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White Slob

*** 

 

White Slave: The Godfather of Modern Cooking, by Marco Pierre White (with James
Steen), Orion Books, HB, 306 pp. no price given

 

When
Anthony Bourdain appeared on the scene a few years ago, he was a breath of,
well, redolent
odours of serious cooking. He took food out of the dining rooms of swish
restaurants and suburban bungalows and put it where it should be first and
finally-in our mouths. But every revolution has its side effects, and those from
the revolution Bourdain started have some unexpectedly stinky aromas.

 Among the
several things Bourdain did was to turn food preparation into a high level cultural
activity. He did this, oddly enough, by giving us, in Kitchen Confidential, more of the grungy details of life in
restaurant kitchens than most of us want to know. But the book was successful
enough that it transformed chefs into genuine culture heroes.

 Alas, everyone
forgot that in the real world, culture heroes are almost always dreadful assholes.
That's why every fifth rate short-order cook in the Western World has now read his
Kitchen Confidential and is acting
like Marlon Brando and demanding to be treated like Maria Callas. This is not
what you want from people who are generally badly educated and carry large,
sharp knives.

Bourdain's best book-the one that didn't
inflict collateral damage-is A Cook's
Tour
, his private narrative of different food cultures around the world. He
was able to write the book while television's Food Network was paying him more
money than either a book publisher or restaurant owner could dream of affording
so it could follow him around with a video camera. The tour made decent
television, because Bourdain is an entertaining guy. But A Cook's Tour-the book-liberated Bourdain's culinary curiosity from
the Darwinist follies of the restaurant kitchen, and the result was ultimately more
interesting than Kitchen Confidential. I think it's the best book I've ever read about food that doesn't
contain recipes.

But then
the other shoe dropped. The recipes in his cholesterol-caked 2004 Les Halles Cookbook revealed that
Bourdain is a better food writer than chef. Then in 2006, he published The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts,
Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones,
which
reads like a series of blogs from a man being taken over-and oppressed-by the
media persona created for him. The book consists of a raft of rants so
"Bourdainesque" it's overly polite to call them self-parody. It left me and
more than one person I've talked to wishing Bourdain would just shut up and
leave us all alone.

That's
unlikely, but it's even more unlikely that the monsters he let loose are going
to leave us in peace, whether we're eating or just reading about eating. Witness
the truly abusive and loathsome Gordon Ramsay, the pock-marked Beelzebub of
reality-television-meets-the Food-Network. Ramsay is a kind of caricature of
Bourdain's worst flaws with none of his wit or charm. Then there's Marco Pierre
White's ghost-written autobiography, White
Slave.

Marco
Pierre White is apparently the role model for Ramsay, and to a lesser extent,
Bourdain. Now, I'm sure that Mr. White is a wonderful cook, as witnessed by the
three Michelin stars his British restaurants have earned (which fact he
reiterates on roughly every third page so we won't forget it). But he's not a
writer and he's not a very deep thinker. Nor, unfortunately, is his
ghost-writer, James Steen, whose other accomplishments include editing the now
celebrity-addled Punch and writing
gossip columns. Neither of them seem able to impart any of the secrets truths
about food beyond glorifying the Darwinian violence of restaurant kitchens, and
Bourdain has already overdosed readers on that count.

 Distressingly,
White/Steen have even fewer insights concerning the world beyond the kitchen.
White seems to think, occasionally with a simple-mindedness that's hilarious
and depressing at the same time, that everything bad or difficult in both his
character and his daily life is explainable by his Italian mother's death when
he was six, and his subsequent Feelings of Abandonment. White has done some psychotherapy,
and his therapist was evidently a doctrinaire Freudian-the paint-by-numbers kind.
"Following my mother's death," White/Steen intone as an explanation of why White's
first marriage crashed, "I hadn't been encouraged to talk about the burden of
grief and because I was severely underdeveloped when it came to sharing my
emotions I mustn't have been the most communicative husband. I'm not asking for
sympathy, that's just the way I was."

Freud is
also the culprit in the selection of the book jacket's photographs. The front
cover features a fairly recent photograph of White posing with a fat cigar in
his right hand and an expression on his kisser so over-the-top pretentious it
is impossible not to giggle. On the back jacket for contrast is a 1990 photo of
White dressed in his kitchen togs with a cigarette dangling from his lips. The
implication, I suppose, is that the years (and the Michelin stars) have made
his, er, cigar grow bigger and fatter.

Doesn't
sound promising, does it? It isn't, mostly. But there are compensations, particularly
if you have a weakness for Visigoth slapstick. You get a subtle but substantial
whiff of that in the book's subtitle: "The Godfather of Modern Cooking". The celebrity-addled Steen and whoever edited
the book clearly believe that human history began somewhere around 1975, and
that the "modern" age commenced somewhere in the 1990s.

There are
lots of other Visigoth pratfalls in the text, even though White and Steen seem
to have little idea when their protagonist is doing his silliest ones. My
favourite is the passage in which he describes what happened when the interior
decorator who designed the hamburger joint White turned into his first
restaurant showed up and demanded to be given a free dinner. White, who looks
like a helium and steroid-inflated version of the boxer Jake LaMotta, loathed
the restaurant's décor and so refused to serve the interior designer at all.
When the designer was informed of this, he tried to storm the kitchen to
declare his displeasure, and White beat the crap out him.

Then
there's the celebrity name-dropping: "…the very next day I got a call from
Madonna's assistant, asking me if I would like to join the icon for afternoon
tea." White/Steen write. "I accepted. It would have been rude not to. We had
tea at the Hyde Park Hotel, where she was staying, and have been friends ever
since. She and her husband, Guy Ritchie, have been very special people in my
life. They come to my restaurants and we go shooting together. They are exceptionally
kind." His description of getting to know Paul McCartney's ex Heather Mills is
only slightly less ridiculous than his story about being prevented from cooking
a $10,000 a head celebrity lunch for Princess Diana by her fatal car accident.
"Needless to say," the authors feel compelled to point out, "the lunch was
cancelled."

This sort
of stuff can be quite entertaining if you're perverse enough to enjoy witnessing
people making asses of themselves. But when it comes down to it, Marco Pierre
White is the sort of human being you might be gratified to know is alive and
cooking, but he's also the sort of person you'd never want to meet in person. As
for White Slave, the best that
be said about it is that it's an entertaining example of a genre-restaurant
kitchen Darwinist mysticism-that we can do without. The only place in the book where I was really
convinced White and his ghost writer were knew and were able to tell the
straight truth was in a late-in-the-book description of how to fry an egg
properly. Unfortunately, White's method is illegal in most Canadian provinces. The
rest was the brown stuff Bourdain has been slinging, except not high enough
quality to be digestible.

1300 words May 28th, 2007

 

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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