MasterChef’s Marcus Wareing on learning from Gordon Ramsay – and why modern kitchens are too soft

As Marcus Wareing returns to the MasterChef: The Professionals kitchen for the second time, the chef argues that calm kitchens aren't necessarily good kitchens

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Marcus Wareing returns to MasterChef: The Professionals along with Monica Galetti – and this time he’s looking for a chef who can devote their life to the restaurant business.

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But why does he think kitchens have to be such tough environments? And what does he do differently to his mentor Gordon Ramsay?

What made you want to be a chef?

I grew up with food around me – my father was a fruit-and-veg merchant, my older brother is a chef and my mum was a good cook. She always had a hot meal on the table. She wasn’t the most adventurous, but it was the 70s, and it didn’t help that my father wanted everything overcooked – there was no rare meat or al dente vegetables – it was all cooked to death.

What makes a good chef?

A huge amount of sacrifice! If you want to be at the top of fine dining, if you want to be noticed, you’ve got to put in the hours, week after week, for months, years… It’s relentless. It becomes your life rather than a job.

Can you succeed without that dedication?

There are a lot of young people who work for me who mention their time off, their girlfriend, their boyfriend, this wedding, a night out, and I’m like, “No!” And I can say that because I never did it.

I grew up in Southport and started working when I was 11 years old. I would finish school at 3pm and go to the warehouse with my dad and work until 6pm. I was in a local restaurant kitchen on my weekends at 15 and I loved it.

Are all top chefs that committed?

No, and do they still succeed? Of course they do. But you can also be incredibly talented and get nowhere. I have chefs who could progress up to sous chef or head chef, but they also want a life, and that tells me they’re not going to reach the serious pinnacles of this industry.

Marcus Wareing with MasterChef: The Professionals co-host Monica Galetti

Some people love food and just decide to open their own restaurant…

That’s right – and I have to question that. It worries me when I see young chefs on MasterChef who have no classical cooking foundation, because at some point they will be exposed. If you’re in a competition, you should already know the basics. I’m not there to teach them. Although we do consider that they’re in a very unusual and difficult environment, and we’re not there to scare the life out of them.

Gordon Ramsay was your mentor. Did you enjoy mentoring young chefs?

I do now, although as a head chef at 25 I didn’t. I believed I could do it all on my own. But I’ve realised that if you start building enthusiasm around you it can be very rewarding. Giving someone constructive criticism and watching them develop is phenomenal.

What was Gordon like with you?

People ask me what working for Gordon Ramsay was like – it was hell’s kitchen – but that was because the guy cared. When someone gives you a lot of attention, drives you, pushes and prods you, but also picks you up when you’re down – you may not always like it, but it means he cares about you. And I always said that about Gordon – the tougher he is on you, the more he cares. Would I be the chef I am today without that approach? No chance.

Are you the same in your kitchen?

When I put my chef ’s jacket on it’s my uniform. I feel like a soldier in it. I press it, it’s starched and it’s respected. And I expect every chef that wears it to do exactly the same. If you don’t, take it off and get another job. Simple.

If you come into my kitchen and are disrespectful or rude, if you cook badly or I teach you something, but you do it your own way, of course you’re going to p*** me off. I’ve got a job to do. And I’ve got people paying a lot of money to eat well.

But I’m 45 now and have calmed down and matured. I’ve got three children of my own, and some days I think, “That’s someone’s daughter or son.” When I was younger, I’d have driven a bulldozer through them. Also, chefs today are looking for a calm environment.

So what’s changed?

Kitchens used to be behind closed doors. You were a second-class citizen as a cook, because it was hot, sweaty, long hours and everyone swore at each other. But then chef’s tables and open kitchens became popular and chefs have become personalities in their own right.

Do you know what chefs used to do to get noticed? They used to have a fight. How many times did you read that Gordon Ramsay had an argument with Antony Worrall-Thompson?

Wareing and Galetti with Gregg Wallace

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You had a few with Gordon, too!

I learnt from the master! The biggest master of all was Marco Pierre White. He’d come out of the kitchen [and say something] and… BOOM, and it was on the front page.

Are calmer kitchens more effective?

My chefs had better training from me then than they do now. It was unforgettable. Now, just by talking to them, they get it done, but whether it’s actually sunk in I don’t know… I don’t think so, personally, because I see the same chef make the same mistake a week later. The fear’s not there. 

Are there more women in kitchens now?

Without a doubt – because kitchens aren’t about 16-hour days any more and there is a work-life balance… They call it “refreshing”, I think it slightly interferes with everything. Some of the best chefs in my company are women – they bring a fabulous balance and an intelligent approach.

The only female chef I remember from when I was younger, who stood the test of time is Angela Hartnett (above). When she came to do a trial, Gordon said, “Right, let’s give her a job. Let’s have a sweepstake – how long will she last?” No one gave her beyond a month; I gave her two weeks. She lasted a lot longer than that! Solid girl.

Is working on television something that you’ve always wanted to do?

No! When Gordon started doing it I remember thinking he was fabulous, but I never wanted to be this big TV superstar like him – how could I compete with that? Larger than life, three Michelin stars, big empire, even bigger character. So I just got on with what I do best, run kitchens. Somehow the MasterChef producer saw something in me.

MasterChef: The Professionals returns to BBC2 tonight (Tuesday 10th November) at 8pm