The original St John in Smithfield, in an old smoke-house that’s been given a stark, much-copied, modernist makeover, remains very much in our top ten restaurants in the world. It’s our default favourite for dinner – the bone marrow dish and the postprandial madeleines by the dozen are two of our favourite things about London. Fergus Henderson – aka Mr St John – remains one of the most influential, as well as fabulously appealing characters in modern cooking. We met him – wearing his trademark navy blue French workman’s jacket – for mid-morning rounds of white wine and Campari upstairs at Quo Vadis in Soho, and asked him about his favourite places to eat around the world.
Civilian London: We’ve bumped into you several times on the other side of the Atlantic, usually in New York or Portland where you’re a major celebrity on the food scene. We know you are very close to April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig and Breslin. But what’s your favourite place to go when you’re totally off duty?
Fergus Henderson: I love taking the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban to the Hebrides, because it means I’m on my way to my favourite place for the summer holidays. In a perfect world I’d travel everywhere via the dining car on a train. The sense of moment and eating is very satisfying; the crazy way they insist on silver service on a wobbly train. Sadly in the UK the dining car is disappearing.
You must feel indifferent about dining in the air.
No. Airplane food is another thing altogether. I can’t resist it – there’s a particular flavour to the chocolate mousse on planes that I’m rather taken with – but I try not to eat too much of it. Fortunately I fly much more comfortably than I used to but this means that the food has aspirations that possibly it should not. The real secret of a long flight, of course, is gin.
We know that they love what you do in New York City, and that when the FergusStock events happen they are a total sell out. Where do you eat when you’re not working?
When I go to New York, I head straight to The Spotted Pig. After the first Campari and white wine I feel I’ve arrived, and of course April Bloomfield’s food is delicious. In the same way, when I arrive in Paris I will go to Le Rubis for lunch: tête de veau and a chilled Brouilly. Restaurants are amazing ways into a city. They are touchstones for the tummy. There is something fantastic about your first lunch in a city.
Your cooking is thought of as quintessentially British. What’s it like when you work in America?
Working with American chefs has been a treat and a joy, I must say – they’re incredibly helpful to an extreme. Alice Walters let me do a night at Chez Panisse, which felt very grown up. I visited Paley’s Place in Portland as part of a game festival, so got to grapple with such things as elk and bison tongue – things you don’t run into every day. For the third Fergustock event in New York, back in October 2011, I cooked at April and Ken Friedman’s restaurant the Breslin, at the Ace Hotel. My memory is so bad that I’m not quite sure how it all first came about, but amazingly pig’s heads, bone marrow and ox heart go down very well in New York City.
Your style of cooking has spawned countless imitators in London. We can’t imagine you’d dine at many of them – where do you go?
I love the Chinese food in London. Dumplings are great for the kids. There are graduations of dim sum: Yauatcha and Hakkasan, then the Royal China. The turnip paste dumplings at Yauatcha are sublime. I had the wildest thing at the Royal China Club – delicious crab cooked in vinegar and egg white – but it’s the dumplings I really go there for. I also like visiting Bar Italia in Soho in the morning, when it still has a nice gentle atmosphere. You can go for a coffee, bump into friends, and it can turn into a very long and jolly day. My favourite stretch in Soho is what I think of as the “dangerous one”, the end of Dean Street – Groucho, Quo Vadis and Jerry’s, where things can go on very late.
You trained as an architect. What architecture impresses you most?
The excitement of the first view of Manhattan is always a moment of delight. Standing in the courtyard of Brunelleschi’s Ospedale dei Innocenti in Florence made me think, “This is pretty good – why don’t you become an architect?” And the centre of Glasgow always gives me a thrill. Soho in London is a good scale. It’s really just four streets, and very manageable. Centrepoint has become very attractive in a strange way. It’s found itself. The writing on top… it’s a real beacon that building. In London you must look up. We never look up enough in London.
How much crossover is there between architecture and cooking?
In real life there is chaos and so there should be chaos in buildings. The problem is that if you try it in a building it can become trite and dull very quickly. I think the seafood restaurant Sweetings, in the City, which only opens for lunch during the week, represents a lesson for any architect – a lesson in space. You sit at counters around the sides of the room and you put your orders in and they yell it over to a runner who hands it back to the waiter… It’s a ritual, and it works – but if you designed it, it wouldn’t work. You need to “catch it”. Rather than making a 2D drawing that gets turned into a 3D building, every architect should eat at Sweetings.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten on your travels?
For the TV show Could You Eat an Elephant?, Jeremy Lee and I went travelling in search of unusual meals and had cobra washed down with bile vodka in Hanoi. Then there was brandy made with gecko and sea horse. Particularly unusual was the serving of crinkle cut chips with the snake. All good!