“It’s only polite really if you knock an animal on the head to eat it all: tripe, heart, feet, ears, head, tail. It’s all good stuff.”
So says Fergus Henderson, famed chef of St John restaurant in London. He’s sitting in front of me this greyish Sydney morning in the lobby bar of his hotel. Henderson is much more than just an advocate of nose to tail eating. Peel back another layer and he’s one of the most fascinating people to interview. It’s 11am and true to his known love of a tipple, he has just ordered a Campari and White Wine. He checks his watch and smiles “It’s a respectable hour”. The 46 year old Londoner is dressed in a navy blue jacket with his trademark tortoisehell Harry Potter style glasses. He’s unfailingly polite, accommodating, modest and willing to talk about anything and everything from offal, death threats, pornography, squirrels, his Parkinson’s diagnosis and Anthony Bourdain.
NQN: How are you finding Australia? This isn’t your first time.
Fergus Henderson: Lovely, no I’ve been more to Melbourne for the food festival but Sydney is very lovely.
NQN: Have you been dining out much?
Fergus Henderson: Maybe a little too much. It’s fantastic, really amazing dining. I’ve eaten at Sean’s Panorama and Quay and Kylie Kwong so I’ve been eating very well.
NQN: What do you think of the food here?
Fergus Henderson: Fantastic. Everyone seems very serious about food here.
NQN: Is it more serious than London?
Fergus Henderson: It’s different, sort of the focused nature of food here. It’s good.
NQN: Which meal did you particularly enjoy?
Fergus Henderson: Sean’s Panorama is marvellous. Quay was fantastic as well but that was an entirely different kettle of fish.
NQN: You’re known for serving offal at your restaurant St John….
Fergus Henderson: I am! It wasn’t ever a conscious decision to go down that route. It was more common sense to eat the whole beast. It’s only polite really if you knock an animal on the head to eat it all: tripe, heart, feet, ears, head, tail. It’s all good stuff. It’s not a sort of blood lust and it’s not ooh let’s find the goriest thing we can get.
NQN: Do some of your diners order the goriest thing?
Fergus Henderson: We’re in the financial district and I see boys coming in and say “Who’s going to have the scariest thing on the menu?” but that’s not the point. It’s all there because it’s delicious, it’s not there because it’s scary. We do fish and regular things although it’s not as eye catching as spleen.
NQN: I’ve never seen spleen on a menu…
Fergus Henderson: It’s a lovely organ. It’s very liverish in taste and it swells so it’s romantic.
NQN: Which animal’s spleen do you serve?
Fergus Henderson: Pig’s spleen.
NQN: What started this offal love?
Fergus Henderson: Mum was from Lancashire and is a very good cook so tripe was always featured. I’ve always been drawn to the extremities, I don’t know why.
NQN: Even as a child?
Fergus Henderson: I had a very early relationship with a trotter yes. It never seemed weird to me.
NQN: I suppose it depends on what you are served as a child…
Fergus Henderson: There’s this sense that London is due to change and there are foodies now – sorry I hate that word – but I think you’ll find that kitchen and home cooking at home hasn’t changed that much. There are people, blogs and television and there’s this… strange parallel with pornography. You watch videos or read magazines and get all hot and bothered and nothing has happened and all you’ve done is look at someone else doing it so I feel that’s the same thing with television. They feel like they’ve taken on some knowledge or appreciation but they haven’t changed. Why not? It makes good telly.
NQN: Who do you like to watch on television?
Fergus Henderson: I don’t have a telly. I’ve forgotten why I don’t have telly now. I think we had one and Margot (his wife who is traveling with him in Australia) kicked it at some point and that was done for it.
NQN: So what parts of an animal do you like to eat?
Fergus Henderson: Well it rather depends on your mood. When you wake up you might think carrots or fish. It’s how you are feeling in the morning. I love a trotter. Also um tripe and onions, but it rather depends on one’s feeling.
NQN: Is there a part to eat that you feel is underrated?
Fergus Henderson: I feel tripe is maligned. The word tripe can strike fear in one’s stomach. It’s like offal.
NQN: I think offal sounds like “awful” and you probably get a lot of puns…
Fergus Henderson: The good thing on the pun front is there are less puns than when we first opened. It used to be like “Oh you are ‘offal’ but we like you” or “oh you’re ‘offaly’ nice”. The puns got less. The pun Richter scale.
NQN: There’s not really a big offal culture here in Sydney-it’s rarely on menus. Have you noticed that?
