[dropcap size=small]M[/dropcap]arco Pierre White doesn’t do things in half measures. While celebrity chefs pencil in annual visits to their overseas outposts or pick out plates from catalogues, the British restaurateur spent the last four years knee-deep in the restoration of two derelict shophouses into The English House his personal love letter to Singapore’s old-world heritage.
By ‘deep’, we mean seeing the legendary former chef personally picking through the construction rubble side by side with restorers, chipping away at rough concrete to reveal beautiful hidden stone carvings from over 100 years ago. Him visiting shophouses all over Singapore to study their architecture. Him shipping container loads of furniture and artefacts from his personal collection Terry O’Neill black-and-white portraits; carved carousel animals by Gustave Bayol; 1960s London Underground lavatory signs; shelves from the Bristol library 1875 repurposed for the restaurant’s bar.
The result is a dizzying madcap cornucopia of kitsch and history, where nothing matches yet everything looks perfectly pulled together and real.
White has a thing about being real. Which is why he hates being called a celebrity chef, because unless you are toiling behind the stove and cooking personally for your guests you have no right to call yourself a chef, much less a celebrity. This is a man who was the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars, wrote the seminal book White Heat – considered a bible by many young chefs – and left the kitchen in 1999 and now wants nothing to do with the Michelin Guide. “They wrote to me and told me they want me to be in the guide. I told them, ‘no thank you’.”
If he doesn’t consider himself a chef now because he no longer cooks, neither does he see himself as a celebrity. “I don’t go to launches, I don’t go to anything. If you see me in the corporate world – it’s because I’m doing book signings. Or TV. I never socialise. My friends come to my home and my garden. My garden is very important to me.”
What he is now is a restaurateur, and a romantic one, at that.
“What I wanted to do is to embrace Singapore. This is an old shophouse. And you have to respect the history of it.
“I’ve been here over 30 times in the past four years – it’s almost a year of my life. I like Singapore. I like the climate and the people. It’s a garden city. That’s why we built a garden. When we open the rooms in January, it’ll be like staying in my house, not a five-star hotel.”
It seems like no expense has been spared in putting The English House together – especially after he enthusiastically takes you on a personal tour throughout the unfinished 18 rooms, testing out the plush vintage sofas he’s brought in, showing you how he expanded the space and the private garden for residents to enjoy. But he explains that when he got his first job at what was then the best restaurant in Britain called The Box Tree, “they said this to me every week: ‘It doesn’t matter, Marco, how much it cost as long as you create the desired effect’. That’s it. It’s about making people happy, creating the environment for people to create memories. I told you, I’m a romanticist.”
Even though you’re unlikely to bump into the low-profile man in his uniform of black t-shirt and jeans, he expects to be in Singapore 12 to 15 times a year – for as long as three weeks at a stretch – in between his travels and other projects that include a movie on his life to be produced by Ridley Scott and written/directed by Russell Crowe who will play the older version of White. Michael Fassbender is tipped to play a younger version of him.
While often seen as intimidating, controversial and downright scary, there’s also another version of White – one who fights for what he believes in, who worked for his three stars to gain acceptance and respect, and whose prime motivation now is “to create security for my children”.
He says, “When you’re young, you want people to like you. When you get to a certain age, you only want the people who are real, to like you, to respect you.” And if you don’t understand why he hates being called a celebrity chef, now you know.
The English House, 28 Mohamed Sultan Road. Tel: 6545-4055