January 30, 2017

Fergus Henderson (vintage edition)

(info about Fergus Henderson)

A leap of faith in the culinary world

Thomas Kieller

Cover page of the book Nose to tail eating – A kind of British cooking.

Cofounder of the restaurant St. John situated in the locality of Smithfield (near the hearth of London), Fergus and his team have put in place an establishment where the so neglected parts of the animals such as kidneys, liver and tongue take their place on the menu with the more noble products. His culinary past resides more on the traditional British cuisine. However, it’s more with a modern approach that he reveals his thoughts. He depicted it well in his first book “Nose to tail eating – A kind of British cooking” which was published in 1999 and with it he won the André Simon award for gastronomic literature. For him, it’s common sense to use the whole animal which was slaughtered. With it, you can discover a world of flavor and texture. Local and seasonal products are also important to him. In his restaurant, a lot of ingredients come from nearby. He likes to see the menu changed on a daily basis in order to follow the seasons and what the suppliers bring in fresh. It’s in a Georgian building with immaculate white walls that Fergus offers to the customer dishes which spark interest and curiosity. Now, one must relax and enjoy a good lunch.

The interview took place on September 15, 2009 at 11:00 in St. John restaurant in Smithfield, London, United Kingdom.

Prelude – Fergus arrives to the restaurant joyfully and in a relaxed manner. We take place at a table near the bar where we start our discussion while taking sips of an expresso and a Fernet-Branca.

Different ingredients, different tastes

Thomas Kieller: In St. John’s restaurant in Smithfield, you work with various ingredients. One might see dishes made from less common parts of animals such as tongue, tripe, venison heart, calf liver, roast bone marrow, etc. For some it’s scary and for others it’s exquisite. What is your philosophy behind offering these dishes to your customers?

Fergus Henderson: Unfortunately, some might find it dull, but for me it more about common sense. If you knocked an animal on the head, it is polite to use it all. Also, the culinary possibilities are huge if you go beyond the filets. There are all sorts of textures and flavours. Pigs alone can make a hell of a feast. It sounds better if you say “Nose to tail eating” which is our motto. Yes, it sounds all glamorous but if you look at the menu it’s more about common sense. It’s not there for a shock factor or blood lust. Everything is delicious. Heart is fantastic. Brains are like rich clouds. Tongues, yum! Most abdomen organs when you cook them are good. It’s just a world of deliciousness that should be explored... It has been but maybe people forgot how good it is.

Thomas: Is it important for you to discover new tastes and to be open-minded about cuisine?

Fergus: I don’t mind... Actually, most things in life are a good thing. It’s kind of sad when someone comes and does “Baaah!” or “Yuk!” at the menu. Open-minded in everything in life is a good thing.

Thomas: If you are open-minded in the cuisine maybe you will be also in other stuff?

Fergus: Well! It’s a good start certainly to be open-minded about what you’re gonna have for supper. I’m not a fan of hiding things. I’m not embarrassed. I’m happy to use it, like liver or tongue. People can make their minds up. However, a lot of people loved their meat pink and passive which they can find at their supermarkets. Besides, I find it bizarre and strange the relation we have with meat. We know where animals come from (farms and suppliers). It’s meat, don’t be embarrassed about it. Enjoy it by sorting well and use it all. Like I said, heart is just fantastic.

Thomas: Are there ingredients that even for you, it’s difficult to get used to the taste and texture?

Fergus: I have always appreciated most parts of animals. But I have to say that I’m not so crazy about lung. By nature, it’s a great sponge of oxygen. I’m not that fond about it. Also, I’m not really interested in the animal genitalia. So, there are some things I’m not in it. If there are things which are not make you going, it’s fine. I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t like everything.

I think there is a leap of faith that people have to make, for example, when they try spleen. “Spleen”, people find that strange to eat. It’s a lovely organ. It’s swelled in love. If you think about it it’s sort of a romantic organ. It’s very rich like liver.

Thomas: So even for you, you have to do sometimes a leap.

Fergus (says happily): Yes, but not too often.

Thomas: You wrote several books such as “Nose to tail eating – A kind of British cooking”. I don’t know about Great Britain, but in North America, we have a tendency to waste a lot, especially our food. What are the main subjects in this book?

Fergus: It’s a theory of when you killed an animal you go beyond just the prime cuts. If you don’t, you’re missing out on wonderful things. Well, it’s a culinary joy. It’s not swift or it’s not about saving a penny by using these pieces in a climate of recession or whatever. You should not turn to awful because of recession. You should turn to tripe because you love it with open arms. In the book, I did not sort of thought about it. Actually, in “Nose to tail eating”, I wrote down the recipes I enjoy and I feel I can claim that I had some hand in.

Thomas: Are you using this philosophy in your restaurant?

Fergus (says with humour): Food should not be about preaching, lecturing or teaching. It should be about a good lunch. That’s our aim. So, there is no theory I would serve. People will be coming in the restaurant saying: “Oh! We have seen the light.” No, it’s definitely for having a good lunch.

Thomas (laughs at the last response): Besides, you offer a menu which changed daily. A customer might find braised rabbit, lamb, langoustines, pigeon, black cuttlefish, etc. Why do you change continually the menu?

Fergus: How can you not change the menu? Nature and seasons are changing. What comes in is always changing. So, we change with it. Someone could say: “I wanted this now.” No! You have to wait.

