THE first time Marco-Pierre White says "I'm looking forward to spending a bit of time with you" in the promo for MasterChef: The Professionals it's quite charming. But by the fourth time it has become a threat, the catchphrase of a villain in some high-end horror movie. Silence of the Lamb's Brains Lightly Fried in Butter, perhaps.
So an invitation to lunch with the 50-year-old British chef and his Australian TV co-host Matt Preston feels a bit like a double-edged sword. The crew, I hear, has taken to calling him Hannibal, though not to his face; here's hoping I'm not on the menu, with a dish of fava beans and a lovely little chianti on the side.
When I take my seat at the table, White is already there. Standing, leaning his quite substantial frame against the back of a chair, looking somehow dishevelled and dapper at the same time in his shirt with French cuffs, his suit jacket, his jeans and his ruffled hair and crumpled face.
Preston introduces White – renowned as the Godfather of modern British cooking, a man who gained his third Michelin star at 33 and became a retiree at 38 – as a kind of rock star of the restaurant world.
"It's a bit like if I was casting The Voice and I could get Keith Richards to come on the show," Preston says. "He's someone who did it 30 years ago and is still doing it today."
White says he doesn't really like TV, but insists this show is something different. "I've worked on Hell's Kitchen, I've seen the cynicism of TV," he says. "MasterChef: The Professionals is, in my opinion, the greatest show on Earth. It's reality in the true sense. The 18 contestants are the true stars of the show, not Matt and I."
He seems genuine enough, but really that's a bit like Keef saying a Stones gig is all about the backing singers.
White isn't just a legend because his food was special. He attained that particular variety of single-name fame – he was, and is, simply "Marco" – because he wrapped it all up in one over-the-top package, complete with excesses front and back of house.
A meal at his eponymous London restaurant in the late '90s cost about £300, he tells me. "We had two women in the cloak room so no one ever had to wait for their jacket, we had a calligrapher to write the bill by hand. When you come to a temple of gastronomy it really should be so special that you feel the need to bow a little, to pay respect."
Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay passed through his kitchen, as did Shannon Bennett – whose Bistro Vue is the venue for this lunchtime gathering – and a smattering of others now plying their trade in Australia. His kitchen was the place to be, but being there wasn’t for the faint-hearted.
"I came from the old world of restaurants," says White, who is a third-generation cook. "Your chef was a very hard man, and you put your career in his hands. In one hand he had a whip, and in the other hand he had a feather. Before service he was your friend, after service he was your friend, but during service he was not very friendly."
In The Professionals, White will bring some of that old-school form to a competition in which 18 cooking professionals vie to take their food from "good" to "exceptional".
It's probable they won’t get to see much of Marco in friend mode. But like the victims in any good horror story, their loss is likely to be our gain.
MasterChef: The Professionals is shooting in Melbourne and will air on Ten in early 2013.