Fergus Henderson: Not really because the chefs have been like “Cooorr”. The thing on Saturday (Nose to Tail BBQ) I was really impressed by the people’s blood sausages and trotter gear. It’s fascinating how interested people are here.
NQN: Have you tried any Australian animal offal like Kangaroo?
Fergus Henderson: I haven’t no (interested)… I don’t see why not, they’re kangaroos so they must have offal. No-one’s offered it to me.
NQN: Are you interested in trying it?
Fergus Henderson: It’s always interesting to try. It’s like venison offal that’s sweet and delicious and kangaroos are quite strong creatures aren’t they. I doubt I’ll get to try it before my departure.
NQN: Kangaroo is the only thing we eat, we don’t eat koala.
Fergus Henderson: It could eat well…who knows? We cook squirrel.
NQN: Sadly I missed out on trying squirrel at your restaurant. I hear there was a big kerfuffle over that.
Fergus Henderson: We had it for years and suddenly it was on the Radio 4 news program which everyone listens to in the mornings and there was an outcry but they’re culled every year so there are lots of dead squirrels. They’re like wild rabbits but more oily. Good eating.
NQN: And you got death threats?
Fergus Henderson: I did! I got this letter with really quite strong language so I thought I ought to send it to the police and I got this phone call from Sergeant so and so and I said “Well I have been cooking squirrel” and he said (affects gruff voice) “SQUIRREL SIR!?” and I thought the police were going to come and beat me up..
NQN: Was it from the Friends of Squirrel Society?
Fergus Henderson: There were only 1 or 2 of those. I’m not sure who it was. They didn’t give me an address to reply to.
NQN: What made you try to cook squirrel?
Fergus Henderson: My mum lives in the country now and her local butcher said “I have a bit of game that might interest your son” and was I interested in trying them. It’s not like I went out hunting for strange beasts, it was a natural progression.
NQN: Did you already have a recipe in mind?
Fergus Henderson: I thought a poetic way of cooking it would be to braise it with dried ceps or wild mushroom, a trotter, recreating the forest floor and then we wilted watercress for the treetops, recreating the woods they came from.
NQN: That’s a fitting end to a squirrel, that’s a tribute to a squirrel really…
Fergus Henderson: Exactly!
NQN: What do you eat on your downtime?
Fergus Henderson: I’m no longer in the kitchen so much but I’m there every morning doing the menu. I have lunch every morning at one of my restaurants to keep an eye on them that way so that’s very much restaurant food and in the evening, bizarrely, we tend to eat Italian food. The only decent shop in the area is a lovely Italian shop . We don’t do any pasta or risotto in the restaurant.
NQN: Your prefer lunch I hear…
Fergus Henderson: I love lunch. I think that by lunchtime everything is in perfect condition. And at the first aperitif of the day a lovely sort of chemical reaction starts and keeps you going. Lunch has got potential-lunch has possibilities. I don’t mean have a long boozy lunch every day. Whereas supper is a punctuation mark to the day before bed.
NQN: So you look forward to lunch every day?
Fergus Henderson: I do I do! Probably a bit too much *pats stomach*. Nothing wrong with a tummy.
NQN: But it’s a happy tummy. It’s quality of life not quantity.
Fergus Henderson: Indeed indeed! That’s the great thing, the diversity in tastes and texture of offal. Some of those are close to poo so that’s a taste but then there’s sweetbread which is a lovely nutty yum yum thing. I love kidneys, the whole taste and the squeak when you bite into them and then the give…very good.
NQN: Are there any parts of the animal you won’t eat?
Fergus Henderson: I’m mostly not crazy about lung. That’s spongey. There is a soup they make in Germany that has heart and lung in it and the lung floats to the top and the heart sinks to the bottom. We use it in faggots (meatballs). Genitalia doesn’t really grab me …much.
NQN: Do people order that?
Fergus Henderson: No no. I just have to leave that alone.
NQN: You’re not too fond of killing eels?
Fergus Henderson: Gosh you’re well informed. Eels… Ever killed an eel? (I answer no) It’s hard to contain them as they’re really strong so you really feel the strength of it and it wriggles and you cut off its head and nothing changes, it still wriggles. And the heads over here going *makes eel gulping face* and then it’s still wriggling. Someone said that it was like taking the stocking off a lady when you skin the eel. It’s nothing like taking the stocking off a lady, the thing’s still wriggling. So its always an emotional morning if there’s an eel but they’re good, delicious and fantastic. It’s very rich and yum.
