Marco Pierre White
Chef, single, 51
When I was 31 years old, I was in the kitchen one day and this voice came into my head. "Marco, who was your mother?" I couldn't dispel it. So I started to call my father so he could tell me about my mum, Maria-Rosa, who died [at home, of a brain haemorrhage] when I was six years old. But I put the phone down because he had always chosen not to speak about her and I felt all he would do was say, "Your mother was a wonderful person", and I'd learn nothing.
What I decided to do was write down every memory I had of her, and then I dissected every single memory: memories of the two months we'd spend every summer in Italy, of her always checking the fireplace for fallen birds before lighting it, of feeding us warm fruit straight from the tree, of making us patchwork quilts and toys and clothes.
When I started to get an understanding of who my mother was, I realised that I was my mother's son, in that I am soft and gentle and romantic and sensitive. I also realised that I wasn't that hard man that my father [Frank, a chef] had programmed me to be from the ages of six to 16 - years when he brought me up alone, years where it wasn't easy being born to an Italian mother in the 1960s in a Leeds [northern England] council estate and being persecuted.
After this, my food changed overnight, and ever since I've walked down the road to self-discovery, aided by the knowledge that the emotional impact she had on me was enormous. My father's teachings about getting straight back up after you've been knocked down helped me survive the top kitchens I worked in as an apprentice, but the insecurity and pain I carried over my mother's death was what drove me to achieve three Michelin stars [by the age of 33], and by achieving those three stars I built my monument to my mother.
Every young man should build a monument to his mother, no matter how big or small. That said, I would have preferred to have kept my mother and continued to live on a Leeds council estate and live a simple life, rather than being given the life I've been given because of the tragedy that happened to me as a young man. But I never had that choice.
I believe in romance and I've been in love before, but I've never discovered true love. That's when two people share the same dream. I have been married three times - I believe in the institution of marriage - but the bottom line is, romantically, all I've ever tried to do in life is to rebuild what was taken away from me as a child. That is my understanding of all my failings in that [marriage] department. It's a realisation that I've had in the past couple of years. Like everyone, I am a product of my past. If you want to improve as a person, you have to apply understanding to your failings. It took me a long time to grow up. I should have worn short trousers until I was 48 years old.
This self-reflection has assisted me in being a good father, and that's one thing I work very hard at. Through my four children [three of whom are from White's third marriage to Matilde Conejero], I've learnt a lot about myself as well. They enrich my life and have made me a better person, my sons [Luciano and Marco jnr], my two daughters. My elder daughter Leticia [23, from White's first marriage] is an apprentice tailor in Mayfair in London and she's really enjoying her work. She reminds me of my dear mother making clothes for us. It's extraordinary, really. The other, Mirabelle, is 11, now doing full-time ballet, five days a week. I am overprotective at times with my children - too gentle, too spoiling, too protective. But that's me. Maybe I am that person because it wasn't my experience in childhood.
When I think about my mother, my daughters, my female friends, who in strange and peculiar ways have been like surrogate mothers to me, I think women are the greater species in the sense they tend to be punctual, more sensitive, more romantic, more loving. They tend to be cleverer than we are, they don't tend to take shortcuts like we do in order to get to the top quickly. They are the tortoises, we are the hares. It's probably a bit of nature and a bit of socialisation.
When it comes to chefs, women have better palates than men, a better sense of smell. They are way more talented and creative and their presence brings a calmness to a kitchen. I also think women have a greater capacity when it comes to giving. And cooking is all about giving. You look at a chef's plate and it gives you a good insight into who that person is.
Marco Pierre White is a guest judge on Network Ten's Masterchef: The Professionals.