Chef Marco Pierre White.
Chef Marco Pierre White.

There really is something about Marco Pierre White. I'm in the plush lobby of Melbourne's Park Hyatt, I've spent nearly three hours talking to the famous British chef and I'm simply not myself any more. I've entered a vortex, encircled by the 51-year-old's charisma, trapped by his stories, his slow, quiet sentences, pregnant ellipses and rhetorical questions, which he goes on to answer in a weighty, meaningful way that reels me in tighter. "Honesty is paramount," he says. "I bare myself." I somehow doubt it, but I can feel myself nonetheless being charmed by the restaurateur and television star, who is spending three months in Melbourne to film MasterChef: The Professionals.

Our allotted time was 90 minutes but when it elapsed and the publicist loomed, White waved him away. "I'm always suspicious of chefs with watches," he proclaims, in one of possibly a thousand pronouncements I hear from him. "For one, you should never cook with a watch. Time should just be a guide. And two, if you've got a watch you're always looking at it. Interesting, isn't it?" Is it? It doesn't really seem that interesting, but I am hanging on every word. White orates for another 90 minutes. Finally, I have nothing more to ask and he has said it all. He visits "the little boys' room" and comes back to inquire if I would like lunch.

I can't and I don't and I won't - life, you see, is calling me from outside this hushed and high-ceilinged lobby, the real world, my actual life. "Just a little something to eat," he intones. No, I couldn't possibly, but how kind, and I have already taken up so much of your time. "Just one very small sandwich?" he concludes with charming menace. Thank you, that would be lovely, I hear myself say.

English chef Marco Pierre White posing with a row of pigs trotters in his kitchen, circa 1990. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images)
Culinary feats … a young Marco Pierre White in the kitchen of Harveys, circa 1990. Photo: Getty Images

Three days later I'm at the Melbourne Showgrounds on the stifling set of MasterChef: The Professionals, watching White in action. Two teams of young cooks must prepare dishes for 120 diners. White is their chief mentor and haranguer, their coach and drill sergeant. The chefs potter nervously at their stations and White puts his apron on with savage withheld force, like a boxer punching into his gloves. A make-up lady pats an unruly strand of curly hair into his neat mane and White steps into the kitchen across an invisible white line.

"He's like a panther in a cage," whispers host Matt Preston in my ear, as a second make-up artist adjusts his cravat. Indeed, White stalks the spacious kitchen, pacing, muttering, tense and unsmiling.

The challenge begins and suddenly it smells like food. White slaps the bench. "How long for my linguine?" he yells. Orders roll in and he growls, "Table 37, 35, 37, 35," like a bingo caller taking it all a bit seriously. "Linguine!" The contestants, all qualified chefs, keep their heads down and hands moving, flashes of steel and terror and excitement in their eyes. "Yes, Marco," they say, over and again. They are competing for tangible prizes but, whatever the results, impressing Marco Pierre White would be a huge win for any of them. "Four lamb, four mulloway, four lamb, four mulloway!" he roars. "Go, go, go, go, go, go, go!"

Service continues for nearly two hours, during which time White sweats and rants and chants. Twice he stuffs a bunch of dockets in his teeth as though to stop himself screaming or eating someone. "How long for those prawns?" he bellows, despairing. And then, from the belly, a booming "HOW LONG?" Plates are filled, wiped, inspected and sent to diners. Occasionally, they fail muster and are sent back for a hapless chef to cook again.

At the end of it, 360 dishes have been ferried to tables and White pounds off stage, drained, dripping. He grabs a leftover soufflé and wolfs the lot in five heaped spoonfuls. He calls for a Diet Coke, disappears for five minutes and returns, smelling like damp cigarette smoke, to debrief the contestants. "We fed them all," he says, announcing every chef's victory, played out in restaurants around the world, breakfast, lunch and dinner. "We fed them."

The words "Marco Pierre White" are often affixed with other words: "the first British chef to win three Michelin stars" and "the youngest ever chef to win three Michelin stars" (he was 33). In the culinary world, that's "great step for mankind" territory. White is also known for the other chefs who have worked in his kitchens: Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and, closer to home, Melbourne chefs Curtis Stone, Shannon Bennett and UK imports Donovan Cooke and Michael Lambie. But he is just as famous for his bad-boy antics: for smashing plates, intimidating staff, making his protégé Ramsay cry, throwing out customers or, tout au contraire, having them throw themselves at him. He once invited a woman into his restaurant office for zip-down shenanigans while her husband trusted she was (slowly) powdering her nose.

