Fergus Henderson


Fergus Henderson

One of the most important, recognisable and beloved chefs of modern times, Fergus Henderson championed the nose-to-tail sustainable eating philosophy that has guided British food into a golden age.

There’s a prevailing idea that to be successful as a chef, you have commit yourself to the craft from an early age, dedicate yourself to a kitchen and knuckle-down with military persistence. It’s more than a little ironic, then, that Fergus Henderson – one of the most influential chefs in the history of British food – is self-taught and had no aspirations of chefdom growing up. ‘Dad was an architect and I trained to be one too,’ he says in the introduction of 2019’s The Book of St John. ‘When I told him that I was leaving the cause to be a chef he received the news with no great sadness and no great surprise either – I had already blotted my copybook by taking kitchen jobs. He cautioned, ‘Okay, be a chef. But be a good one.’ Only the most loyal, resolute of fathers could have predicted what a young Fergus would go on to achieve.

Though true cheffing aspirations came a little later, the die was cast from an early age as far as Fergus’ love of food was concerned. His parents were gastronomes who loved to entertain and young Fergus saw his fair share of dinner parties, where the Hendersons would invite friends and neighbours around for riotous evenings of food, drink and joviality. Fergus’ mother was a good cook, who transformed the family meals when she adopted Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cookbook as the Henderson family bible. Fergus’ father – who often travelled for work – would take him to restaurants and let him loose on the menu in order to further his gastronomic education. Fergus pinpoints a crème brûlée – ordered at The Hole in the Wall in Bath – as the point at which food became an inexorable part of his life. ‘Life was never quite the same,’ he remarks. ‘The white heart-shaped dish, the bitter caramel crunch, the richness that lurked beneath the crust… by the first spoonful I knew that I wanted to be part of this action forever.’

While training as an architect, Fergus spent his Sundays at Smith’s restaurant in Covent Garden, where he would orchestrate lunch service with a couple of friends. He was subsequently offered a job at The Globe in Notting Hill, then returned to Smith’s as a commis chef before, fatefully, opening a restaurant with his wife Margot – The French House in Soho. The pair worked up a considerable reputation with unapologetic British cooking, but the French House – with its small dining room – could only take them so far. By chance, Fergus shared an olive oil supplier with Trevor Gulliver – the London restaurateur who had just sold the Fire Station in Waterloo. The pair got on like a house on fire and joined forces to open a new restaurant – one that would come to change the course of British gastronomy for ever.

It was Trevor that found the site – an old smokehouse that had once been the headquarters of Marxism Today. The geometry of the site was totally impractical for a restaurant – it was long and narrow, with a doorway on the street that was easily missed. The pair loved it anyway; they whitewashed the walls, brought in tables, chairs, crockery and tablecloths and opened St John in 1994.

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.’