NQN: Your menu is British and your wines are French.
Fergus Henderson: The wine list is certainly French but well I love France and its history and we (the English) used to own Bordeaux. If there’s a wine list and you’re going down it and you think you’re warming up to where you want to be and then you’re in Chile or Australia and it doesn’t allow for you to go further. I love burgundy, that’s probably my main reason.
NQN: You haven’t had any formal training as a chef.
Fergus Henderson: Nope I trained for 7 years as an architect.
NQN: How does a boy that trained as an architect become a chef?
Fergus Henderson: Sort of fate. All of my architecture has to do with food. There were moments. At lunchtime all architects go out and get a sandwich and a Coke and sit there at their drawing boards and I thought Architecture is a creative profession and you need creative output.
NQN: Especially as you love lunch...
Fergus Henderson: Yes I used to go have lunch for the whole office. I’m not sure if I was very popular as I’m not sure what time I came back from lunch but that was when I got an inkling that architecture wasn’t quite right for me. I started cooking and taking over a restaurant with two chums on Sundays and cooking lunch for 20 people. Somehow I got trapped in kitchens, very happily. I love the whole process to the restaurant, getting ready every day, the menu, ordering, the smell of everything fresh. There’s nothing better. It’s very odd.
NQN: Well it’s good!
Fergus Henderson: Yes, I made the mistake of telling my bank manager that I love my job and I thought ‘Hmm perhaps I shouldn’t have said that’ as it sort of changed our relationship after that. Perhaps he didn’t enjoy running his branch of HSBC on Baker Street.
NQN: You were awarded your first Michelin star this year. How did that feel?
Fergus Henderson: Yes! That was a surprise, we’re not your usual Michelin kind of restaurant. I hadn’t done anything or changed it (the restaurant).
NQN: It wasn’t something that you actively worked towards or was it more a pleasant surprise?
Fergus Henderson: No no it’s weird why suddenly 14 years later they awarded us a Michelin star but I’m delighted and it made the chefs rather happy.
NQN: Has it changed your restaurant.
Fergus Henderson: No no it hasn’t changed. Nope. I carry on as normal.
NQN: Your restaurant St John has buzz to it. How did you achieve buzz in a restaurant in your opinion?
Fergus Henderson: No idea. Do what you ought to do and I don’t know about things like music in restaurant, overuse of brass and marble and dodgy art.
NQN: Funnily you’re embraced by the art community…
Fergus Henderson: Well maybe that’s because there’s no art on the walls *laughs*. I don’t know how you create buzz.
NQN: Because you’re not trying to create it?
Fergus Henderson: Yes! Maybe just leave it be and buzz will come.
NQN: What do you think of food bloggers
Fergus Henderson: Well (long pause). I don’t have a computer. I’m glad that you’re blogging but I’m a very luddite person around computers.
NQN: You must get bloggers coming in and taking photos, does that seem strange to you?
Fergus Henderson: No nope. It’s all very fine… blog away…
NQN: You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Fergus Henderson: I was, I am, I have yes.
NQN: How did that feel?
Fergus Henderson: It was a bit boring, I went and had a good lunch after I heard – the usual solution to things and then carried on and decided not to let it get me down or beat me but I got quite twitchy. My arms were flying around so I appointed a head chef in the kitchen and stepped down as it was getting dangerous in the kitchen but then I had this amazing operation.
NQN: The Deep brain stimulation?
Fergus Henderson: Yes I have this thing going down *shows me the back of his head* which connects to the battery. Would you like to feel my battery? *gestures to his upper chest*
NQN: You can definitely feel it!
Fergus Henderson: And that sends signals. It’s performed wonders.
NQN: Anthony Bourdain had a meal at your restaurant of marrow bones which ended with him gatecrashing into your kitchen and bowing to you and he has said that it’s his Death Row meal. So I’d love to know, what’s your last meal?
Fergus Henderson: Aha! Anthony a lovely chap he’s amazing really one man kind of machine that spreads the word. What would my last meal be? Sea urchins – raw, cut them open and eat them. Yum. And I would have to have some goat’s milk cheese or some sheep’s milk cheese and some Burgundy and chocolate ice cream and Eau de Vie, cigarettes and drunken dances and lots of Wilson Pickett.
So tell me Dear Reader, would you try squirrel and how do you feel about eating offal?
If you enjoyed this post, why not share it with your friends?