Chef Fergus Henderson: ‘fashion and food don’t go hand in hand’
When I arrive at St John for lunch with Fergus Henderson, it is 12.30pm on a Monday, the most bread-and-butter day of the week. I’ve walked to the famous “nose to tail” restaurant through the coolness of London’s Smithfield Market, where meat has been traded in one form or other (dead or alive) since the 12th century. Smithfield did some pretty hard medieval partying — jousting, drinking and cutting up traitors — and, centuries later, it still has a faintly hungover air. There is a similar mood as I enter the old smokehouse on St John Street, as if a punishing grade of gluttony was achieved at the weekend.
Henderson is already planted at the bar, half his considerable gravity leaning into the zinc counter, the other on to a walking stick. “So, this interview is ‘Have A Lunch With Fergus’,” he summarises thoughtfully after our hellos, in a soft smoker’s voice that emits from small, mischievous lips. “Would you like a glass of champagne to prepare yourself?” he asks, as if this would be a prudent thing to do.
The dining philosophy of St John, now in its 25th year of business, is a belief in food and drink’s ability to enact subtle and sometimes vital changes of spirit — to be “nutriment that feeds the mind”, as Jonathan Swift put it — but also riotously good fun, as per medieval tradition. Henderson once told me that a tomato salad “saved his life” during a gastronomic exploration of Barcelona with his sister; today he recalls an “epiphany” that came via a glass of potent Armagnac. Eating well is partly ordering well, and knowing what you need.
As befits his size, Henderson is very much a chef’s chef, revered globally by industry peers for his simple but irresistible language of British ingredients, which he pursued at a time when most professional kitchens were more intent on dicing carrots. His childhood household, living in 1970s Chelsea and then Soho, valued the power of the dinner table to knit a family together: “Both my parents were my education in food,” he says. “Mum taught me how to cook, dad taught me how to eat.”
When Henderson decided to quit architecture, his parents’ profession, after studying at the Architectural Association, his father gave his blessing, on one condition: “Dad said, ‘If you’re going to be a chef, be a good one’. I think I’ve turned out to be an OK one.”
“OK” is a modest report from the man who arguably rescued British meat from the lowly rank it had sunk to by the 1990s, sliced at lacklustre roast dinners in pubs and carveries, or sold cheaply at supermarkets via impersonal, industrial farms. Against this backdrop, St John’s credo of “nose to tail” eating became fashionable for its novelty, daring the customer to try trotter paste on toast or pig’s head pie, and to appreciate what would otherwise go to waste.
“My hope is that St John is an institution, in the good sense of the word,” he says as we move into the dining room, gathering up the champagne. “Like a chemist or a cinema, something you need. Feeding you, watering you and dining you.” Glancing around, I see signs of an orderly institution at work, from the note on the menu reminding customers to order whole suckling pig a week in advance, to the waiters shuttling discreetly between tables in white drill jackets. Though he is the “face” of the enterprise, Henderson keeps a low profile. “I’m fairly Teflon to fame,” he says. “Fooo, fooo!” he adds, gesturing something flying over his head.
We are among the first customers to sit down and unfold our napkins. Henderson’s speech is at times hard to make out, the result of early onset Parkinson’s and its deep-brain implant treatment — so for clearer acoustics we sit side by side, as if banqueting. He says his consultant is “pleased with him” for his current bill of health, and he has a healthy, tanned look from a week at a friend’s villa in Greece, a holiday he describes as: “a nice pool . . . boats . . . grilled fish . . . roast kid. All the things.” Lunch, he says as we study the menu, is “very much my favourite meal. Lunch is a wonderful thing. The strange thing is the more people tut over [a long] lunch, the more delicious. The more tuts the better.”
A waiter brings warm sliced bread and a pat of yolk-coloured butter, and I decide it’s a good idea to let Henderson order for us: the crayfish and aioli special, deep-fried salt cod to share, then brill, roast Tamworth, broad beans, potatoes and greens, a bottle of Trimbach pinot noir and an ice bucket. “Now we can relax,” he says confidently. When I tell him that FT readers frequently bemoan the increasing sobriety of the “Have a Lunch with . . . ” encounters, his face brightens with delight. “Let’s give the readers what they want,” he says, as the Trimbach arrives and is poured.
