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Fergus Henderson, bookworm

August 12, 2010
by the gentle author

Although Fergus Henderson is widely celebrated as the presiding spirit and co-founder of St John, his literary tendencies are less commonly known. And so, desirous of learning more, I dropped by St John in Smithfield one bright morning, with my City Of London library card in hand, to enjoy a steadying glass of Fernet Branca with Fergus and discover how it is that certain books have become the means by which he communicates the undefinable ethos of this unique culinary enterprise with his staff. Still windswept and tanned from a recent holiday on the Isle of Tiree, Fergus arrived glowing with all the enthusiasm and energy of a schoolboy returning from Summer Camp. “Sometimes I feel that I am not the most clear of chaps,” he confessed to me with a tender grimace – as we each knocked back the bitter liqueur laced with rhubarb and saffron yet possessing a compelling aroma of frankincense and myrrh – adding plainly, “so I amassed this collection of books to explain.”

“It was when I first handed the reins to another chef, Ed Lewis, that I needed some means to convey the essence,” continued Fergus mysteriously.“I chose ‘Master & Commander’ by Patrick O’Brian because I think of the kitchen as very much like an eighteenth century Man o’ War – a confined space. As chef you have to be everybody’s friend, but you must be in charge, so you need to keep yourself at a distance too. My march up and down between the fridges in the kitchen, there’s some similarity there with the Captain’s march up and down the deck, I think.” he said, adopting an unconvincing comic frown of fierce authority as his attempt at a Captain of an eighteenth century Man o’ War. “I have given this book to every head chef and sous-chef.” he explained, before raising his eyebrows with a self deprecatory smile, changing tone as a thought occurred to him, “Maybe I should ask if they read it?”

His second choice appeared more esoteric, though I quickly became aware of a theme emergent. Fergus chose L.T.C. Rolt’s 1957 biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a subjective portrait of the engineer, tracing his triumphs and tribulations to create a narrative that reads like a novel. “Unlike recent biographies that have been critical, Rolt just loves Brunel and so I love him too. What’s so brilliant about Brunel is that he builds the Great Western Railway which is a feat in its own right, gets to Bristol, notices the Atlantic and says we’ll built the SS Great Britain and go across it – What a guy!” said Fergus with an admiring grin, making a lateral connection to St John’s next step, the hotel in Leciester Sq. “With the hotel, we thought,’We’ve fed them, now we’ll bed them.’ Not quite as ambitious as spanning the Atlantic but in his spirit.” he outlined with a deferential shrug. I knew that Fergus himself trained as an architect, so it seemed the appropriate moment to ask if he designed his restaurants, “I am to blame for most of it,” he admitted, drawing a long face of self-parody and casting his eyes around the cavernous white interior.

As we arrived at Fergus’ third title, Thomas Blythe the general manager walked in, adopting a good-humoured smirk when he overheard the subject of our conversation – because he is himself a recipient of these books, and he knew what was coming next, Ian Fleming’s “The Man With the Golden Gun.” “I chose it because I thought Bond and Scaramanga ate whole crabs together and drank pink champagne.” revealed Fergus wistfully before Thomas confirmed, “I read the book and it doesn’t exist, it wasn’t there at all.” and they both exchanged a glance of crazy humour. “That’s why we always serve whole crabs on the menu here…” continued Fergus with supreme logic,”It’s a sad story, but Thomas enjoyed the book – who wouldn’t enjoy it?” Then they both looked at me and smiled in solidarity, like brothers.

This obscure paradox was the ideal introduction to Fergus’ fourth title, John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing.” “What I took from this book was the importance of genus locii, the sense of place.” admitted Fergus, “Restaurants are places rich in genus locii. There is this chaos that happens twice a day, extraordinarily different people coming together. Also, Berger discusses Leonardo’s cartoon that no-one was interested to look at until an American offers to buy it for a million dollars and then a line forms. Restaurants can be a good example of this phenomenon too.”

I took this as a cue to probe Fergus about the origin of St John which has led the renaissance in British cooking in recent years, and is now integral to the identity of both Smithfield and Spitalfields. Explaining that Dickens was appalled by the variety of offal eaten in Spitalfields when he visited in 1851 and that Joan Rose remembers poor people eating a pig’s head when they could not afford a Sunday roast in the nineteen thirties, I asked him about his relationship to the food of the past. “Dickens was narrow-minded and pig’s head is delicious!” he retorted with unexpected fervour, eyes sparkling through his horn-rimmed spectacles as he declared his personal manifesto, “Food is permanent while fashion just changes, but what was good then is good now. I’m not interested in historical recreations. I am a modernist through and through, yet a pickled walnut is something that has been around forever and is still a thing of joy. I think of our food as permanent British. Nose-to-tail-eating is because it’s polite. It is not because of thrift, it’s simply because it is delicious.”

So now I hope I understood something. Many of the elements I recognise at St John are present in these books, the acute drama of collective enterprise, the particularly British glamour of dining incarnated by Bond and the unadorned presentation of good food that resists fashionable categorisation. There is a sensibility that is a synthesis of these literary works, serious yet with levity, and it adds up to the unique quality of tone that characterises St John – which all makes complete sense for a distinctively British restaurant because we are a nation of writers.

Portrait of Fergus Henderson copyright © Patricia Niven
2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 21, 2010

    Fantastic post, what a great interview!

  2. Jack Faulkner permalink
    April 5, 2011

    This is lovely. I worked for a short while at bread and wine. The chefs I know and like and respect are often interesting people aside from their cookery. I think this is significant. I suspect that some other noted chefs (who shall go unnamed) may not have eclectic bookshelves but may cook sophisticated yet un interesting food. I know full well that this is just a guess and I allow for the fact its a distinct possibility i’m wrong but then thats what a suspicion is.

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