White's gaunt, pale presence stalks his 1990 cookbook White Heat, a slender but game-changing volume featuring black-and-white portraits of the chef by photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, known for his arty erotica. It was arguably the first celebrity-chef cookbook, certainly the first that positioned the chef as a rock-star-style idol.

It was crucial, of course, that White was a brilliant cook. He had trained with the best chefs in Britain, luminaries such as Albert Roux, Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc, all of whom built on classical French foundations: a lot of lobster, butter and turned vegetables. He threw himself into kitchen life. "I went to work to learn my craft," he says. "If you had to work 25 days on the trot, start at five in the morning, you did it, you didn't question it." It wasn't just the hours that were brutal. "My head chefs drove me, pushed me to extremes to the point of almost breaking," he says. "It may sound cruel, but if I hadn't been pushed as a young man I would never have seen what was in me." As a student, White was diligent but infuriating, industrious but arrogant, talented but in an awful hurry. In 1986, aged 24, he took over Harveys, in Wandsworth, in south-west London. It became a fine-dining darling because the food was exceptional, but the crowds also came to chance their luck with the volatile chef proprietor.

White's kitchen revolution was in the process, not in crazy flavour combinations or way-out techniques. He insisted on consistency, believing that was the key to winning the Michelin stars he craved. He was fanatical about produce and freshness: fish stock was made daily, ravioli was rolled and filled to order. Every day was like starting the restaurant anew. The flavours were delicate but portions were hefty and prestige ingredients such as lobster, foie gras and truffles were used liberally. ("If you're going to use it, use it," says White.) Other trappings of fine dining - embossed menus, lavish flower displays, stools for ladies' handbags - were an important part of the fantasy that he built. "A great restaurant should be an illusion you step into," he says. "It should be magical, beautiful, rare, dreamy with that element of luxury and richness." Fuelled by adrenalin, coffee and cigarettes, Harveys received its first star in 1988 and its second in 1990.

Melbourne chef Donovan Cooke worked as White's head chef for three-and-a-half years from 1991. The attention to detail impressed him. "We'd get there in the morning at stupid o'clock and when the veg arrived we'd have to go through each bunch of baby carrots and check they were all the same," says Cooke. "If one was a different size, we'd send it back." Cooke believes White's motivation was always to seek perfection on the plate, but it meant staff lived on a knife's edge. "He could switch from charming to evil in a second," he says. One day Cooke took a short cut: restaurant rules demanded that the sauce for each beef dish be reduced in its own pan, but Cooke had three beef on order and decided to tip the sauces into one pan to consolidate his efforts. No dice. "Marco saw me, poured the whole pan onto a plate, threw the plate onto the floor and gave me a horrible bollocking." Another time, White spotted a waiter tilting a tray of plates so the sauce spilled onto their rims. "He grabbed the waiter by the scruff of the neck and threw all the plates onto the floor," says Cooke.

Cooke brought his flatmate, Michael Lambie, into the Harveys kitchen. "When I went for my interview Marco didn't speak, he just looked at me and started whistling the theme from The Godfather," says Lambie. "It scared the shit out of me." But Lambie speaks of his three years with White as a great experience, despite the dramas and the bullying. Memorable events included White punching a waiter, White ripping the kitchen telephone off the wall and smashing it with a meat cleaver to make a point about staff receiving calls, White throwing customers out for being drunk and niggly. "It was horrific but exciting and I was a boy, I kind of liked it," says Lambie. "We were working for the hottest chef in the world."

The grander premises of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel took White to three stars in 1995. A subsequent move, to the even more lavish Oak Room at Le Meridien Piccadilly, where meals cost about £300, saw the Michelin guide grant the extra honour of five red couverts (knife and fork symbols, representing the best in comfort and service) in 1998. White had soared high, but happiness had not joined him on the mad rush to success. "All your energy is going into your food, your dream, not into you as a person," he says. He had trashed two brief marriages and he barely saw his third wife or children. Chef Shannon Bennett, from Melbourne's Vue de Monde, worked for White at the Oak Room. "Marco didn't ever enjoy what he was doing," he says. "None of us did. You didn't realise how much you were enjoying it until you took a breather and realised it was such a brilliant time." Reflecting now, White says, "Winning three stars was the most exciting journey, but it didn't mean I'd dealt with my demons and myself. The top is a very lonely place."

