("It was ten months before I threw out my first customer," White was quoted as saying at the time, adding, with a flair for exaggeration, that, once he’d got the taste for it, he couldn’t stop.) When someone ordered fried potatoes, he was so insulted he prepared them himself and charged five hundred dollars. "I used to go fucking mental." He threw things; he broke things … When his head chef fell and broke his leg, White assaulted him: "How dare you? If you were a fucking horse, I’d shoot you." Once, frustrated by the kitchen’s slowness, he ordered his cooks to stand in the corner at the height of service … "All of you—in the fucking corner where you will watch me do your jobs. Let your consciences talk to you."”

When, in his 2006 memoir (The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef), White took obvious pleasure in relating how he reduced a 19-year-old Ramsay to tears, much became clear about the younger cook’s later shtick.  In matters of tantrums and behavior that would make an opera star blush, White was the ur-Prima Donna. Those seasons of the British version of Hell’s Kitchen that star Marco Pierre White and a kitchen brigade of D-list English celebrities make Ramsay’s American iteration seem classy.

White’s legacy was not just superficial. In the introduction to the original White Heat, he described an approach to cooking and business that bordered on a moral philosophy. Somewhat unexpectedly, this philosophy revolves around a lack of pretention:

“Any chef who says he does it for love is a liar. At the end of the day it’s all about money. I never thought I would ever think like that but I do now. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having to kill myself six days a week to pay the bank. But if you don’t cut the mustard you’re finished. If you’ve got no money you can’t do anything; you’re a prisoner of society. At the end of the day it’s just another job. It’s all sweat and toil and dirt: it’s misery.”

The food itself, for all of the evident complexity of its preparation, was in principle simple. If the recipes and the appearance of the food seems clichéd now, that’s because so many lesser chefs have chased the look of what White was doing without appreciating the traditionalism of the approach:

“Anyone who says they have invented a dish is just bullshitting. You’d need to invent new ingredients before you could invent new dishes. "Good cooking is lots of little things done well," said Fernand Point, and he’s absolutely right. The classical marriages are the foundation of all good cooking … and no good cook will ever neglect them. But you must use your brain to rethink them, make them relevant, give them a contemporary beauty.”

The recipes—which, with one or two exceptions, are not for the faint of heart ("Soak the pigs’ feet in cold water for 24 hour… Singe off any remaining hairs, particularly between the toes")—are decadent and generously proportioned and tend to be extravagant executions of traditional British and Italian cookery.

Seemingly absurd things on the plate are there for a reason. The seaweed on the bottom of the Tagliatelle of Oysters with Caviar is there to keep the oyster shells from wobbling. In a discussion of Kipling, T.S. Eliot wrote that the greatest moments of great poets come when "our attention is directed to the object and not to the medium. Such a result is not simply attained by absence of decoration—for even the absence of decoration may err in calling attention to itself—but by never using decoration for its own sake." From Eliot’s lips to White’s ears.

Functionality is one of the differences between honest extravagance and pretention.  Another is the plain bloody graft of it all, the hard work and maniacal devotion to standards at the expense of friendship, sleep, and human kindness.  For the cooks, such devotion is what causes consistency in the food coming out of the kitchen.

It is also, I confess, what makes reality television shows dealing with these men compelling to me.  Hell’s KitchenKitchen Nightmares, and other shows like them are not, in any important respect, about food.  They are about character.  Gordon Ramsay’s antics would not be out of place on the drill field at Parris Island because his tactics are essentially the same as the instructors there: all important matters are reduced to a question of human motivation.  If you actually cared, recruit, you would do it right.

In that essay on Kipling, Eliot drew some questionable distinctions between high Poetry and poor old workmanlike Craft. I would like to have seen him debate the issue with White, who writes of his combination of turbot and mustard: "You can’t reinvent the wheel: all you can do is put new tires on it."  Writers, painters, poets and the like—all of whom are in the business of nourishing fundamental human needs—could learn a thing or two about art from the cooks

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