When we set off up to the Merrion Centre I don’t think either myself or Paul really knew what to expect from such a great man like Marco. However it was soon obvious that we were about to have a conversation that wouldn’t be easily forgotten.
Originally from Leeds, Marco had loads of amazing things to say about the city and its residents, including Leeds venue Primo Ristorante’s very own, James Walker. Having grown up with him he was eager to learn of how his old friend is doing and expressed his own admiration for James and his family saying:
Marco: James’ mum Gilda and her sister were my mum’s best friends – they’re a very nice family! James is doing really well, he’s a nice man, hard working, he’s decent and he’s real. He provides a really good service and very delicious food.
Paul: So are you staying in Leeds for a bit?
I’m catching the train at 3:10 to Bristol – got to go back to my farm! It’s a hotel with a farm, it’s a very exciting project. I think I’m replicating my childhood growing up in Harewood, because everything’s very old fashioned and it’s the biggest project of my life! I’ve been away all week this week so I’ve got to get back there to see the head builder and gardener before they head off for the weekend! The fox had a few chickens this week – but ah that’s life!
Chloe: Gotta eat haven’t they!
Yeah they do, not my chickens though! They don’t taste any better than other peoples – except the ones we cook ourselves! It’s nice to be back in Leeds actually.
Paul: It’s great for you to be here! As a city we’re really proud of our own!
Even though I’ve lived down south for the majority of my life, I moved down there when I was just a teenager at 19 but you don’t forget your roots. Like, I never send red roses to girls – I’ve only ever sent white roses and I think every Yorkshire man should only ever send white roses. We’ve got to bow to the house of York.
Chloe: So does it mean a lot to you that you’ve opened Marco’s New York Italian in Leeds?
It’s nice to be back in Leeds and I used to come here, it’s changed a bit but I used to come to the Merrion Centre, to a night club called ‘The In Time’ I used to go every Sunday. It was weird but it seemed perfectly normal to me because I used to have Sunday and Monday off when I worked at The Boxtree. So therefore I didn’t have to go to work on the Monday. Sometimes we used to go to Warehouse on a Monday but you’d leave early on those days, normally about 12ish and plus also when you’re a kid you can get home at 4 in the morning and jump out of bed at half 6 in the morning and you’ve got all of the energy in the world! Or well I did anyway.
But Leeds has changed a lot, I’ve just been down Kirkstall Road and it’s changed so much! I just remember the old building which had ‘Jonas Woodheads’ on the front of it at the end but it looks like it has closed now. Leeds has changed so much and the one way system makes it all rather complicated! Even though Leeds has changed, Boar Lane is the same, Leeds Markets is the same, the Town Hall is the same and I have a lot of affection for Leeds and my mother always used to say ‘a tree without roots is just a piece of wood’ so I think you’ve got to be loyal and it doesn’t matter what you do in the end. Pigeons always come home to roost in the end.
I do accept that home is not necessarily where you’re born, it’s where you choose to die. That’s what I think. And I haven’t decided where I want to live yet. I’ve been a bit of a gypsy all my life but I love going back to Harewood. That was my playground as a child you see, so that’s my favourite place on earth, in the gardens of Harewood. Along the wharf front down to Woodhall Bridge because that’s where I used to fish as a child. I come from humble beginnings, I must’ve been born on the last council estate in Leeds at the time because I just used to walk up the street, across the golf course and I was on the Harewood estate. So how lucky was I?! Rather than growing up in a city.
Paul: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Well I would never recommend anyone to go in my footsteps, but what I would recommend to any young person who wants to go into my industry, and I look back at the early beginnings, and I would recommend for any young person to put their career in the right hands. If you put your career in the wrong hands at the start, the chances are that realising a dream are very slim.
