Marco Pierre White, the Godfather of Gastronomy, feeds Liz Hamson some Bernard Matthews turkey steak and talks about his new passion for the masses

Talk about unnerving. I knew that sampling the new Marco Pierre White range for Bernard Matthews was on the cards before my interview.

I also knew the godfather of modern gastronomy could be difficult with anyone who offended him, intentionally or not. So when a turkey steak is delivered to the table and White cuts a chunk off, pops it on a fork and, holding it aloft, reaches across the table to offer it to me, it is mildly alarming, not to mention surreal. Just what is the etiquette when a former three-Michelin-star chef tries to feed you a piece of mass-manufactured turkey?

Thankfully, he’s not interested in how I eat it (he lets me take the fork, neatly sidestepping any potential for embarrassment), simply that I do and that I like it. And you know what? It’s more midweek dinner than Michelin winner, but it tastes good.

More importantly, it is affordable to the masses as well as the well-heeled few the new six-strong range launched in Sainsbury’s in January and rolls out to other supermarkets this month and that, claims White, is what he’s all about these days.

It is now a year since Bernard Matthews Farms announced it had signed up the mercurial Marco as its brand ambassador. Having already become the face of Knorr Stock Pots and endorsed Glorious (the soup brand cut its ties with White last summer), the man who famously handed back his three stars in 1999, after becoming the youngest chef and first British one to win them, had surprised the establishment once again.

Indeed, his association with the company behind the infamous Turkey Twizzler was too much for some to take, eliciting snorts of derision and cries of “sell out” especially when he declared that Bernard Matthews was “without question one of the great farmers of the last five decades”.

“He’s having us on, of course,” food writer Rose Prince wrote archly in The Telegraph. Only he wasn’t, as becomes clear in an enlightening if occasionally grandstanding interview at Wheeler’s of St James’s.

“I am very proud to work with Bernard Matthews… really proud,” he proclaims, sparking up the first of several Marlboro Reds (the restaurant, needless to say, is closed). “Someone asked me: Marco, if you could have a pint and a pie with anybody, who’d that be with? And I said, I have to ask myself the most obvious question first. Who would like to have a pint and a pie with me? Then I answered that question: Bernard Matthews.”

We’ll never know whether Matthews would have enjoyed a jar with White “because sadly I never met the great man even though I worked for his company” but the chef’s respect for him is genuine. “His great achievement was that he made turkey affordable for every family in this country on the most important family day of the year,” he says. “Had it not been for Bernard Matthews, I may not have had a turkey as a child on my Christmas table.”

Throughout the interview, White paints a picture of an almost Dickensian childhood, an impression accentuated by his slightly formal and highly distinctive diction (the product of having left Yorkshire at 19 for the rarefied surrounds of Chelsea).

But any linguistic mannerisms belie the pride in his roots. Memories of his childhood, his humble background and the single-most significant event in his life the death of his Italian mother when he was six inform his whole world view. So he’s inclined to get irritated when people like Prince, who come from a more privileged background, criticise him.

“By attacking me, they attack the consumer, and every employee of Bernard Matthews who works hard for their money, who works hard to put a roof over their family’s heads, to put food on their family’s table and shoes on their family’s feet. My father was a cook. I was brought up on a council estate. It’s very easy when you’re the daughter of a lord to adopt a stance of snobbery.”

One thing White says he’s never been is a food snob. That would be to betray his background, he says, reciting something his mother used to tell him as a boy: “A tree without roots is just a piece of wood.” He even claims that his work with the likes of Bernard Matthews and Unilever means more to him than his achievements as a Michelin-starred chef. “It is far more important than the three stars I earned, because I touch more people,” he contends.

“I cooked for strangers when I had three stars because I was so expensive. What’s important for me now is to create a product that is affordable, delicious but also assists mums and dads at home who may not have a lot of technical ability and wish to feed their children well. It’s easy, affordable, full of flavour and aspirational. Why shouldn’t the working man be aspirational?”

If people misunderstand him, so be it, he says. It was ever thus. “They condemned me as a young man for being controversial, for being an enfant terrible. I was never controversial. I was never an enfant terrible. I always put foundation behind everything I did.”

And the new range certainly has that the toppings don’t just add flavour, they stop the meat drying out during cooking. That’s because he did his homework first, he says. “Before I created it, I looked at every other item on the supermarket shelves and cooked them and ate them. This might not be the most appetising to look at, but it does taste the best.” To suggest he’s in it purely for the money, one realises, would be a mistake.

