British chef Marco Pierre White's reputation precedes him across the Atlantic. In the U.K., he's the boy genius who earned a trio of Michelin stars by 33, put the country's cuisine on par with its francophone neighbors, and mentored both Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali. He's also the same bellicose boss who made Ramsay shed tears, ejected restaurant patrons for minor misbehavior and staged kitchen tirades involving flying pots and pans. His latest venture is hosting The Chopping Block, a new culinary reality show that debuts March 11 on NBC. The competition gives two teams of four couples the task of running neighboring restaurants in New York, and awards the winning pair $250,000 to fund their own place. TIME talked to White about sacking (aka firing) the losers, collaborative cooking, and the inherent romance of food. (See the top 10 food trends of the year.)
What's your role as judge? Are you a provocateur or are you there to educate?
Everything I do is about inspiration. You have to inspire people to want to do it. And let's be honest. You can't teach anyone how to cook. All you can do is inspire them to want to cook. (See pictures of what the world eats.)
You're known for a certain candor in the kitchen, but you've also described yourself as being very big-hearted. How did you find it to interact with the contestants?
Firstly, I'm there to do a job. When it comes to that moment of sacking somebody, then I have to make my decision, and my decision has to be born out of pure judgment; nothing to do with emotion.
By being as objective about the food as you can be?
In life, we don't necessarily like everybody, but we have to respect people. The reality is, the people you might not warm to are actually harder working. Or are actually more talented. So sometimes you have to sack people you like. You can't allow emotions into your judgment. You're playing with peoples' lives otherwise. And you can't do that. These people have stepped onto that stage to try and turn their dream into reality.
Reality shows are awash with the 'mean judge type,' but it sounds like you have a strong sense of empathy with the contestants.
As I said to them, they can all walk off winners. Even if you're the first to be sacked, you can still walk down the road with your head high. You did your best. So when the time to sack someone arrives, I've got to do my job. They all know the rules.
What are you looking for in a chef?
I'm looking for somebody who will put every ounce of energy they have into making that restaurant a success. They may not necessarily be the most talented. But do they really want a restaurant? It's as simple as that. There are many talents a person requires to run a successful restaurant. It's not all about food and service. There are a lot of restaurants that serve good food, and there are a lot of restaurants that serve people. But they don't all survive, do they?
But isn't there a presumption that the contestants have a high base level of skill.
I met 10 couples, who turned up on the stage of Chopping Block with a dream. And that dream was to win a restaurant. There are a lot of people out there who've run very successful restaurants who don't know how to cook. There's more to a restaurant than a plate of food, my love. And when you give someone a restaurant as a prize, it's not just a prize, it's a responsibility.
And you want to see these restaurants succeed.
I want to see the restaurant succeed; I want to see these people develop. Let's be honest. Is your favorite restaurant Michelin starred? Is your favorite restaurant a gastronomic temple? (See the latest edible goods from the annual Fancy Food Show.)
My favorite restaurant serves hot dogs.
So it's not all about food, is it?
The team setup is unique in this showhas this collaborative approach been a big part of your career?
The one thing that never dates within our industry is romance. And there's nothing nicer than going to a restaurant which is family-run, cause it's almost like an extension of your front room. You're looked after. It may not have the best service; it may not have best food. But they give you a wonderful evening, and they make you feel very special and very loved.
What restaurants make you feel that way?
I go to see Nancy Lam [who owns London restaurant Enak Enak] where her husband works in the kitchen, she works in the kitchen out front, her three daughters work in the front of the house. I've watched the little girls grow up in the restaurant with their mum and dad. It's one of my favorite restaurants.
And in New York?
My favorite restaurants in New York are run by Mario Batali. He finds that balance between formality and informality. Even Del Posto still has that feel of a family run restaurant. It hasn't got the snobbery of most Michelin-starred restaurants. They don't patronize you. They don't dictate to you. Nothing's too much trouble to them. It's like stepping into a warm bath and watching your toes curl. (See 10 things to do in New York City.)
That's quite romantic.
Remember, I'm ruled by romance. And the problem with the great modern-day restaurants is that they tend to lack romance. They force you down this roadyou're having the tasting menu. They tell you what you're eating, they tell you how to eat it, they dictate to you, they patronize you. That's not about eating. You sit down at a table with the people you love. With your family. You break bread, you drink wine. You grow old slowly. As they say in France, you never grow old around the table.