LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Chef Fergus Henderson’s St John restaurant around the corner from Smithfield meat market has become a London institution in the decade since it opened.
He specializes in “nose to tail eating” — simply-prepared dishes with local, seasonal ingredients and frequently using parts of the animal — brains, intestines, hearts — you won’t find under shrink-wrap in the meat section of your supermarket.
U.S. celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain considers Henderson his favorite chef and says St John’s signature dish — roast marrow bones with parsley salad and toast — is the meal he would most like to eat before he dies.
In the decade since St John opened, Henderson has opened just one more restaurant, Bread and Wine, also in east London.
Parkinson’s disease, which caused uncontrolled movement in his arms, has forced him out of the kitchen. But pioneering therapy in which electrodes were planted in his brain have reduced his symptoms. He has a second cookbook out and says he is contemplating new restaurant projects.
Q. Were you surprised that the restaurant became so popular and has inspired such a devoted following?
A. I am very happy. When we opened, opening a rather dour white restaurant, serving mainly offal, isn’t exactly an instant recipe for success you fear. We had to endure a whole series of puns in reviews. Oh, ‘you’re offal but we like you’ and ‘offally nice’. Things have improved: there are less puns now. So the restaurant has grown up beyond the pun.
Q. Have you thought of opening a restaurant in the United States? New York? Or another restaurant in London?
A. I’m not sure my wife and kids would be fairly happy if I was shooting off to New York to oversee — but, you know, you never know. It has its tempting side. We don’t move very fast. It took us nine years to open Bread and Wine, and I think that’s keeping us quite happy at the moment.
It’s a weird thing that chefs want to open their Spanish restaurant, their Italian restaurant, their French restaurant, their fusion restaurant, or whatever it is. That doesn’t make sense to me somehow. Whereas Bread and Wine and St John, their DNA or their genes are the same. It’s tricky to imagine what the third thing would be in the family. But having said that you never know. There’s sort of thoughts, but they are in the pupae stage. Little wiggly things.
Q. How did you come up with the idea of “nose to tail eating.”
A. The strange thing is that it wasn’t like a gimmick or a theme. That’s definitely the worst approach to food.
It always just seemed sort of common sense to me to use the whole beast. Once you’ve knocked it on the head it’s only common courtesy to eat it all. But also, it’s not just thrift. Innards and extremities are delicious. The gastronomic possibilities of a pig are way beyond the pork chop or roast pork.
What puzzles me is — it is all in front of you, it’s all there — why did British food lose its way? It has the most fantastic seasons. Nature writes the menu for you, really. It’s the middle of the game season, which is the most fantastic. It starts with grouse, goes into partridge and pheasant and woodcock. That’s your autumn sorted. Falling from the sky. Delicious things.
Recipe: Pig’s Head and Beans
1 pig’s head - remove any unwanted hair with a Bic razor
2 carrots, peeled
2 onions, cut in half
2 heads of garlic
2 sticks of celery
2 leeks, slit in half lengthwise and cleaned
A handful of black peppercorns
Zest of 1 lemon
A splash of red wine vinegar
1/2 bottle of white wine
2 handfuls of fresh barlotti beans, cooked in clean water with 2 heads of garlic
6 carrots, cut into long, thin slices with a peeler
A bunch of spring onions, cut into 1 cm sections
A bunch of radishes, trimmed, but keep the leaves if happy
2 bunches of watercress, stalks chopped off
A healthy splash of red wine vinegar
Sea salt and black pepper
Place the head in a large pot with the vegetables, peppercorns, lemon zest, vinegar and wine. Cover with water, bring to a gentle boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 3-4 hours, skimming as you go, until the head is totally giving and coming away from the bone.
Remove the head and leave until cool enough to handle, then take the meat from the skull (don’t forget the tongue). Meanwhile, strain the cooking liquor into a clean pan and reserve.
Cut the meat into walnut-sized chunks and return them to the pan of cooking liquor. Add the beans and allow them to bond emotionally but not physically on the heat. When you feel there is the appropriate rapport between head and beans, add the other ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt, pepper and the vinegar. Allow your vegetables time to wilt but not cook, so that you have the wobble of the head with the gentle resistance of the wilted veg and the reassuring bean element, all captured in a puddle on the plate. Serve immediately.
Editing by Paul Casciato