White’s main interest has always been in understanding the rules so he can break or bend them. Where he used to focus on reinventing and more often than not improving classic French dishes, he’s now trying to do the same with mass-market food, which is what makes him different from his rivals, and why he balks at the phrase used to collectively describe him and his peers.

“I don’t like the celebrity chef label, because I think what I achieved as a cook was a little bit more than celebrity. If you’re going to label me, then label me a revolutionary. Because if I cast my mind back, what did I do really? I challenged the establishment, that’s what I did.”

Where many of the current crop of celeb chefs seem to have aligned themselves to particular supermarkets and there are few who aren’t campaigning for something White is more interested in manufacturing: in giving people something to eat rather than telling them what to eat.

“Because I came from humble beginnings, you know something? I really like feeding the people. I never attack modern day farming methods because it allows people who don’t have a lot of money to have options. I go to Bernard Matthews farms, I see free-range, I see normal turkeys, they’re happy birds, trust me, they’re hotels for turkeys.

“I’m very happy to stand up and fight for companies like Bernard Matthews because I think they do a fantastic job and deliver great products at a price point people can afford.”

He has a similarly benign view of the supermarkets. “What they do fantastically well is deliver options at a price point. I like supermarkets.”

Which supermarkets he won’t say. He claims to shop at all of them (although don’t expect to seem him at a discounter any time soon. “Who’s Aldi?” he asks when I mention it in passing). And he won’t be drawn into negative comments about their relationships with suppliers. “When you deal with supermarkets, you’re dealing with a numbers game,” he says simply. “Let’s be honest, every supplier has the option of whether they put their products on shelves so they can’t complain. If it wasn’t for these big corporates, food would be a lot more expensive and my vote has to go with the people.”

White reveals he’s already worked on his next range. He’s also featuring in a new TV ad for Bernard Matthews with Martin Kemp, as well as a mobile phone ad for Unilever’s new Rich Beef Stock Pot from Knorr, and last week, he launched a new beer, The Governor, that he hopes will win off-trade as well as on-trade listings.

Who could have foreseen that the Michelin chef would one day be working so extensively at the other end of the gastronomic spectrum and proclaiming himself “happier doing what I am doing now than I have ever been”? Actually, White himself could have predicted it. As he says: “I’ve always swum by myself. I’ve never shoaled.”

He’s also different things to different people. To his kids he’s “the fat boy from Leeds”, he jokes. Others think of him as the best chef Britain has ever produced. Some may one day remember him for what he’s doing now. For White, though, it doesn’t matter: cooking for the elite and cooking for the masses are two sides of the same coin. “I’ve always had a romantic approach. I don’t stand up to be a purist. A purist is someone who campaigns and preaches. A romanticist is someone who feeds people and inspires people.”

White recalls that one of his first mentors, Mr Reid of the Box Tree in Ilkley, Yorkshire, used to say: “‘It doesn’t matter what it costs as long as it has the desired effect.’ That was at a two-star level but I think if you can take that philosophy but make it affordable, that’s genius.”

And genius, you won’t be surprised to learn, is White’s favourite word.

Marco on…

…his favourite food brands
Let’s be honest, we all love Heinz tomato soup. I’m a big fan of salad cream. I like Branston pickle on my tinned corned beef in a sandwich.

…Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
What I like about his shows is that he inspires people to have a go. But his views of supermarkets are very different from mine. I went to a state school. I wasn’t schooled at Eton. And I’ve never been a campaigner. If you’re a cook with great knowledge, you don’t have to campaign.

…sous vide
The problem with sous vide is that we never liked it in the 70s, did we, when it was called boil in the bag?

The domestic cook on the whole is scared of seasoning in their pan, but they’re not scared of seasoning on their plates.

…how to behave as a chef
I wear my chef’s whites with pride. I don’t scream. I don’t shout, I don’t swear. I’m a representative of the old world of gastronomy that I came from. I work very hard. If you look at my apron at the end of the night, it’s dirtier than everybody else’s.

…criticism from other celebrity chefs
By saying what they said about me, they give greater insight into who they are than myself. The old culinary establishment It was quite interesting how they ganged up on me and pretended to be my friends.

I think what they couldn’t cope with was that I’d been their pupil and I think they were rather envious that the spotlight went on to me and not them, and I could understand that in a way. They’d worked all their lives, they were in their fifties and were not being given the recognition even though they’d won stars.

…the current culinary establishment
I admire it all because if it wasn’t for all those small little pieces we wouldn’t have a beautiful jigsaw. It attracts a lot of people who’ve suffered tragedy as children.