Fergus Henderson

Fergus Henderson

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It was some years before St John ascended to the iconic status it has now. Fergus’ carnivorous menu has always maintained that the correct way to eat an animal was to eat all of it – hearts, livers, spleens, kidneys, tails and all. In the mid-90s when fine dining was the order of the day, his nose-to-tail philosophy wasn’t always popular. Indeed, many would come to St John simply for the shock value of ordering the grisliest, most horrifying items on the menu. On the surface, St John sounds rather spartan – cold concrete, white walls, no music, staff dressed in long white shirts and various unwanted, unfashionable cuts of meat emerging from the kitchen, arranged with austerity on white crockery. In fact, it has always been incredibly liberal and generous. The lack of music means you eat your meal to a soundtrack of merriment from other tables. The use of white in uniforms, walls and plates was a sort of democratic minimalism; Fergus determined that nothing should detract from the enjoyment of food and company – a lesson learned from his parents. Whilst haute-cuisine exclusivism was at its height in London, St John promoted equality within its white walls and Fergus was the indomitable conductor, waving on a symphony of conviviality each evening.

In 1998, Fergus was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and it soon removed him from the kitchen. ‘Parkinson’s, knives, small kitchens – a bit dangerous,’ he famously quipped. Fergus received deep brain stimulation therapy to treat his Parkinson’s a few years later, and though the therapy all but eliminated his tremors Fergus elected not to return to the kitchen, carrying on his role as overseer and ambassador for St John instead. In 1999, Fergus released the first of his books – ‘Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking’. The book laid bare his nose-to-tail ethos for all to see and became a bible for the many thousands of cooks who flocked to his side.

Under Fergus’ guidance, St John has risen from relative anonymity to become one of Britain’s most important restaurants. It won Best British and Best overall London Restaurant at the 2001 Moet & Chandon Restaurant Awards and won a long-overdue Michelin star in 2009. If one were to compile a list of the most important British restaurant dishes of the last fifty years, Fergus’ cooking would feature heavily and his roast bone marrow and parsley salad would surely be unassailable in the top spot. St John expanded in 2003 to Shoreditch, where Fergus opened St John Bread and Wine – a site that furthered St John’s famous baking pedigree.

Fast forward to today and Fergus – though a little older – is just as relevant as he has ever been. St John has birthed a new generation of chefs who share his ideals and have journeyed all over the world to spread the gospel of St John. ‘Our family tree spreads far and wide, often in quite unexpected directions,’ he muses in the introduction to 2019’s The Book of St John. ‘I am humbled to bask in the dappled light beneath its leaves.’

Three things you need to know...

Fergus is still a common sight at St John – he often pops in for a chat with the chefs and to enjoy an Eccles cake and a glass of Madeira

Though famous for British cookery, Fergus loves Italian food and freely admits that his household has lived off Marcella Hazan’s tomato pasta for many years

Fergus was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to gastronomy