"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Marco Pierre White, Britain’s original celebrity chef, is a big guy and knows how to be intimidating when he needs to be. When you meet him — even if he seems to have mellowed into a genuinely friendly, charming man and happens to be nursing a hangover after a night out in New York with pals Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali — it’s impossible to forget that his fame is due, at least in part, to his temper. White is the same chef, after all, who once published a picture of his former mentee, but now bitter rival, Gordon Ramsay, crying in a corner after a particularly bad night in the kitchen, and routinely let problem diners know that they were no longer welcome by having his waiters simply clear their table, down to the tablecloth.
But while his irascible antics may have tabloid appeal, White’s food deserves to be famous, too. In 1995, he became the first British chef, and the youngest, to win the highest rating — three stars — from the prestigious Michelin guide. In his new memoir, “The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef,” White traces both his rise from apprentice to rock star chef and his surprising decision to walk away from it all, leaving the kitchen and his Michelin stars. Now, instead, White runs his restaurant empire from outside the kitchen, and he is slated to be the next host of the British version of the restaurant reality show “Hell’s Kitchen,” which Ramsay used to helm.
Over breakfast at his hotel (and if you’ve ever wondered what a former three-star chef with a hangover eats for breakfast, it’s granola with plenty of milk and some yogurt on the side), White spoke with Salon about why he gave up the award he devoted a good part of his life to winning, his opinion of the American food scene and why sometimes in a kitchen you just have to shout.
Why’d you write this book?
I think if you’ve been given a talent, you should show it off, if you’ve been given opportunity, create opportunity, and if you’ve been given a story, share your story. I think you have a moral duty to do that. And you know, I’ve had many chefs come up to me, young boys, and say, “Marco, I love your book,” and that’s good. But don’t do what I did, chase something for 17 years I never wanted. It’s a long journey, chasing something until you achieve it and actually you never wanted it. It’s a very long journey.
What do you mean, never wanted it?
When I won my three stars, I realized that I’d worked for something all my life that I’d never wanted. I never questioned why, why was I chasing three stars. I never asked myself that question, because I thought it would give me happiness.
Why’d you leave the kitchen?
I’d done my bit; there was no point. I had three options, that’s what I thought. My first option was to continue working six days a week, long hours — I leave home in the morning, my children are sleeping, I kiss them goodbye. I go home at night, my children are sleeping, I kiss them goodnight. And I just thought, “This is not a life. I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m not happy doing it.”
My second option was to live a lie: Pretend I’m behind the stove when I’m not behind the stove. Question everything I’ve ever worked for in my life, question my integrity.
My third option was to pluck up the courage to give back the stars, and accept that I’m going to be unemployed. And that’s what I did.
I thought it was interesting, reading the book, that you just gave back your Michelin stars. How exactly does one give back Michelin stars?
I made a phone call at the end of September, before the guide went to print, and I said, “I’d like to be withdrawn from your guide, because on the 23rd of December, 1999, I will retire from the kitchen.”
So they pulled your restaurant from the guide?
No, what they did was, the restaurant, the Oak Room, which continued to be a restaurant without me, just went in as an address. The listing just says “The Oak Room, blah, blah, blah” — that’s it. And Marco’s gone.
What do you think of all the other famous chefs out there who have left the stove but still “headline” their restaurants?
To charge high prices and not be behind your stove, it’s against all my beliefs. Remember, my average dinner bill was $600. Eight years ago. That’s a big bill. And a lot of people who came to my restaurant weren’t necessarily rich people. It was a special occasion. Can you imagine: You take your wife out to my restaurant for dinner, and I’m not behind the stove. You find out I’m in America — how would you feel when you’ve just done $1,200 for dinner? It’s a sour taste, isn’t it?
Does the quality suffer?
It can’t be the same, can it?
You were out with Mario Batali the other night — he’s not really behind his stove. Is that something you’ve discussed with him?
Mario’s not a three-star chef. Mario’s told the world what he’s doing; he doesn’t hide it. Mario’s out front, isn’t he? What I’m saying is a lot of them hide it; they pretend they’re in their kitchen when they’re not. I’m talking from a European point of view — I can’t speak for New York chefs, really. I just think when you’ve got three stars, it’s an issue of principle. Your name is above the door, you’ve got to be there. But that’s me. We’re all different.
What do you think of the American food scene right now?
I think America is very exciting. I’ve never seen anyone who obsesses about produce more than the Americans. Their love for produce is extraordinary. And that’s where it all begins. Mother Nature is the true artist. Even when I was in Seattle, walking the markets there, just the pride with which people present their food, just the way they stack it and present it and show it off, it’s fantastic. I think America, the future of America, is fantastic.
