St John Hotel
He is, in my opinion, the most influential British chef of his generation. And, next month, just off Leicester Square, Fergus Henderson will put a fresh imprint of his distinctive culinary style on to the streets of London.
In February the builders will move out of what was for many years Manzi’s seafood restaurant – scene, in 1981, of my first interview with my future mother-in-law. The St John Hotel (in which I must declare an interest, since our son has acted as a project manager) will finally emerge. It will include a bar, restaurant and 15 white, compact bedrooms. It faces directly on to London’s first W Hotel, also due to open in February, with its restaurant, Spice Market, inspired by New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Henderson’s new menu will be radically different from St John in Smithfield and St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields (his other outpost is the St John Bakery in Bermondsey, source of the finest sourdough bread, Eccles cakes and doughnuts). Henderson creates “recipes for buildings”, as he puts it modestly, so each site’s history is reflected in the food.
The original St John, for example, is located in a former smokehouse, and focuses heartily on meat and offal. The new hotel will not just reveal for the first time Henderson’s take on breakfast (assisted by his accomplished baker Justin Piers Gellatly) but also give a nod to the many dim sum restaurants that surround it. Years of R&D have gone into creating St John’s own breakfast bun, sweeter than a croissant apparently, while sweet and savoury buns, filled variously with chocolate, prunes and anchovies, will grace the hotel’s afternoon-tea menu.
Considerable as these achievements are, Henderson’s influence has extended so far beyond the walls of his own restaurants that he now deserves his own blue plaque for the culinary wisdom he has instilled.
Henderson believes that the chef must use seasonal produce of the highest quality and waste as little as possible. His menu descriptions are brief, no more than four words, and free from pretension. Many young chefs, whom Henderson encourages as “ripening fruit”, have followed his approach and boosted their confidence as a result.
My idea of a blue plaque, a particularly British tradition, would need the approval of the mayor of Paris. Because the requisite wall would be outside Le Rubis in the Rue du Marché Saint-Honoré.
Le Rubis, a wine bar with a small restaurant on the first floor, is where Henderson fell in love with the obvious joy good food and wine can impart, when he was first drawn there 30 years ago as a student at the Architectural Association. He returned on his honeymoon and according to Margot, his wife, firmly raising her eyebrows, “we spent every single lunchtime there”.
Although the owners of Le Rubis have changed, staggeringly little else has. The paint is still yellow, the chairs red. Maps of French vineyards, black-and-white photos and menus paper the walls; the bar is crowded, particularly in the evenings as the prices are very reasonable, and regular customers are nodded towards tables that are about to become vacant. Food is simple and hearty.
But as much as what he ate and drank at Le Rubis, it was the principles it imbued in Henderson that have defined his career. It planted in him, he told me, a sense of pleasure; of the need to treat all customers equally; and the realisation that pretension and quality are not bedfellows. “It was here,” Henderson explained, “that I learnt the art of sitting and eating.”
The Mayor of Paris may be accommodating because two chefs who trained under Henderson in London have recently opened Le Bal Café. And Parisians seem to love it.
Anna Trattles and Alice Quillet are in the kitchen of Le Bal Café while the latter’s husband, Anselme Blayney, and Ivan Kouzmine manage the tables. The dishes – smoked eel with pickles, a lamb shank with turnips and a lemon buttermilk pudding – are bereft of adjectives but stuffed with flavour.
Henderson would be very proud. As England should be of him.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
St John Hotel
10 Rue du Marché Saint-Honoré, 75001, 00 33 1 4261 0334
Le Bal Café
6 impasse de la Défense, 75018, 00 33 1 4470 7551; le-bal.fr