It’s much better using the animals the farmers are killing now. If they say it’s the perfect time to have the sheep from the hill, than the menu changes consequently. Different fish come each day, so we changed that too. I was never happy with menus which remain for months.

Moreover, we have to work our way through the animal (shoulders, inners, legs, etc). It’s also practical to change the menu because of that.

Thomas: At the same time, you have more fun to do the dishes and you can surprise the customers...

Fergus: Well yes! But it’s not to surprise them. I will say delight them and thrill them. Of course, it keeps them on their toes. I imagine that if you came in the kitchen every morning, you will find the regime a bit strange. So yes, change keeps them on their toes.

Thomas: Is it important for you to do a little more to develop the British cuisine?

Fergus: The British cuisine in a way has rightly a bad reputation because we embrace Mediterranean and American food. I don’t want to sound too nationalist because why we lost our way. It’s difficult to understand... We have fantastic seasons. We can find here different products: oysters, asparagus, strawberries, game birds, etc. With these marvellous seasons, I can write the menu for you. So, I don’t know why we have to embrace the chicken Kiev or the grilled peppers.

Also, we don't have to do brown, stinking and sweet cooking, which is an ancient thing. That’s disgusting. So, here it’s not about old school British cooking. It’s about mainland British cooking. It’s cooking well for now. It’s an ongoing thing but it’s not a nationalist drive on my behalf. It seems sensible to use what we got.

Thomas: So, where do you get your ingredients?

Fergus: Well, I feel local (Britain). Most of the ingredients are from here. However, our wine is French which is not bad. The meat comes from farms. The fish come from the east coast. Vegetables seem harder to get here. On a whole, we tried to have the ingredients right here. It’s just better. Cook what is nearby and seasonal.

Moreover, when animals are slaughtered in supermarkets or in huge slaughterhouses, they go through out a journey. They are terrified and full of adrenaline. It does not make sense. We know farmers who use local slaughterhouses. I don’t know why we lost ourselves so badly but I feel good for the future.

Source of inspiration

Thomas: The first St. John restaurant is near the Smithfield meat market. Was it a source of inspiration to make new dishes when you started here in 1994?

Fergus: When we started, they were not many restaurants around and not so much people. But they came luckily! Touch wood... Having the meat market close-by is nice. I love the whole cycle here because it’s quite different. When some people go to bed, others are starting. I love that. It’s topsy-turvy.

As for inspiration, we don’t use it much because we get our meat from farms. But I can say, it’s inspirational because it’s an extremely wonderful building.


Thomas: An interesting fact, your mother and father were architects. You also studied in this field before turning to the culinary world. Concerning the decor of the restaurant, it’s quite white. Is there a concept and who is behind this?

Fergus (says happily): I must sadly say that I feel a bit responsible for that. There was not necessarily a concept. The building itself is fantastic with five chimneys. In a way, I wanted to do less as possible to it. I’m a big believer in white paint. It’s a backdrop.

In some restaurants, you see a lot of mirrors, brass, marble, high voltage lighting and art works in order to convince people that they are having a good time and they are going out. But here, there is a gastronomic crush that they did need to have to reassure them they are having a good time. We don’t have brass, marble and mirrors here. There is no music also. The noise comes from drinking wine and eating. That’s the music.

We try to do the most and be reasonable price wise. Eating should be an egalitarian thing. It’s fun to share a bite and a pint of beer in a restaurant. I hope it expresses the sense that it’s eating for all.

Thomas: With all the white walls, you and your partner were you trying to put in place a peaceful atmosphere or is it still quite busy during lunch and supper time?

Fergus: It’s interesting... Being an architect, what you want to do is create space in order to allow chaos to take place. But the space itself maintains and coexists with the chaos.

Restaurants are a magical place because twice a day there is a moment where hell breaks loose. There is a lot of eating, drinking and chefs are cooking. After that, it stops and calms down. White walls are a wonderful backdrop. People are coming for lunch not for decoration. You are here with your lunch, a glass of wine and you speak to the personal. You don’t need frills and trimmings. That will be too much. There is enough chaos. So, in a way, I had my architectural dream here.

Last words

Thomas: For a sportsman or sportswoman who wants to visit St. John in Smithfield, what do you recommend in your menu?

Fergus: Well, I don’t consider myself a sportsman in any way at all. But often, I felt a wake up. I think you should look at the whole menu and choose something which catches your eye. I say liberty for all. To sportsmen, I will recommend everything they feel like they should eat because they enjoy it. I’m sure their metabolism can take it because they will jump it off a little bit later. So, they should enjoy a good lunch and relax.

Thomas: And you, what dishes do you like on the menu?

Fergus: Again, it depends on how I feel while considering the menu change. Something on the menu will make me say: “Ah! Ah! Ah!” It’s hard to say one thing because vibrations are each day different. Sometimes, I will go for a dish made with kidneys or one made with carrots. Who knows?

Thomas: I see a lot of people walking around in the restaurant. You have a big team. Does your team continue to share their passion about cuisine?

Fergus: Yes, I think it’s vital because food leaves the kitchen. The customer must feel the passion. Otherwise, it will be very sad handling a dish for someone... On the whole, everybody seems to be quite keen and they should be. I would say it’s an enthusiastic bunch which is good.

Thomas: Thank you Fergus. It was quite enjoyable.