Fergus Henderson’s story should be familiar now, but here’s the extremely brief version: Trainee architect loves cooking, does occasional stints at a joint in Notting Hill, starts up full-time above the French House (where Polpetto now resides,) with his wife Margot, gets footfall and critical acclaim. Teams with restaurateur Trevor Gulliver and takes on his own premises in Clerkenwell, St John, to even more acclaim and fame, opens Bread and Wine, opens a bakery and now the hotel. Amidst this, Fergus contracted Parkinson’s disease, stepping out of the kitchen and eventually undergoing experimental surgery which has helped him enormously.
For me the influence of St John is a little like the influence of the Velvet Underground, it might not make a big noise to the general public, but the examples and ideology of the restaurants has trickled down and influenced every bit of food worth eating in the last ten years. Eating things that grow or reside here, in season and eating things that often get forgotten about, be it offal, marrow or sea urchins. Reviving British food traditions that have somehow got lost.
Thankfully Fergus is a much nicer person to interview than Lou Reed ever was. I caught up with him at St John HQ where he kindly offered me a glass of Fernet Branca, the herbal italian digestif and supposed hangover cure (it certainly worked for me that morning), that he swears by. Below Fergus talks in a joyous ramble that traverses sous vide, La Grande Bouffe and the perils of Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean obsession.
When you started cooking professionally you didn’t have much experience, but you had ideas. Do you think if more chefs came at cooking from this outsider’s perspective, it would result in a richer dining culture?
Well, I think there’s, yes a surprising number of chefs, who’ve come from somewhere else… it’s a sort of Gandhi theory. He came to India and saw all the problems that the Indians hadn’t seen themselves, it’s always quite good to come from another angle at something, because you can see it in another light. I trained to be an architect, I take that to food, not necessarily building towers of food but buildings that inform my feasts perhaps….[there's] not much magic in architecture these days, so I turned from architecture to food, because there’s magic in cooking. That got me going and I’ve always had my own kitchen to follow these strange thoughts. I think it’s very healthy. If you have chefs, a chef who’s worked for another chef, the ultimate master as it were there is a danger of the village idiot, perhaps idiot’s a strong word, but I’m just not sure it’s always the healthiest of things. I wouldn’t say it was bad but there’s just a risk of well….
A kind of blind devotion?
Yes, that’s not necessarily always a bad thing, but well, trends and things I’m not a fan of at all, that’s not to say that there’s not blips and moments in food, but the great moments, they’re very particular. Take sous vide cooking, I’m not a fan.
Well people say: ‘Ooh our meat it’s sort of perfectly wobbly,’ What happened to the singe? What happened to the Jedi knight of the chefs just using their forks to feel when it seems right. You feel the fillet of flesh and you bite it. Everyone’s very impressed if it goes all soft and wobbly, but if everything ends up soft and wobbly, where’s the fun in that?
It removes some passion from it somehow?
I feel so. Take Michel Bras, his cuisine. Fine in his hands but then it gets picked up by other chefs second-hand, Chinese whispers take place and it turns into something else. A lot of my chefs come from the classic system, it is very good. But it’s a fine line. There’s also a number of chefs who came to cooking from other ways. For me it wasn’t really my aim to have my own kitchen, just sort of worked out that way….seems to have worked out.
When I was in New York recently, particularly in Brooklyn, it seemed that a lot of restaurants are opening in a more DIY fashion, places with a similar attitude to your restaurants, I wondered if you thought your books and St John was more influential in American than Britain?
Possibly… yes I suppose. But there’s a danger again [of misinterpretation].
I don’t mean a carbon copy.
No, not at all in fact I’d say that they may well be doing better, much more heartfelt things than I’m doing. We seem to be big in America, I don’t like to put us on pedestals, but yes they seem to have taken on some of our ideas. Brooklyn certainly seems very happening at the moment.
It seems like people are creating places they want to eat at themselves, rather than some temple of gastronomy.
Indeed, yes it’s all good I suppose!
Where do you eat in New York?
The usual… I’m a bit of a creature of habit, so The Spotted Pig, John Dory, The Breslin, April’s [Bloomfield] food is fantastic. David Chang, Momofuku. But possibly my best moment was at the Four Seasons Hotel The restaurant is just so extraordinarily beautiful it feels so very American, the whole experience of dining there is so different. Oysters, dry martini, sculpture of spikes above us that felt like it might run us through. The best dry martini and you can have a burger at the bar. It’s a magical place, it feels… like America. I’d say foods very buoyant over there.
Do you make an effort to eat at places like Noma and other places in top restaurant of the world lists?
If one’s travelling through, I suppose one’s drawn to places like that. I’ve eaten at Noma a couple of times and it was fantastic, brilliant. Rene’s an amazing chap and both times have been delicious. One of my favourite places in Copenhagen though, was where I had black bread, pork fat, pickled herring & schnapps, it’s one of my top lunches. (likely to be a place called Schonnneman’s,)
Couple of years back I took my chefs to El Bulli, we had lunch in a place called Bar Bomba in Barcelona. The joy! and the smell of garlic & lard, everything had pork fat and garlic. And we went to El Bulli at night time and it was amazing, but Bar Bomba was also amazing. It’s very tricky how you balance these things.
So eating out still inspires you?
