St. John Restaurant, and its father, Fergus Henderson. The architect and self-taught chef opened his restaurant in 1994 and set down his philosophy in the now-classic Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (Bloomsbury) in 1999, opening the book by explaining, “’Nose to Tail Eating’ means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the filet.”
Henderson advocated a return to offal, the humble organ meats and gristly parts of the animal that make many people these days say “ewww,” though they were once common dishes in parts of the world. Henderson included in his book recipes for warm pig’s head, as well as pig’s spleen, tails, trotter, cheek and tongue; grilled, marinated calf’s heart; boiled ox tongue, and four ways to prepare lamb’s brains. The chef’s voice is a large part of the charm of his cookbook; it’s whimsical, encouraging and kind. Of tripe, he writes, “Do not let the tripe word deter you, let its soothing charms win you over and enjoy it as do those who always have!”
Henderson became a culinary cult figure, and incongruously, given his gentle personality, spawned dozens of macho, tattooed aspirants who never had pig’s trotters lovingly braised by grandma, as many a European chef has. Nose-to-tail cooking and eating was new to the younger generation, but it was an idea that was in sync with today's ethos of low-waste, sustainable farming. Plus, there was the bonus outlaw aspect of extreme eating. A sequel to Henderson's cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose-to-Tail Eating was published in 2004.
Henderson appeared at our table, looking like an overgrown, rumpled school boy in a pink Oxford shirt and corduroy suit (it was late summer, but London at this time of year felt more like fall in New York, only humid and changeable). In round horn-rimmed glasses and with a soft voice and diffident hand gestures, the chef told us that he had actually been in our own West Village neighborhood on several occasions in the recent past, to cook at April Bloomfield’s gastro-pub The Spotted Pig at West 11th and Washington Streets, and at a neighborhood favorite of ours, Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto on West 12th Street. Both The Spotted Pig—which serves a more toned-down down version of Henderson’s offal-centric British fare—and Barbuto—the casual open-air restaurant that turns out a simply and perfectly roasted chicken—make congenial homes away from home for Henderson’s earthy cooking.
Although an assistant sent me a press release and pictures of the minimalist and modern St. John Hotel that Henderson plans to open in London’s Chinatown in October, Henderson is hardly the type to engage in the hard sell. There are no rave reviews plastered at the front of his restaurant, no mention of his Michelin star shoved in your face as you enter the restaurant. When asked if his new hotel would be party to any of the hotel designations that tourists look for (the Leading Hotels of the world, for example), he replied, “We’re not very good at joining things,” and pointed out that many of these lists involve payment in exchange for inclusion.
Although Henderson admitted that he did, as a trained architect, enjoy having a hand in designing the 15-room hotel, on site of a former London theater landmark, it was “more fate” than anything else that had led to this venture. He and business partner Trevor Gulliver had planned to build a hotel in Beirut, but that fell through. When the Chinatown space became available, they jumped on it. The hotel will include a bar and a restaurant that will stay open until 2 a.m.
Henderson talked briefly about his battle with Parkinson’s disease, referring to “my ropey left side.” The tremors have sidelined him from daily kitchen cooking, though he says that what is being served is still very much his food. “I’m here every day so if the chefs go crazy, I’ll pull them in line again,” he told us. In 2005, he underwent a procedure called deep brain stimulation, in which a wire fitted with electrodes was surgically implanted in his brain tissue and connected to a pacemaker-like control device in his chest. His symptoms have vastly improved, but are probably at play in those diffident hand gestures, controlled but still visible. Although the chef may at one time have hoped to return to the kitchen, he’s kept his status as the guiding creative force and public face of the restaurant.
For lunch, Henderson recommended that we try the grouse, at the time in season and visible on select menus throughout London. Henderson’s version is a small, whole roasted baby grouse from the moors of Yorkshire. “It’s so tender it almost melts in your mouth, and has this wonderful musky undertone,” he said, adding, “People always tell you’re the grouse is terrible this year and then they charge you a fortune for it. This year, they’re saying it’s actually a good year, and then they charge you a fortune for it.” We opted for an order of Henderson’s celebrated roasted marrow bones, parsley salad and sea salt; the grouse, which came with a side of liver (or was it duck heart, which Henderson is also partial to?) paste on toast crisped in duck fat; an order of witch sole and tartar sauce, some lightly braised spring cabbage and boiled new potatoes. All were astonishingly simple and flavorful. Desserts of a sublime, currant-stuffed Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese, honey roasted figs on toasted brioche and chocolate pot rounded out our meal, leaving us feeling that we had, at last, tasted British cooking at its elemental best.
St. John Bar & Restaurant Smithfield
26 St. John Street
Reservations 020 7251 0848
For details on St. John Bread and Wine, Spitalfields: