Over plates of devilled kidneys and thick-cut bacon sandwiches, founders of St. John restaurant, Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver praise the sanctity of lunch and the joys of eating well.
As we step into the first days of summer, Friday afternoon finds us navigating the cobbled streets of South London’s Maltby Street Market to meet the legends behind the British institution, St John. Canonized for their offal-laden philosophy of eating ‘The Whole Beast’, chef Fergus Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver are the men quietly responsible for heralding a global revolution that has swept through the culinary world. Praised as a ‘walking Buddha’, and ‘a prophet of English cuisine’ by even the spikiest of critics, the softly spoken chef stands resplendent in his signature pinstripes as preparation for the lunch service unfolds around him. The bakery’s notorious ‘pillows of joy’ arrive piled high; sugar dusted donuts oozing jam and custard, trestle tables scrape against the stone, chairs are whisked into place, and the scene is set.
Lunchtime prickles with possibility. Unlike the short-stop of dinner, trussed in its formalities and the inevitable late evening slump, lunch is a firework waiting to go off; an open invitation for fun. For the founders of St. John, lunch presents itself as a happy meeting point for friends, food and unfettered conversation. For Fergus, it really is the most charismatic meal of the day. Over plates of devilled kidneys, thick- cut bacon sandwiches, slabs of foie gras and generous slugs of pinot noir, we spoke to the double-act about the sanctity of lunch, the joys of eating and the food that brings us around the table time and time again.
Perhaps the first conversation we have is, where are we having lunch?
TBE: How did you two meet?
Trevor: Our olive oil man introduced us, he was our cupid.
Fergus: Well, I was working at the French House with Margot and Trevor had a restaurant called the Fire Station…
T: Then we took one look at St John and we were sold. Back then Smithfield was not the place it is now. The market was busier and the only hotels were the ones which seemed to cater for stranger things. There was tumbleweed blowing down the road, it was a real backwater between the city and the west-end. No restaurants, just cafes, and pubs that would be open virtually all night for the market porters in the markets and butchers to drink. It was a quite an act of faith to find where we were, but that is all history now!
TBE: And how has working together grown your friendship?
T: With Fergus and I there’s no yin-yang, it’s more, “now it’s your turn to come up with something new.”
F: After all these years, I have finally driven him to yoga.
T: Yes, Fergus finds it very unnerving the idea of me spending my time crossed legged and chanting. But, I’ve always been enchanting.
TBE: What is the St. John philosophy?
T: We don’t do visions or concepts, and we don’t like artifice. We like people to enjoy themselves and understand what a good lunch is. That is very important. We were never a concept. ‘Nose to Tail’, that’s Fergus’ gift to the written word.
TBE: Could you tell us about ‘Nose to Tail’ eating?
F: It seems to be common sense, it’s so dull. It’s using the whole beast and enjoying the library of the fillet. Tasty, delicious things.
It’s using the whole beast and enjoying the library of the fillet. Tasty, delicious things.
TBE: So what does ‘good food’ look like to you?
F: Good food is a permanent thing. There are moments when it is more appropriate to cook something particular, rather than other things. Seasons for example; good old nature provides the rigour of these seasons and we should celebrate these moments of abundance. When there is an abundance of a particular ingredient, they are at their tastiest. We should eat runner beans, say, every day, then make chutney from them as they grow up, then when they go too stringy stop eating them all together and look forward to the next year. Location is vital when it comes to good food.
Fergus and Trevor enjoying a glass, penned by Fergus.
Who wants to eat something that has more air miles than the average businessman?
TBE What are your thoughts on food trends?
F: It really is extraordinary how avocados have become the breakfast of choice. The genus loci is strong with food and its consumption, though supermarkets, the evil empire, want you to eat strawberries all year round. With this approach, there is no sense of place. They would have you think that it is not to do with flavour, but rather that it is how red they look, which only shows how easily led we are.
On a rather controversial note, Elizabeth David has rather a large part to play in all this- writing about the Mediterranean with its sun-ripened tomatoes and bushes of basil, painting a picture of a culinary idyll not obtainable in the grey, cold British isles. She created an appetite for things that could not be fulfilled without unhappy compromise. In short, I am not convinced by cooking without season or appropriate location. The world is small now and ingredients will travel, but who wants to eat something that has more air miles than the average businessman? Just think, you can drink gallons of local rosé on holiday, but take it home and it is undrinkable. This is the power of place. Of course, I am not being jingoistic, and I know that ideas do travel too! But, in short, nature writes your menu and you should listen.
TBE: What do you love about this business of feeding people?
F: At 12 o’clock when the doors open, you don’t know who’s coming or how many people, and by one o’clock, the tables are humming with the excitement of lunch. By the evening, the tables are have not quite stopped humming, but the spirit of lunch is transferred and then magnified by a light supper. Good food brings people together, but do not think only of food – remember the importance of napkins and tablecloths. The texture of a crisp napkin, the feeling of being nurtured, the anticipation. That can create great electricity in a gathering.
T: The restaurant is part of an occasion, neighbourhood, a vital part of the streetscape. A good restaurant is a joy to go back to because it holds memories, it’s a treat. For us at St. John we count a regular as someone who comes back once a year, not just the people who are here three or four times a week.
TBE: Does your love of food run in the family?
F: My mum was a cook and my dad more of an eater. It’s strange… my bonding with food. I remember on my wedding night with Margot, she fell asleep, and so I kept eating!
T: I think we were both born dead with a glass in our hand.
TBE: Do you have any dining rituals are you particularly fond of?
F: Seed cake and Madeira at eleven o’clock. I am at St John most days having seed cake and a glass for my elevenses and there is an open invitation to all to join me for this moment of sustenance. I evidently misjudge my friends; every day I expect a better turn out, but it seems that folk are not ready for the mid-morning festive moment. This is not to say you have to go crazy. Compare it to a firework: a short invigorating moment of cake, and the symbiotic Madeira wine, then it is over but leaves you happy and satisfied until the next excitement – lunch! Every aspect is inspired by a good lunch.
You can’t look forward to a sandwich and coke. It’s no way to live, it’s no way to have a lunch, no way to be inspired to design!
TBE: Lunch seems to play quite heavily, I read somewhere that you quit architecture because of the bad lunches, is that true?
F: You can’t look forward to a sandwich and coke. It’s no way to live, it’s no way to have a lunch, no way to be inspired to design! The moment I wake up, with my head on the pillow, I start thinking about lunch. It’s bliss to have lunch.
T: Yes, lunch is important. Perhaps the first conversation we have is, where are we having lunch? And, in fact, when you’re travelling, lunch is often better than dinner. Not that dinner is bad! Lunch is just much more engaged with the day and where you are. Dinner is a bit like going to the cinema, it’s a different type of experience, the conversation is always different at lunch.
TBE: If you were given infinite time and appetite, what would your perfect day look like?
F: On my perfect day, I would start with lunch at Sweetings. The thought of the reassuring mosh pit of people waiting for tables as you enter! The happy scrum. I’ll start with a Black Velvet at the bar, served in a silver tankard which imparts a metallic tang to the drink. Then, when I have been seated by Angelo (the waiter who also served my father), I will order a bottle of Chablis and a plate of Plaice, Chips, and Peas. I am a creature of habit… although I used to order Scampi, not Plaice, so there has been a little change. An emotional step!
Lunch is like a springboard, it can take you to places you never expected to go. So, then I would then hop on the Eurostar for a refreshing nap and wake up in Paris. After checking in at L’Hotel, requesting the room at the top, I would go straight to La Pallette for a Pastis, to get my cultural bearings. Then dinner at Le Grand Vefour, which is the most beautiful room ever. It does great things for the spirit. I made the mistake once, of ordering pigeon stuffed with foie gras and truffles, which was so rich that I felt it for days. So now I order two starters instead. The same thing for both courses: a sea urchin baked en cocotte with quail’s egg and caviar. As I walk back through the glittering Paris Royale, all sparkling lights and romance, I would feel that it was a day well spent.
TBE: And finally, what feeds your creativity at St. John?
T: Immaturity, naivety, experience, and understanding, and then enlightenment…no and then lunch!
As lunch draws to a close and Trevor’s mind turns to dessert, Fergus stands, brushes off the crumbs and says goodbye. Heading off to catch the afternoon train to Wiltshire, he disappears down the narrow street, leaving our happy trio to digest in the mid-afternoon sunshine. Well-fed and slightly off balance, we notice that the hum of the lunch crowd around us has reached a crescendo. Peeling ourselves away from the St. John milieu, we agree that lunch with good friends is indeed a fine beast.
The son of two architects – father a keen diner, mother a keen cook, Fergus Henderson originally studied architecture before his thoughts turned to cooking. After running The French House Dining room with his wife Margot, he met Trevor and opened the now legendary St. John in Smithfield. Since 1995, St. John has grown to include three restaurants, a bakery, a winery and a wine company. Over the years they have won numerous accolades including, Best British and Best Overall London Restaurant at the 2001 Moët & Chandon Restaurant Awards. After being awarded an MBE for services to gastronomy, Fergus was celebrated with The Diner’s Club Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
Follow their story at @st.john.restaurant
Photography by Katinka Herbert