Henderson likes to eat here almost every day, “which is a good thing and a bad thing. Bad for my tummy. It’s bigger than I wish it was.” When I ask if this is inevitable, there’s a flash of spikiness. “You’re not saying our food is unhealthy?” he says defensively, and I find myself denying the accusation, even if the St John diet might be hard on the waistline. We discuss the rise of the vegans, and he says he has no objections, other than “the smugness”. “How do you tell someone is a vegan?” he asks. Answer: “They tell you.” This is a stock Fergus joke, but he chuckles gently at it, and adds, “We always have something vegan up our sleeve on the menu. Many vegans say we’re their favourite restaurant.”
Henderson’s daily presence is a form of quality control now that Parkinson’s has separated him from the kitchen. The menu changes twice a day, and he keeps an eye on its delivery. “It’s hard for chefs if menus change all the time, but it keeps you on your toes. St John is nature-led. Runner beans come in, fish changes all the time [from boats off the east coast], nature starts hurling birds at us. Nature and time are sort of the two things that have affected us ever since we began.”
St John Smithfield
26 St John St, London EC1
Salt cod £11.80
Roast Tamworth £25.50
Sorbet and vodka £8
Madeleines (1/2 dozen) £5
Bottle Trimbach Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 £55
Bottle sparkling water £3.25
Total (inc tip) £177.25
We discuss St John’s longevity, a quarter of a century being an almost freakishly long stint in London’s restaurant world. Resistance to passing fads has helped, he says. “Fashion and food don’t go hand in hand. Fashion doesn’t do you any good, eating-wise. Watch out for Gucci food. Something’s wrong with it.”
St John moved to this address after a successful run at the French House, a one-room restaurant above a pub in Soho, where Henderson cooked alongside his chef wife Margot. Before that, he cooked at the Globe dive bar in Notting Hill, where Lucian Freud was a regular and goat’s neck soup was a staple of the menu, a dish that the owner promised his customers would make them “go all night”. The new digs on St John Street were covered in pork fat and smoke, but “One look at it, I was sold. That was that.” Margot stayed at the French House, and he says “she still feels rather hard done by. She was having babies at the time.” I ask if they argue about whether food remains a boys’ club. “I wouldn’t argue with Margot,” is his response.
St John has managed to keep its trotters dry as a resilient operator, with additional revenue from a wholesale bakery, a second restaurant, St John Bread & Wine (located near Spitalfields Market; a third opened and closed in Bermondsey), plus a winery in the Minervois, which is overseen by Henderson’s business partner Trevor Gulliver. The winery is particularly “reassuring” when he considers what Brexit could do to wine prices. “Brexit is terrible. It’s like some hellish creature has been unleashed. Mr Boris. But we got what we deserved. It’s a sad business.” (He concedes one point of admiration: “Boris is very good on green issues.”)
A rare mis-step came in 2011, when the St John group gathered new investors and headed into the hotel business, opening a hotel-restaurant version of St John on the edge of London’s Leicester Square that imploded after a year. “Covent Garden, yes,” he says wearily. “What happens when you try to grow too quickly? There lies trouble.”
He moves the conversation on to a more recent collapse, that of Jamie Oliver’s casual restaurant chain, Jamie’s Italian. “I feel very sorry for him. He’s a very nice chap. Patisserie Valerie is worse — I used to love eating there on Old Compton Street. Now, all gone. London seems to have encouraged these large chains. It’s money-led. Why would you want a huge chain of restaurants?”
Henderson says St John is no longer wooed for expansion. “I don’t think anyone’s really interested in us now. We’re not anonymous restaurants. We’re personality-led. It’s quite nice, as it makes us very unapproachable.”
The crayfish arrive, fat and livid red, next to the deep-fried salt cod with ketchup; two opposite levels of dexterity are required for eating, crayfish not being the easiest things to shell.
If he doesn’t attract investment, personality goes a long way, with “Fergus” attracting cultish fans from Japan and the US, and forging friendships with people such as the late Anthony Bourdain. The two men were “great chums”, he says, and Bourdain’s suicide last year was “really sad. I hadn’t really seen a dark side to him, he was very jolly, always . . . I was in France at the winery, and within minutes of [the news], the BBC got in touch with me,” he says, blinking at the memory.
The waiter comes to take away the starters; a cod fritter remains, but Henderson holds off: “I’m done.” As a dining companion, he is as guarded as he is generous, and there are zones of mumbled storytelling where the tape doesn’t help on replay. One anecdote is about an attempted lunch in Paris, featuring a man with Tourette’s, an argument over Beaujolais nouveau, and a waitress who preferred to seat the sweary customer over the starry chef. “That exchange would never happen in this country,” he concludes, and I am none the wiser about exactly what happened.
