MARCO Pierre White is known as the sort of man to be approached with caution.

The first 'celebrity chef', his towering talent was definitely once matched by the size of his tantrums. Throwing out customers if they asked for salt and pepper, lobbing a board full of cheeses at a kitchen wall to humiliate a waiter for failing to prepare them properly and making his cooks stand in the corner if they displeased him - it was all reportedly in a day's work.

His personal life has been equally turbulent. His first marriage, when he was 26, resulted in one daughter but was short-lived, as was his second to model, Lisa Butcher, and he's separated from third wife, Mati Conejero, with whom he has three children.

Friends have turned into foes too. The severing of his relationship with his famous protege, Gordon Ramsay, was well-publicised, and he's had spats with Michel Roux, Michael Caine and Raymond Blanc, to name but a few.

Yet, White is also a man who delights in being unpredictable, and, now, he is smiling and talking about how contented and at peace he is with himself.

"I'm nearly 52 and I'm the happiest I've ever been, and feel very comfortable in my own skin," he reveals, with a broad grin and a definite twinkle in his brown eyes.

"Why is that?". He gives an expressive shrug. "Well, I'm a man. It takes us time to get to know ourselves, but as you age you start to discover yourself more, you don't get as excited about things as when you were young. You've seen so much, and you can see life for what it is. That's quite a nice place to be at."

Such contentment has long eluded White, whose early life was marred by tragedy. He was the third son of an Italian mother but she died when he was six shortly after giving birth to her fourth son. He acknowledges that losing her contributed to fuelling his drive to succeed.

"I think it goes without saying that I suffered from losing that stability at a very young age," he says. "But she was the person who influenced me the most and has helped to make me the man I am today. As a child, through her, I was exposed to beautiful things - to nature, good food, lots of love. When you lose someone like that, you hold on to the memories, they never leave you."

After leaving school at 16, without any qualifications, White trained as a commis chef under Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche and worked with superstars of the era, including Raymond Blanc.

His own hugely successful restaurant, Harvey's, opened in London in 1987 and he went on to become the youngest chef, at 33, ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. It was a stellar rise, yet a few years later, at just 38, he hung up his apron, returned his stars and left the kitchen.

It was a bold move, but one that opened the door to even wider recognition. Since then, White has regularly appeared on TV shows, including Hell's Kitchen, Marco Pierre White's Kitchen Wars and Masterchef Australia.

"Stepping away from the kitchen gave me freedom for the first time in years. Putting all your energy into food for nearly 20 years makes you institutionalised and there is little time for emotional growth," he says. "There's more to life than a plate of food. I wanted to travel the world, write books, be on TV. I had to leave the kitchen entirely because I did not want to be one of those chefs who live a lie and pretend to be there, charging diners high prices. So I decided to pluck up my courage, spend more time with my children and change my life."