Marco Pierre White on stage at a food festival in the UK in 2018 (Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

NZ chefs question Taste of Auckland headliner choice after sexist comments

To many, Marco Pierre White is a legend, but his controversial remarks in a recent interview have some New Zealand chefs questioning why the former enfant terrible has star billing at Taste of Auckland.

A celebrity chef who recently made global headlines for his sexist comments about female chefs is headlining Auckland’s biggest restaurant festival, and its organiser doesn’t seem to have a problem with his views.

Taste of Auckland, which runs at Queens Wharf for four days from Thursday, is bringing over British chef Marco Pierre White, a controversial figure hailed by many as a pioneer. As the New York Times puts it, he had his “heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was the tantrum-throwing enfant terrible of the London food world”, and was the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars. 

White, 57, who authored the influential cookbook/memoir White Heat, was already booked to come to Taste of Auckland when, in an August interview with The Irish Independent, he detailed what he believes differentiates men and women – apparently each has their share of “downsides”. The comment that received particular attention was: “The real positive with men is that men can absorb pressure better, that’s the main difference, because they are not as emotional and they don’t take things personally.

“Look at the size of some of the pans you are carrying. Can you imagine you’re a lady in the kitchen and saying: ‘Will you carry that pan for me?’

For those who have read White’s books, comments about the “way ladies are” may be familiar. But in an industry where many are working hard to overcome outdated stereotypes, rectify a significant gender imbalance, build more welcoming environments, and promote better care for mental health (while cooking everyone’s dinner), it’s not surprising that the comments were quickly called out. UK website Big Hospitality reported a slew of responses from UK chefs, the harshest calling White a “rambling dinosaur”. Another said she was “fucking sick of this shit and it is prevalent FYI, across the board”. Asma Khan, the founder of Darjeeling Express, an all-women-run restaurant in London, said the comments “reek of patriarchy”. 

“Even when he attempts to list the positives he displays his staggering, almost medieval gender bias. And basically dismisses us as neither innovators or creators,” said Khan.

Marco Pierre White opening a new restaurant in Dublin in 2013 with his (all-male, surprisingly) kitchen team (Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images)

Anecdotes about White’s behaviour are legion, including reducing his trainee Gordon Ramsay to tears, as well as dipping his gashed hand in salt, throwing cheese boards, hanging people off kitchen hooks, and carving a chef’s clothes with a knife after they complained about the heat. 

Last year, I wrote a piece questioning the male-dominated line-up of Auckland’s American Express Restaurant Month, which, like Taste of Auckland, is managed by Lemongrass Productions. Responses from the organisers cited practical barriers, but also included some encouraging comments about moving towards a more balanced and inclusive line-up, and made mention of the great women they’ve featured previously. 

Given both festivals have played host to panels and conversations looking at gender imbalance, I expected Lemongrass Productions’ managing director, Rob Eliott, to put distance between White’s statements and the festival, or argue that featuring a chef doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing him. But before I’d asked a full question, he began attempting to downplay their significance.

“The article, I think, was fairly balanced. He stated a whole bunch of reasons why women were good in the kitchen, and gave some examples of where men fall down, in his opinion. Men might be angry at that.”

Doesn’t he think it’s a bit archaic to be making gendered generalisations at all, though?

“I think it’s unnecessary to compare, however stating that there are differences between men and women I don’t think is a terrible thing. There are definitely differences between men and women and to suggest that there aren’t is ridiculous and nonsensical. Should everyone be treated equally? Yes they should, of course.

“I don’t think he tried to be statistically correct or anything like that. He wasn’t holding punches, he said things like men can be unreliable, their egos get in the way of good presentation, so I think it’s possibly off-putting to many people, whether male or female.”

When I asked if he thought White’s comments were sexist, he said, “I took particular offence to the bit where he said women are ‘more consistent than men’ and that men always let their egos get in the way.”

Eliott added that the chef represents “a particular time and place, and it’s been and it’s gone, definitely”. 

He said the decision to feature White was based on consumer research, adding that it was “obviously a big expense bringing a famous person out from the UK”.

“I think he’s an iconic figure, he helped to pave the way for chefs to become famous outside of the kitchen… He was never the angel. I don’t think anybody’s expecting that of him.”

Taste of Auckland in 2018, and Rob Eliott, managing director of the company that runs the festival, Lemongrass Productions (Photos: Supplied)

A Wellington chef I spoke to said she considered not coming to Taste of Auckland to protest Marco Pierre White being kept on the bill, but it’s also one of the few major festivals New Zealand has. She declined an interview, saying it was time men also took on some of the burden of calling out reductive and sexist attitudes.

Auckland chef Plabita Florence, formerly head chef at Kōkako, is about to open her own restaurant, Forest. She said she found it odd that so much of the festival’s marketing was based around White. “Given what he’s been saying, you’d think it might be in their best interests to at the very least address the comments and distance their organisations from that sort of talk,” she said. 

“I get that they’ve probably already paid to book him in but that doesn’t mean they need to quietly accept whatever he stands for.”

As part of Taste of Auckland, the Restaurant Association of New Zealand and food collective Eat New Zealand are hosting the Food Hui, which features an impressively progressive line-up of speakers.

Wellington chef Asher Boote, whose restaurants include Hillside Kitchen and Tinakori Bistro, is featuring on a panel with White as part of the Food Hui.

He said he brought the comments up with the organisers when they were made, and has “mixed feelings” about White’s status as an icon. He says he idolised him “to a point” early in his career. “But I wouldn’t say that it’s a modern representation of a chef.” Breaking down gendered barriers and stereotypes are a “huge” part of the way he runs his businesses, said Boote, and attracting women to cheffing is crucial for the future of the industry.

“We’re severely lacking in future staff. So to have an environment that a huge chunk of the population doesn’t want to be involved in is really silly. I personally don’t believe there’s any difference between a male and a female chef, or however you want to identify.

“I think an amazing stand would have been to say, ‘We don’t want this as part of our festival’, but the marketing department isn’t going to like that sort of approach.”

When it comes to how he runs his kitchens, Boote says “it’s about being professional”. 

“If we’re not providing an environment where people can act professionally, you can’t expect that as an end result. That means getting rid of the bravado culture that’s existed for a long time, looking at working hours, instead of putting so much pressure on people to almost achieve the impossible each day.”

Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois (Photo: Supplied)

Marisa Bidois, Restaurant Association CEO, said White will be asked about his views on gender during a panel discussion the association is running on the Sunday. 

“The fact that we’re questioning this shows that we’re growing as an industry and I think that’s a positive sign. Bringing someone like Marco over is a positive thing for the industry – it starts conversations and it starts us thinking about what we’re doing in our own businesses.”

She says she’s looking forward to having him attend the hui, as “it’s good to have these conversations and talk about these sorts of things in the industry”. 

“I think Marco perhaps needs to surround himself with more women so he can see just how resilient we are.”

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