In perhaps his most stunning play of all, White stepped away from the stove in 1999 and handed back the Michelin stars that had given his life direction and meaning. "I retired from cooking because I realised my dream," he says. "It's as simple as that." Many chef proprietors stop cooking in their restaurants but keep the stars, status and profits; White decided that would be living a lie. "That's typical Marco," says Bennett. "Really dignified. It wasn't about money for him, it was about achievement." Part of the triumph was to sew up eternal victory. "I'll be three stars forever," White says. "Losing them would have bothered me for the rest of my life."

Marco Pierre White has always pointed to the death of his mother when he was six years old as a formative and driving influence. His family lived in a council estate in working-class Leeds. Marco was the third son of an Italian mother, Maria, and English father, Frank, a chef. While Maria was alive, holidays were taken in Italy, where White recalls picking fruit, fishing and collecting goat's milk. "I was a soft little Italian boy," he says. Then his mother died of a brain haemorrhage following the birth of her fourth son and White grew up hard and fast with his father and two elder brothers. The baby was sent to relatives in Italy. Frank White was a gambler who ran a tight, disciplined home, was often angry and rarely affectionate. There was also a long period when he thought he was dying of cancer.

"Softness was stripped from my life," says White. "I shut down." Then, to my astonishment, he cries. "I was brought up motherless," he says, pausing to sip water. "It's a pain that never leaves you." He had a hard time at school, suffering from dyspraxia that made reading and learning difficult, and teased for his Italian name. (His French middle name was a secret until the food critic Egon Ronay revealed it in Harveys' first review, dubbing the young chef "Marco Pierre White" and creating a brand in one fell swoop.) When he left school, White's headmaster waved him away with the encouraging statement that he would never amount to anything. "Had Mum not died I would have been a very different boy," he says. "I would never have had those great insecurities and those great fears that fuelled me to achieve what I achieved."

When he gave up his stars, White was 38, the same age his mother was when she died. The way he tells it, he then took a five-year break to discover himself. He spent time with his family, refashioning himself from enfant terrible into a world-weary elder statesman of the stove, disillusioned by the restaurant world that had made him and that he'd taken by the throat. Gastronomy has all gone wrong these days. He thinks the Michelin guide has lost its way. "They really made you work in my day. Now it's commercial." He thinks chefs look too healthy. "They don't look tired. They look like models. When I shake a chef's hand I want to feel calluses and cuts and I want to see fresh burns on his arms. When I cooked at [Albert Roux's] Gavroche, the kitchen was so small you used to have to cook with your hand in the oven." He pushes up his sleeves to show me his badges of courage. There's more. He doesn't like tricky food ("I want something real, something with roots"), he doesn't like degustation menus ("18 courses of tepid knick-knacks") and, generally, he wonders where the romance has gone. "A lot of restaurants today are quite soulless and hard-edged," he laments. "I want the old world of gastronomy."

So, lunch. Instead of a very small sandwich in the hard-edged hotel lobby, we walk to The European, a smart city bistro, where the food has roots and, hopefully, the chefs are covered in cuts, have their arms deep in flames, and have worked since yesterday morning without dozing or complaining. White opens the restaurant door for me, folds my jacket over his arm, stands when I leave the table and tips extravagantly, all of which is pleasant but slightly confusing, like he's playing at being a gentleman.

His favourite compliment is that someone is "kind". He spills with gratitude for simple things - "Just sitting down and having a cup of tea with a friend, walking along the pier ... My value for life is enormous." He almost speaks of himself in the past tense, an elder looking back from his perch.

You're not old, I tell him girlishly, wincing doubly when I later listen to my recording. "Oh, I am, I am," he insists loftily. "I just want to give back now."

And yet he has interests in about 30 restaurants and hotels, which he delights in decorating, and which employ about 800 people. He's a TV show regular. In England, he's also paparazzi bait: plenty of ink has been spilled over his messy separation from Mati Conejero, his third wife and the mother of three of his four children. His various feuds - with Gordon Ramsay; with Damien Hirst, with whom he owned a restaurant - are assiduously tracked, and when the chef is spotted with a woman his body language and wardrobe are dissected.

"Never order a single espresso," he commands. "You must order a double, even if you only drink half, because it stays warmer." I dutifully call for a double, drink the lot distractedly, then feel my heart speed as he expounds on a lobster dish that he considers a cooking pinnacle. The shellfish is briefly poached, butter is piped into the shell, the flesh is loosened, turned red side up, and gently roasted. He draws a lobster with his hands as though he might conjure one up. He waves truffle sauce on top. "And on the side, pommes purée." I am hungry again and I wish I had a stool for my handbag. "That was dinner. Nothing more. We had that much confidence," he says. "I invested all my life in every sense to be able to do that."