For every hard-to-follow story, there’s another delivered with fully lit clarity. Take his favourite meals in Paris. Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée was “extremely brilliant, which annoyed me as I thought there must be a flaw somewhere, but there was none. The only flaw was one of the waiters put the wrong sauce on — the other waiters looked at him with daggers. He ran out into the kitchen and was never seen again.” The dish in question was “a cream reduction of langoustines and a ghost of a langoustine fillet, gentle and seductive. It went on like that for hours, it was such a treat.”
As a child, he was impressed by the regal interior of Le Grand Véfour, which he was taken to by his late father. “It’s really beautiful. I can be swayed by the look of a restaurant. We had soufflé of frogs’ legs. It was good. I can’t remember the middle course. For pudding, he said, ‘You choose the wine’. I was 10 or something, and I went to the end of the list and said ‘Yquem’. My old man was very generous and said, ‘Ah, perfect, son’.” He laughs heartily.
Our main courses arrive and Henderson seizes a fork to prod a broad bean. “Hmmm, quite firm”, he says, satisfied that the veg hasn’t been overcooked. He fillets the brill and serves up a plate for me. “The menus are quite clipped, which is a good thing. I’m wary of 18 courses. But it’s strange that’s the way forward now at places like Noma.”
The dining room has taken on a pleasant low hum of conversation as the tables fill up. Though he’s no longer at the stove, he does still issue corrections to service, and he also offers reading lists to his staff. Among the recommended titles is Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. “The captain must be everyone’s friend, but keep a distance.”
Henderson has mercurial literary tastes, saying that he “always wanted to write a spy story” himself. He skims over the plot: it starts in the Suez Canal, then “goes to Chernobyl”, before finishing with the disappearance of wine in Bordeaux. “Chernobyl is essential as [the spies] need it as background to cover their manoeuvres. That reminds me — I’m more of a chef than a writer,” he offers, as I look at him, perplexed.
Modern chefs are showy, televisual creatures, adept at Instagram, whereas Henderson admits he is “quite shy really. Shyness is underrated.” This said, he is unerringly sociable. “I’m hopeless at being by myself, I hate it.” His limit for solitude is “a plane journey or a train journey, an hour and a half. It’s a weakness. It’s a shallow side of me.” By this point we have finished the meat and are crunching through delicious crackling. “As long as I know [crunch] there’s someone around the corner, it’s OK.”
The plates are cleared and we consider pudding. Anxious to deliver on FT readers’ wishes, Henderson advises the peach sorbet and Russian vodka, with a half dozen madeleines. I recall a conversation from a few years back in which Henderson raised the strange spectre of a Los Angeles branch of St John. What, I ask, happened to that plan?
He crumples his forehead. “It hasn’t totally gone away. Which I’m not thrilled about. If I say it, it sounds real . . . ” The proposed St John LA (since confirmed after our lunch to open in 2020) turns out to be in a shopping centre in trendy but business-y Culver City. “It’s meant to be the hottest spot for the young minds.” In a hammy accent, he mimics a realtor talking about “steaks this big” with hand gestures indicating something silly and mammoth. Relenting slightly, he goes on to praise California’s “exceptional” ingredients. Like what? “Mulberries,” apparently.
The sorbet is sharp, swimming in a cocktail glass of vodka. I take a few spoonfuls but still have an array of drinks on the table. “Do what you can,” Henderson says with avuncular care. I believe that lunch is now more or less finished, but he suggests we have a digestif. Fine, I say, not wholly sure of my stamina.
It definitely turns out to be a stretch when Henderson says he wants to go to the Groucho, in his boyhood heartland of Soho. We head to the private members’ club in a taxi, and Henderson is greeted at the door like a part-owner (he isn’t). He orders more champagne on the cramped terrace and lights up a Marlboro Red from a packet covered with Greek health warnings. We talk a bit about the “strangeness” of being in business with the same person for decades on end and it feels as if the shorter his statements, the more truthful — “tricky” he says, by way of emphasis.
Now, with about four hours on the lunch clock, I really do need to get back to the office. I make to say my goodbyes, a touch guilty to be leaving Henderson on his own, but presumably not for long. “I can’t eat if I’m alone,” he says. “I have no interest. One bite of toast, that’s it.” A good thing it’s nearly dinner time.
Natalie Whittle is FT Weekend’s development editor