It’s interesting, what you’re saying about the produce. Because it seems like when I go to France, even in the lowliest shop or restaurant, everything is good, but here you have to seek it out.
Well, [the French] take it for granted because it’s all around them. It doesn’t ignite their imagination. In America, the produce ignites the imagination. I’m sure when you go to France, it fucking blows your brains. They’re not sitting on their laurels, the French. They’re just so fucking good at what they do — it’s like a three-star restaurant, it doesn’t have to change. Working in a restaurant which wins three stars is exciting, [but so is moving] from one, two and three. And it’s like America in the world of gastronomy is somewhere that’s just won its second Michelin star or its first Michelin star. They’re fighting, they want to improve.
The hunger of your chefs, your young boys, is extraordinary. I was at a book signing the other night, and I see these young chefs with pale faces, looking anemic. When I shake their hands I can feel their calluses. You can see they’re tired. You don’t really see that in England anymore. It’s a different world. They give themselves, those young boys. I didn’t have to ask them if they were chefs, I could just see it. Just look at the eyes, just look at the lines in their faces. It’s a cook’s life. And the Americans are living that gastronomic dream at this point in time. Americans, I’ve always said, they sit in your restaurant, and they want to talk. They’re inquisitive. They’re not just there for dinner, they’re buying into the whole dream. Over the years I’ve cooked for many, many Americans, and their thirst for knowledge, their thirst to understand, to meet you, is enormous.
Is there anyone working in the States who’s doing something that you particularly like or dislike?
I went to Chicago, and I went to Alinea. The boy there [chef Grant Achatz] has got extraordinary technical ability. This boy, I believe, can win three stars in the Michelin guide. But do I want to sit in that environment, where I’m dictated to? No. I’m told these are my two choices, 12 courses or 24 courses. It’s not my thing. It’s just too much; I get bored by it. You just lose your place. It’s like having six bottles of Cheval Blanc. In the end, you forget, and think, “What have I drank?’ It’s a bit too much of an indulgence.
I’m very happy with two great courses, with my freebies and my little amuse gueule, the little things like that. It’s enough for me. And then give me a pudding, and then I can go home. But [Achatz] has extraordinary talent, and he’d be a really interesting person to watch develop over the years, as he loosens up within himself and grows as a person. It’s like watching a great artist, how his style changes and how he develops. Once this boy loosens up, I think he’ll be amazing. I think his obsessiveness and his work are just extraordinary. I can relate to him.
But when I was in Chicago, I also went to Hot Doug’s, and it’s amazing. There’s a queue like you’ve never seen. Doug [Sohn, the owner] has got one eye on the kitchen, one eye on the room, and he’s taking their money. I loved him — he’s an old-fashioned restaurateur. Even that one, it isn’t just hot dogs. They are hot dogs with a difference. [Sohn] has a sausage maker, they work out the recipes — so you might have a sausage with rabbit, with mustard, and with the onions and cheese on top. What a lunch! But you know, and here’s the thing: That boy serves a hot dog — and a great hot dog, let’s not forget that — but at 4 o’clock he closes the door and he goes home to his family. He doesn’t leave anyone else to look over it. Interesting, isn’t it? He has the same philosophy as a great chef.
You mentioned Alinea, and that brings up something else I wanted to ask you. What do you think of “molecular gastronomy”?
Not much. Chefs have always been scientists. We’ve been doing it for years, we just never branded it. Look at pastry — it’s chemistry. My friend Heston Blumenthal [chef and owner of England's the Fat Duck, a molecular gastronomist], I mean, Heston knows my views. He makes a veal stock in a pressure cooker, for whatever reason. He’ll give me some scientific explanation. The difference between the two stocks? Zero. The stock is what you put in it, right or wrong.
Molecular gastronomy, I don’t see the point of it. It’s a stamp, it’s a label — let’s get a few column inches, let’s make it interesting. My wife’s mother, without a doubt, is one of the great chefs. When I eat her food, it’s the most delicious food. She has no training. She just had a childhood in ’30s Spain; she was brought up by the nuns. But when I sit and eat her food — delicious. Fabulously seasoned. Great textures. It’s peasant food. What I love is it gives me an insight into the world that she came from. She’s eating today still what she did as a little girl being brought up by the nuns. This molecular gastronomy, it’s soulless.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but there’s been a little controversy recently involving chef Wylie Dufresne, of WD-50 here in New York, and Marcel Vigneron, who was one of the chefs on “Top Chef,” an American reality show. Basically, Wired magazine asked Vigneron to demonstrate a recipe for a feature, and he closely re-created one of Dufresne’s signature dishes — a “cyber egg” made from carrot-cardamom puree and coconut milk — without any attribution or credit. Do you think a chef’s recipes should be protected as intellectual property?