I was very lucky, I started at a three star hotel in Harrogate called The Hotel St. George and did I learn much about food? No I didn’t but did I learn how to be fast? Did I learn how to run? Did I learn how to us a knife like never before? Because that Hotel was so so busy, and in those days everything was fresh. But when I say busy, if I was doing pomme chateau, where you turn potatoes, you’re doing them for 200 people and not for 5 like in a restaurant.
Harrogate in the 70’s was the centre of the trade shows but then the National Exhibition Centre was created in Birmingham and the business went to the NEC, so those hotels aren’t the same anymore. But if you imagine the toy fair, the wedding fair and all of those things that came to the city, the volume of clientele was so vast, and Harrogate in the 70’s was very beautiful. Those hotels in their glory were quite magical places.
I actually used to polish the clients shoes in the afternoon round the back of the lodge and one day, on the table, there was a small book and on the cover it said ‘The something Guide to Hotels and Restaurants in Great Britain’ so I started flicking through it, and I noticed two things.
Firstly, that restaurants had stars. I didn’t know that restaurants had stars! So I started reading up about it and there was two restaurants in Harrogate, there was Olivers and Number 6 who both had a something star but then what I noticed was that the best restaurant in Britain, according to ‘person’ who was the most powerful critic at the time, was just 15 miles down the road at The Boxtree and I went back into the kitchen that night and I thought to myself ‘maybe if I want to be a chef maybe I should work at the best restaurant in Britain’.
It took me about six months to pluck up the courage to apply for a job. But I always say in life, that success is born out of luck. Luck is being given the opportunity and it’s the awareness of mind that takes advantage. And luck was finding that little book on the table, flicking though it was my awareness of mind that took advantage of that moment.
It’s like, how did I get my job in Le Gavroche? I wrote to two restaurants, I wrote to Gavroche and I wrote to a place in The New Forest called Chewton Glen, Gavroche sent me an application back in French, I tried to fill it out, I couldn’t read it and made a mess of it, so I was too embarrassed to send it back. Chewton Glen however invited me for an interview so I got the coach from Leeds to London Victoria, from London Victoria to Dorset. They offered me a job in the pastry but I’m not interested in desserts, so I said I’d think about it.
I got on the coach to come home and back in those days coaches stopped at 9 o’clock in the evening and when I arrived in the station from Dorset it was rather dark and I was rather lost, I wasn’t used to city life! So I asked this Royal Mail man ‘how do you get to Victoria Station?’ He said ‘I’m going there! Jump in’ so I jumped in with him, he took me to Victoria coach station and I’d missed my last coach home. The next coach is in the morning at 8/9 o’clock so I thought to pass the time I’ll just walk the streets. I set off out of the back of Victoria Coach Station, walked up the road and thought, if I turn right, turn right, turn right, I’ll walking in a circle – there’s some kind of logic in there.
So I walk up this road, turn right and I’m walking up that road and I find myself looking through the window of a restaurant. I can see that it’s posh and the name above the door was ‘Le Gavroche’ That was the restaurant that I’d written to for a job, so I thought ‘before I get my coach in the mooring I’ll knock on the door and ask if they have any vacancies’. And that’s how I get my job at Le Gavroche!
And that’s why I say success is born out of luck. Luck is being given the opportunity and it’s awareness of mind that takes the opportunity.
When I went to do my speech at Oxford University that’s what I based it on, luck.
What was interesting is that my friend’s son goes to Marlborough College, it’s quite posh there, and he rang me a few weeks ago and said ‘Marco! The whole school had to watch you doing your Oxford Uni speech and now we’ve got to do a project on Marco Pierre White’. The boy from the Leeds Council Estate and they’re doing a project on me!
That’s why I always say ‘a story is more important than a recipe. A story can inspire you, a recipe can confuse you. It’s all about stories.’
We wrapped our chat up with a few selfies and headed to our table to revel in food heaven.
Make sure you book your table at Marco’s New York Italian by giving them a call on: 0113 832 4530 and make a night of it up at the Merrion Centre.
City Centre Arena, Wade Lane, Leeds LS2 8NJ