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Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:06 am
Fergus Henderson is a man in love with meat. Since the British chef opened St John Bar and Restaurant, in 1994, he has been celebrated for his devotion to the odd bits of ordinary animals. Bone marrow and ox tongue, ducks’ hearts and calves’ brains, rolled pig spleen and roast pigeon squab: Henderson recovered these ingredients from out-of-print 1950s cookbooks and placed them at the centre of London’s fine-dining scene.
“It’s only polite to use the whole beast once you’ve knocked it on the head,” says Henderson, 48. “Nose-to-tail eating” – scoffing every part of the animal so nothing is wasted – “is not a bloodlust, testosterone-fuelled offal hunt. It’s common sense and it’s all good stuff.”
So good, in fact, that chefs, food writers and restaurateurs at the San Pellegrino Awards named St John the world’s 14th best restaurant in 2009 – the same year it was awarded a Michelin star. Four years earlier, he was awarded an MBE for his services to gastronomy.
Tall, with strong features and a splendidly ruddy face, Henderson looks like an old-fashioned English butcher. In the days before our meeting, I had been hoping he would cook me one of his signature dishes. Instead, when I arrive at his flat on a narrow cobbled street in Covent Garden, Henderson leads me straight into the kitchen and pours us both a glass of Fernet Branca. The Italian spirit is usually served as a digestif, yet it has only just turned 10am. “A cure for overindulgence. Absolutely vital,” he says, before knocking it back in one and lighting a cigarette.
Henderson and his wife Margot, who also serves nose-to-tail food at her restaurant Rochelle Canteen, inherited the property from his parents around 20 years ago. “It was calm and civilised in my folks’ period but we have battered the flat somewhat,” he says. “We have brought chaos. Domestic chaos.”
The flat is full to bursting. The kitchen feels cramped: a huge red larder stands in the centre of the room, surrounded by shelves filled with antique beer steins, metal buckets of wooden kitchen utensils and, of course, a plastic model of a pig. What space remains is filled with a table around which the family do all of their entertaining. There is no sitting room or sofa, and Henderson’s three “offspring” – aged 12, 16 and 18 – share two bedrooms. “It’s all a bit Victorian,” he says, only half-joking.
Henderson explains that in the 19th century, when Covent Garden was a “gruesome place of gin and prostitution”, a few townhouses were built on his street to try and smarten up the area. “For some reason, they were later turned into banana warehouses before being converted into flats such as this one.”
Henderson’s interest in architecture is not surprising since he almost made a career of it, studying at the Architectural Association in London for seven years. While he went out for lunch (arriving back “rather late”) his colleagues would sit at their drawing boards eating sandwiches filled with “pink-in-plastic” (Henderson’s dismissive term for supermarket meat). “That’s not going to produce any creative good in the afternoon,” he says. “It was then I wondered if architecture wasn’t quite the job for me.”
Having quit architecture, Henderson started working in kitchens. In 1986, despite his lack of training, he “borrowed” a restaurant in Covent Garden and began to cook lunch for “200 people” every weekend. This led to stints at Smith’s Restaurant, also in Covent Garden, followed by a year at The Globe in Notting Hill from 1988-1989.
The Globe closed 12 months after it had opened. “Probably for reasons of economy and fashion,” says Henderson. Undeterred, he and Margot opened a successful restaurant, The French House Dining Room, in 1992 above the French House pub in Soho, whose locals included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
In his kitchen, with the window wide open and the West End noise flooding in, Henderson holds a saucepan in one hand, while the other clasps a whisk. He vigorously stirs milk to add to our coffee until bubbles form at the edges of the pan. It is a wonderful sight. Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1998. A tremor down the left side of his body grew steadily worse, and it had become unsafe for him to work in the kitchen. He promoted his sous chef to head chef – “a big moment,” he says – and took on a more general role, overseeing the menu and teaching his chefs new dishes.
“My limbs were misbehaving terribly,” he says, and shakes and jerks his arms out in all directions by way of demonstration. “Parkinson’s, small kitchens and knives – a bit dangerous, certainly not ideal.”
Henderson underwent deep brain stimulation (DBS) in 2005, when it was a revolutionary form of treatment. In Parkinson’s disease, parts of the brain do not function properly because neurotransmitters are lacking. The surgery involves inserting a tiny electrode into the brain and a wire connects the electrode to a battery implanted in the chest, which is there to generate the electric signals necessary for stimulation.
DBS doesn’t cure the disease, and nobody quite knows how it works, but it can ease some of the symptoms. The operation must be carried out while the patient is awake, under local anaesthetic, so that their responses can be monitored.
In his typically jovial manner, Henderson describes the procedure as “quite fruity”. “First they attached a Darth Vader-type metal frame on to my head. Then they drilled a couple of holes in my skull. It’s similar to the dentist’s chair, only 100 times worse. Still, there’s some poetic justice – I’ve cooked enough brains in my time.”
Henderson’s tremor has all but disappeared since the operation, but he still deems it too risky to return to working full-time in the kitchen. “Once, as I was walking through airport security, my battery was accidentally switched off. Instantly my arms and legs were all over the place. It’s not good. That can’t happen again.”
Instead, he oversees the day-to-day running of his restaurants and St John Hotel in Soho, which he opened in 2011. There is also a cookbook planned for later this year.
Henderson and his wife talk “almost every day” about whether they should move out of their compact three-bedroom flat into somewhere bigger. A narrow corridor leads from the kitchen to the master bedroom. In one corner of this room there is a grandfather clock. And a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is crammed with art books, a nod towards his and Margot’s close friendship with many of the Young British Artists (YBAs), who became famous around the same time Henderson opened St John.
On a table by the bookshelf there is a sculpture by Sarah Lucas, godmother to one of their children. Appropriately, perhaps, it looks like a string of raw sausages. A pot of dirty paintbrushes stands next to this – not remnants of DIY activities, but a Gary Hume sculpture gifted to them by the artist. There is even a black Russian doll from the punk ballet dancer Michael Clark. “I can’t remember why he gave us that,” says Henderson.
“It’s funny how the chumminess took place. They all come to the restaurant. And chefs and artists follow the same hours – we all stay up rather late. So we built up a relationship beyond the kitchen.”
Like Henderson’s restaurants, his home is structured by exposed brick and whitewashed walls. Every space feels the same. I ask him whether this is deliberate. “Always white walls, I can never understand any other colour,” he says, as he reaches for another cigarette. “Limitation is a good thing.”
It takes Henderson several minutes to pick his favourite item. “The washing machine?” he says. It looks very old and might not photograph very well, I reply.
“Hmmm. Maybe a James Bond book. Bond eats very well. I think he’s vital reading for any chef.” But he decides against it and nominates a wooden spurtle instead.
“They are beautiful objects. Designed just to stir porridge, they know exactly what they’re doing. I feel good when I stir something with a spurtle, but I don’t make porridge very much in London. I find that it does you in. It’s fine if you’re about to leap into the freezing sea, but it would be too filling for me. Porridge and the urban lifestyle don’t mix well.
“It reminds me of the Hebrides, where we [the family] spend a few weeks each year for my birthday. I don’t know who gave me this one – I get a lot of spurtles for my birthday – but this one is particularly dainty.”
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