You can’t reinvent the wheel. Everyone takes from everybody. How many people are serving foie gras on their menu? How many? How many people do a soupe de poisson? Go to France — a pigeon en croute de sel, a loup de mer en croute de sel. We live in a world of refinement, not invention. It’s the greatest compliment he can be given, this guy. If someone takes one of your dishes and does it, it’s flattery. For you to get pissed off because he didn’t acknowledge you is ego. It’s all too political really, isn’t it? I mean, we’re fucking chefs.
Would you encourage other people to become chefs?
I’d recommend any young man, or girl, to go into the industry if that’s what they wanted, if they’re prepared to make that sacrifice. I think it’s the best industry in the world. We’re in the business of selling fun, a night out. Food and wine are just a byproduct. You could go to a great restaurant tonight, and if you don’t like the environment, you’re feeling a bit intimidated, it doesn’t matter how good the food is, your chances of going back are quite slim. When you go out, you want to sit down, you want to feel comfortable. If you feel comfortable, you can be yourself. Once you can be yourself, you can really start to enjoy the food.
It’s like Mario [Batali] — Mario creates natural environments to eat food in, in my opinion. That’s the first thing you feel when you go to Mario’s restaurants: I want to be here. You can smell the man, can’t you? Metaphorically speaking, he’s there, even though he might not be in that one tonight but in another one. He’s the best. He’s the uncrowned king of America, isn’t he? In my opinion, he’s the king of gastronomy in America.
Are the rumors true, about you coming to the States?
That you’ll be opening a restaurant here.
I had a meeting in Vegas, and I agreed to do the deal. I said I’ll work on it when I get back. It’s linked to gambling.
When will it be opening?
They want it for January. Like I said, it’s a restaurant with gambling — you can gamble while you dine.
Where’s it going to be?
I can’t say.
I figured, but I had to ask.
You had to ask — I knew that question was coming.
Another question I have to ask: Are you going to be eating at the London [Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in New York] while you’re here?
What’s the point? I’ve heard very bad things, from people with great palates. And you know, it doesn’t interest me. If I wanted to eat that man’s food, I’d do it in London. It’s where I live.
Why’d you agree to do the new “Hell’s Kitchen”?
I think watching Mr. Ramsay on TV does a lot of damage to the industry, and I think it would keep a lot of people not wanting to go into the industry. It would make a lot of parents form the opinion that this was not a good world for their child to go into, and, you know, kitchens are wonderful places. They’re special places, and I think if the viewers are going to see a kitchen, then they should have a true insight of what a kitchen is like. OK, it’s going to be 10 celebrities; their cooking abilities are limited, but that’s fine. I’m there to inspire people, not belittle people. It’s got to be educational, inspirational, interesting, because if it’s not, what’s it all mean?
But when you were in the kitchen, you had something of a reputation for being …
I was hard. Very hard. But remember, I could set foot into a kitchen without having to raise my voice. That’s the difference. Most people are scared when I walk into a kitchen. I’m quite a big guy. I taught myself how to cast my presence, and when you shout or raise your voice, it’s all to keep them concentrated, doing the job, don’t stray. What do most chefs start doing? They start yelling at 8:30, 9 o’clock, don’t they? Why? Because they’ve lost control. Illogical. As soon as you’ve lost control, they know you’ve lost control, right or wrong. Shout from the beginning, keep pushing them. It’s got to penetrate them.
What about on the other side of the house, when you kicked people out of the dining room?
I never kicked people out. I asked them to leave. We didn’t want their money, we didn’t want them.
You’re a waiter, a customer tells you to fuck off, pushes you out of the way, and your boss does nothing — what do you think? He’s saying the check’s more important than you. [As the chef] you don’t have that right; you have to look after your staff.
How many times have you been in a restaurant when there’s a bigger table, and they’re swearing, they’re being loud, they’re being rowdy, and you’re sitting there with your girlfriend, having a nice dinner or other occasion. What does a restaurateur do? Number one, you have to warn them, ask them to quiet down. If they don’t, they’ve got to go. I think of the whole room, not of one table. Too many restaurateurs compromise their position for the check.
Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.More Alex Koppelman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)