Definitely, all chefs should eat other people’s food. it’s good. But then there’s movies, Le Grand Bouffe, where they eat themselves to death. They kill themselves by eating too much. And it was about two weeks before we opened here, went to see this film, a Saturday afternoon. And they had these brilliant deliveries of meat to their house, and they suck on the bones and it was like kerching! Bone marrow! Which never left the menu.
Sitting in a kitchen, smashing six doubles in a row, isn’t good for you. You need to get out and live, keep your eyes open, taste buds ready and just enjoy life. That’s very informative I think. The books you read – cookbooks are very good, I used to devour books, I’ve calmed down in my old age but reading a Yugoslavian book or something, then suddenly aha! Inspiration can come from anywhere, [you must] keep your mind open.
Do you think the cooking at St John has changed since you’ve opened?
It’s probably got a bit calmer. At the beginning the menu would be a bit, it wasn’t bullish, but it was more offal. Which sometimes creeps back in, one day. It’s changed at Bread & Wine since it opened, the bones stay here. It’s calmed down. Not that it was crazy before, but with my old age. The aim wasn’t, the offal menu wasn’t a gimmick, a restaurant that looks more like a school or an abattoir, serving offal, it’s not a recipe for success at all. But now people can have heads, toes or lamb chops, It’s progressed.
How does the creative process work at the restaurants?
I have a discussion with the head chefs, ever seen a Man O’ War? those ships and the bosun, ears out, [puts on a gruff sailor voice and exclaims something I can't quite understand.] I talk to the chefs, if there’s something on my mind I’ll go into the kitchen. Sadly I’m not cooking here anymore, mainly through vanity, I’m much slower than I used to be, so I hate, it really pisses me off that I can’t do it as quickly as I used to. Which is rather sad, but there we go, I’m still here every day, so it’s not a bad lot.
They come with an idea, I have some thoughts, everyone rises to the occasion, we have an adventure.
You started doing late night at the hotel, how’s that going?
We did. We don’t anymore, occasionally we served till 12, if there were some people coming. No people don’t do that sort of thing here. I don’t know why, because in America, it’s in loads of places. It’s a mystery, we had to trim that very quickly, very unfortunate, it was a short lived experiment. Sad, because it’s lovely to be eating there late. Not to be, not to be.
Do you think if people were more connected to the whole process of an animal going from the field to the table, they would be more likely to eat nose to tail?
People are very happy with this distinction, meat in plastic, this anonymous flobby stuff. After all these people saying righteous things that’s what they’re all eating. But obviously what people are eating is what the butchers left, that’s all technique, if you want to obtain offal, you need a butcher who can do the job and there aren’t many left.
There is definitely a problem with a lack of skilled butchers
Which is sad. They’re evil, supermarkets I think, they tell people what to eat, what size it will be, give people strawberries at Christmas. And they eat it, it’s the might of the evil empire. We all go to them, buy the paper and things like that, supermarkets, they’re everywhere and they’ve got people trapped and they just tell you what to eat. It’s world of ersatz. It’s all very perfect… Fresh pasta has a three month shelf life, fresh pasta? 3-month shelf life? It doesn’t make sense. No not a fan.
They’re such a disconnection, it’s hard to see things changing on a big scale
Cow in field, steak on plate, people are slightly weird about but that’s because they’ve been trained to be.
You’re writing another book?
I am, but not another cookbook, there will be food in it, when necessary, I’m illustrating it as well. It’s a sort of… weirdy book. I’m producing a package of the old two books in a newer, glossy version. But the new book, it’s… observations, perhaps more comment than observations, a short story as well, with a happy ending.
Where are you with it?
Way off, it’s about four years overdue to the publisher. This year’s definitely the year though! Well… hopefully.
What advice would you give to someone opening a restaurant?
Why? Why are you doing it? You have to have a really good reason why, if you have a really good reason why, then do it. I love it, I’ve been here a long time and it’s all very good.
It’s more passion than business?
Yes, well someone makes money out of restaurants, there’s people you hear of, making fortunes but I haven’t seen that. But if you can explain why, you’re halfway there, you’ve just got to make it happen.
What British food traditions would you like to see more regularly observed?
The weird thing is how British food went so wrong, because there’s such fantastic short seasons – it’s really exciting when nature’s firing things at you. Just watch out for it, eat lots of it at a time and then wait till next year, there’s oysters, green asparagus, gull’s eggs, game, soft fruits it’s brilliant. In no way am I knocking her, but Elizabeth David, her Mediterranean obsession, has a lot to answer for. There’s this obsession with Mediterranean food in a country that is not warm enough for it to grow, we’re not going to have basil growing or courgettes. But we have marrow, marrow in white sauce, fantastic. The short seasons of this country are so exciting, eat lots of what’s around. In America when the ramps are out, everybody is ramps ramps ramps, ‘wahey ramps have arrived.’ In Finland the Kraftskiva, ‘wahey let’s all go crazy drink schnapps and eat crayfish,’ there’s a celebration moment. Whereas in this country it’s strawberries in December and anonymous meat all round.
Are there any ambitions you’ve yet to realise?
Let’s see, I’ve got three restaurants, that’s enough, I’m happy with that, I’ve eaten well all round the world, that’s all good, Yes, probably finishing the book, the weird book.
Has it got a title?
There’s various titles… Watch this space!