Around the time Boris Johnson had coronavirus, Fergus and Margot Henderson caught it too. And like the prime minister, Fergus, the 57-year-old founder of St John in east London, who has managed Parkinson’s disease for more than 20 years, ended up in St Thomas’s hospital. “All the journalists were outside,” remembers Margot, 56, the co-patron and chef of the Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. “I tried to get food into Fergus, because I knew he wouldn’t be eating anything. But Fergus didn’t quite know where he was. He thought he was in Venice actually.” Fergus gazes off dreamily: “A rather nice thought to have.”
The Hendersons, who have been married since 1992, would have to be called the power couple of the London dining scene, if only they weren’t so modest and unpowery. Perhaps describing them as the godparents of modern British cooking would be more apt: besides their own restaurants, they have inspired and mentored a new generation of chefs, including James Lowe, Lee Tiernan, Anna Tobias and Ravneet Gill. They were both appointed OBEs this year “for services to the culinary arts”.
What were you doing 20 years ago?
Margot Henderson: We’d just had a major fire in our flat in Covent Garden and had to move out. We had three small children. I was at the French House; Fergus was running St John. [Fergus’s book] Nose to Tail Eating had come out just a year before. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s the year before. And actually in April, we decided to escape to the Walnut Tree [in Abergavenny] for the day. It was one of those really sunny, bright days, but cold, and we had an amazing meal.
Fergus Henderson: It was made more memorable by the fact, on the train going down, there was a young girl, a courier who worked in our street, and she was going to a retreat where she wasn’t going to eat anything. So it was much better going to the Walnut Tree for a major lunch!
You were both in your mid-30s then. Do you feel there is a peak age for a chef?
F: Hopefully one gets better and better. That’s the idea.
M: But energy comes into it, doesn’t it? There is a time when you have enough energy to work all the hours you need to and the ideas are there. After that, building teams is as much a part of the job as being hot stuff on the stove. Being on the stove definitely can often be a young person’s job.
F: I can safely say it’s a young person’s job.
What were you mostly cooking 20 years ago?
M: Mush for babies. Tomato pasta. Our food was definitely quite focused on children at home, and a lot of duck leg and carrots for friends. It was all about what was the simplest dish in the world to cook. And in the restaurants? Quite similar to what we’re doing now.
F: At home we used to do fish finger birthday cakes, like Jenga. If there’s a big plate of fish fingers, all the adults hover and crowd.
M: Also doughnut birthday cakes, because Fergus started doing doughnuts at St John.
F: Like a croquembouche.
Your cooking styles have been described as indistinguishable. Would you agree with that?
F: I think by the nature of cooking together there’s an osmosis.
M: I use more Italian produce, and I can go off-piste a bit. We started cooking at the French House together, and then I suppose St John made Fergus more himself, without me around doing wacky New Zealand food. The coriander problem!
I’ve heard about this: Margot, you were a fan of coriander; Fergus, you’re very much not. I’m glad your marriage has survived…
F: It was a close-run thing, but we made it through!
When St John opened in 1994, there were the whitewashed walls, no art, no music. The menu was proudly British, very seasonal, famously nose to tail. Was there a very deliberate manifesto?
F: It was very deliberate. It’s avoiding crutches. When there’s music or menus that have tassels on…
M: You love a menu with a tassel, Fergus!
F: It was less is more, less is more.
M: The people were the art and the voices are the music.
F: The glug-glug-glug of wine and the clinking of knife and fork was your entertainment.
M: Fergus had done lots of buildings at architecture school, and they were all feasting halls basically. I think they all had that look.
Fergus, you trained at the Architectural Association. Can you imagine an alternative life where you pursued that instead of cooking?
M: Did you like sitting in an office, Fergus?
F: That wasn’t ideal.
M: Definitely, he wanted to be around food and wine. But the architecture has always been very much part of the whole for Fergus: the building, the food, everything is about architecture really.
Has the fact that you have both ascribed to minimal, seasonal principles helped your restaurants endure?
M: Yeah, before I started cooking with Fergus, it was all boned-out bits of meat, chicken breasts, garnishes. You always got your bowl of parsley garnish on the side, and then Fergus said: “No, we’re not going to have any garnishes.” I was like: “Oh my God!” It was so revolutionary. St John started doing the big platters of whole fish, sharing plates of braised shoulders of lamb, serving half a pig’s head!
F: It’s romance on a plate. A half pig’s head that you braise slowly, you’ve got the giving cheek, the sticky nose. It’s so dramatic.
M: Fergus probably did it for Valentine’s Day back then. Yeah, the bone marrow in the beginning was quite shocking. What’s this? Because it’s not all done for you. Fergus wants interaction.
Would it be fair to say that traditional British food wasn’t especially fashionable when you started cooking it?
F: No, but I like a challenge.
M: Tripe! Everyone’s always waking up in the morning saying: “Must have a plate of tripe.” Also, Fergus does sell more offal than anyone else. He can sell offal much easier than I can. They trust him and believe in him and his clientele are going there for that.
F: You do get a table of City boys who are going to have the scariest thing on menu. But they are all wrong. It’s not scary at all. It’s all delicious and gentle. And that’s as it should be.
M: It’s not macho cooking. It’s not like, “How big is your steak?”
F: There’s a gentleness and warmth and love to it all.
What’s the most delicious thing you’ve eaten in the last 20 years?
F: The treat I enjoy is when white truffles are in season and Giorgio says: “Come and have this delicious ravioli with mashed potato and raw egg and white truffle at Locatelli.”
M: You ordered it twice, didn’t you?
F: One wasn’t enough.
M: Mine is Le Baratin in Paris. I’d heard about this woman [Raquel Carena] cooking and we’d tried to get there about three times. Fergus even cried when we eventually got inside. And there she is, this little woman in the tiniest kitchen, I think she’s even having a cigarette, which made us cry even more. She does poached brains in butter sauce and they were sublime, weren’t they? It was a moving, moving moment. I love brains anyway, but these were just clouds.
You have had a lot of great chefs and producers come through your kitchens. Is this a source of pride to you?
F: I feel like Mother Hen. Cluck, cluck, cluck and they go off and do their thing. It’s a big vibration going out.
What were your emotions when you found out about the OBEs?
M: Hysterical, I was. We were both very surprised. Then we thought it was maybe a con. But it’s great that people in the restaurant trade have been honoured. A warm glow! How did you feel, Fergus?
F: More warm glow.
Does cooking still excite you?
F: It may sound hard to believe but the pleasure is still very much there. The process of how to use things, the seasons and a whole set of things that make for never a dull moment.
M: Yeah, live, breathe, food. We are quite obsessed. We talk about it all the time.
F: I wake up and before my head has even left the pillow, I’m thinking: “Aha! What’s for lunch?”
Was food part of how you fell in love with each other?
M: Yeah, definitely. I remember we were going to cook our first meal for friends together: it was hand rolls, where everyone at the table makes their own Japanese rolls. And we went to shop for the nori and all my friends would have probably just bought one packet but Fergus said: “Let’s get three of them.” And I agreed with him. It was a generous spirit. Let’s not hold back. I was like: “Yes, this is definitely the one.”
How do you feel about the industry coming out of the pandemic?
F: We are slightly wounded but not dead.
M: I just want to carry on working, I can’t imagine retiring. It’s very much a part of us and our life’s work.
F: Yes, it’s a life’s work.