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Feb / Mar 2011
Partners in Cookery

WRITER: Emily Holman

Marco Pierre White, Michelin-starred chef, demanding, known for being difficult. Frankie Dettori, one of the world’s most successful jockeys and so universally loved in the U.K. that he’s been adopted as an honorary Brit. Bespoke was curious as to what could have led them to join up.

 

White and Dettori are the unlikely partnership behind ‘Frankie’s Bar and Grill’, a successful chain of Italian family restaurants open across the UK and in Dubai.  They first joined forces in 2004. Both men are Italian, but that seems to be all they have in common — apart from their love for food.

As a jockey, Dettori fights the scale on a daily basis.  At 1m60 (he occasionally claims 1m62, which, in a gesture of generosity, we won’t dispute) he tries to keep to a tiny 54kg, and has struggled over the years with his strict dieting regime. Laxatives, low-carbs, even spurts of bulimia, Dettori has certainly gone to extremes for his vocation. He has always admitted “loving food” and his interest in cuisine was only boosted by his arrival in England twenty-seven years ago, when the British idea of what constituted pasta or spaghetti Bolognese utterly scandalised him. Consequently, in 2007 Frankie and co-author Marco Pierre White published Frankie Dettori’s Italian Family Cookbook. The bestseller, with a photo of him and his son on the cover turned Dettori into the well-loved face of the Marco-Frankie brand.

The duo have been described as a “best friend Italian team” (White’s mother was Italian), an image that Dettori has always sought to emphasise. Whenever he is asked about his notoriously bad-tempered partner, he points out how well they get on and how much they have in common.  “We’re both flamboyant Italians and a bit different. I sometimes have mad outbursts – but not as mad as Marco’s. Although I’m working on it!”

Are they so similar? Where Dettori is known for being ebullient and likeable, White’s reputation is rather more fearsome. Two stories in particular are most famed.  Once, while White was running his Michelin-starred restaurants, a customer asked if he could have a side order of chips with his lunch. White hand-cut and personally cooked the chips but charged the customer £25 (40 USD) for the privilege. More disturbingly, when a young chef complained of the heat in the kitchen of South London restaurant Harveys, White casually slashed open the back of said chef’s jacket and trousers – with a paring knife.

The mismatch with Dettori, who presented ‘Top of the Pop’s during the peak of his success and received an MBE, could hardly be more pronounced. Yet the men’s common denominator and motivator seems to be their pronounced ambition. Dettori arrived in Newmarket without knowledge of the English language in 1984; a decade later he was Champion jockey with 233 winners and, by 1996, he had made history by riding all the winners at Ascot in a single meeting. In 2000 he won the world’s richest race (the Dubai World Cup) and he crowned his achievements by winning The Derby in 2007. In a similar against-all-odds tale, White came to London in 1977 as a 16-year-old from Leeds, with no qualifications and one desire: to become a chef.  He won his first Michelin star shortly after opening his first restaurant in 1987 and, at the age of 33 went on to become the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. By 1999, however, White had tired of the world of professional cooking: he retired and returned his Michelin stars. Describing this period in 2007, he said “I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me, so what was it truly worth? I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself.”

With such different men at the helm, why does the ‘Frankie’s Bar and Grill’ brand work? It seems to be precisely the clash in characters that has made the restaurants so popular. Dettori brings warmth, the importance of family, Italian tradition; White brings sophistication, elegant food and a worldwide reputation for excellent cuisine. The London’s Knightsbridge restaurant is a perfect instance for this twofold personality. It has piped music playing in the courtyard, mirror balls hanging from the ceiling and even magicians performing tricks while you eat. The menu typically ranges from rib-eye ‘alla romana’ with snails and garlic butter or grilled poussin, to Frankie’s BLT or blue cheese burgers. White and Dettori describe their aim as good Italian food that appeals to both, kids’ sense of fun and adults’ desire for fine dining. White phrases it this way “Frankie’s ticks all the right boxes - it is about affordable glamour. I’m now in the business of selling fun for people who want to be with their family and friends.”

Selling fun is just what it’s all about. Both men thrive on the public buzz that surrounds their notorious personalities and have used it intelligently to create a commercial concept. And with each man describing the other as “flamboyant”,“eccentric” and “good at his job”, the chemistry of the partnership seems clear: each trusts the other to do his job and stick to his side of the bargain. Dettori once said that in another life he would have been a chef, opening his own restaurant. With a way of making things work out that seems characteristic of both, Dettori and his partner-in-cookery, he has managed to make it happen in this, his very different life.

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