20 years of nose to tail dining with fergus henderson
"It's a terrible thing how much fun I have", Fergus Henderson says of his job as chef and founder of the St John restaurant. Known for his common sense attitude towards food, he's been laying his table with the essentials for fine dining for decades.
His fan base stretches from the art world to fashion scene, with friends and family and a few city boys thrown in for good measure. Amid the clank and clatter of lunch time diners i-D tucked into a haddock, bacon and mash lunch and chatted about architecture, common sense and the reaching the limits of what's edible.
Both his parents were architects, Fergus begins, "Eating at a table always featured in my life. I trained to be an architect too, you know. There are lots of similarities, architecture affects people's manner and the food you eat affects how you behave. It's about building a feast so it was definitely a message for me." His first memories evoke childhood dinning moments, "Left over suppers, cigar smoke and this musk, and I remember thinking, gosh, this is really something I want to be. I sort of learnt through my parents. I knew what I wanted to cook by the the time I got to the French House." The French House was his first major foray into forging the style of cookery that has become his signature. He met his wife Margot over a salt baked cod and together they opened the French House restaurant in the upstairs room of the legendary Soho pub. They often discuss food together, "She's not shy of expressing herself," he says with a warm glint in his eye as she pops by, making plans for a tea party Michele Lamy is planning on a barge during Frieze.
"It's a common sense thing, it's all delicious," Fergus explains of nose to tail dining, as he takes a mouthful of mash, dabs his mouth with a linen napkin and takes a glug of wine, modestly taking responsibility for our awareness of nose to tail dining. It's no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get food. "It's unfair on the customer, people sometimes find it strange that a kidney looks like a kidney." Is there a part of an animal he wouldn't use? "We do have moments when we say no - an animal's penis? No." We both have a giggle over that one as he adds, "Spleen for instance, is a wonderful well behaved organ, spleen was a surprise, or we do lamb's testicles which has a semi-granular feel to it, but an animal's penis is the place where we draw a line." Nothing else is out of bounds though, and he asks if we've tried his heart and lung soup, "The lung floats to the top and the heart sinks to the bottom. Lung's not my thing, though" he adds, "it's a bit spongy."
Fergus charmingly considers the intricacies of cookery, "I'm more like a Jedi Knight," he muses. "I feel the force, it's a very strange science. You cook as well as you can, so there's a solid base, nature is a great help. Food should be good, it shouldn't need a concept behind it. What we have here, there's no concept at all... it's just fish, meat and vegetables." So it should come as no surprise then that he carefully selects all the meats, vegetables, cheeses and wines at St Johns, "It's a terrible thing how much fun I have, coming here to work, the food arriving, friends arriving, lunch, such magical stuff... Extreme joy!" he exclaims.
"There's the theory that people who dine together stay together..." Fergus explains. Friends and family are very important to him, and yes Fergus is very social. "Gosh!" he exclaims when asked what his favourite dinner party at the restaurant has been, "Erm, my 40th birthday lunch here, it was so nice having the whole resturant full of my friends."
Often seen at openings and parties he is very much the man about town dressed in a very distinctive style. He doesn't really consider that he might even be somewhat of a style icon and looks at me quizzically over his Cutler & Gross spectacles. "I have various versions from Crockett & Jones," he says of his specs, "I don't need to change ever again! My suits?" He asks... "We had a barman Angelos who made me some suits and I just inherited my dad's wardrobe too, so that's a whole new closet to explore."
Three cheers for Fergus Henderson and all at the St John, we raise our glasses!
Text Princess Julia
Photography Patricia Niven