Chef Fergus Henderson Made Positivity Cool in the Kitchen

Legendary chef Fergus Henderson didn't only change the landscape of food with St. John. He also inspired a whole new kitchen attitude—one of calmness, respect, and positivity, you shithead.

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Aug 26 2014, 10:56am

Foto: [Duncan] | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Fergus Henderson, Trevor Gulliver, and Jon Spiteri set up St. John restaurant in October 1994. Today, almost 20 years later, its nose-to-tail, treat-the-ears-with-as-much-respect-as-the-loins philosophy rings as one of the most profound shifts in not just dining out, but how people in the UK consider general eating in the last century.

Henderson cemented a way of doing things that cast aside predetermined processes of professional kitchens. As remarkable as the duck's hearts and pig's ears are is the way they were—and still are—forged; by way of a measured, calm approach installed by Henderson. He's a man who had no time for shouting or pan-throwing. Instead, he brought only a love for food as deep as a game pie and an attitude towards his team reflecting that.

St. John's 20-year anniversary is approaching. As it does, the chefs who've peeled its Jersey Royals and seared its sweetbreads continue to celebrate both its calm practices and pared-down approach to cooking, one that puts the quality of ingredients first. For one ex-pupil, Tim Siadatan, it was St. John's most famous, emblematic dish and one Anthony Bourdain's death row meal—the bone marrow and parsley salad—that sowed the seeds for his future endeavours.

Siadatan, now at the helm of Trullo, spent around a year-and-a-half at St. John. "I was 18, training to be a chef, and fell in love with the bone marrow and parsley salad," Siadatan explains. "It blew me away. I said, 'please let me come in and learn', and they did. I did work experience and it was just unbelievable."

stjohnbonemarrow

St. John's Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. Image via Flickr user Simon Doggett.
mushroomsontoast St. John's Mushrooms on Toast. Photo via Flickr user Matthew Hine.

After that first insight of St. John, Siadatan jetted off to Sydney. At the Aussie equivalent of a three-star restaurant, he saw incredible food and brilliant chefs, but so, too, the often sinister underbelly of high-end cuisine.

"It was a seriously angry kitchen—beyond what I thought was possible," he grimaces. "There was bullying. If something wasn't right, it was thrown against the wall. I was petrified the whole time, so much so that when I was shucking the oysters my hands were shaking. Very nasty."

Returning to St. John as a full-time employee, Siadatan says there's nowhere else that he has learned more. While many head chefs lambasted and scathed, Fergus nurtured.

"It helped make me the chef I am today," Siadatan says. "Coming from Sydney, it was just so different, so calm. It wasn't full of obnoxious chefs and there wasn't any ego. Everyone was extremely encouraging and supportive. I got something out of every day. I was a lot younger than everyone else there so they all took me under their wing. It was pivotal."

Siadatan says his time at St. John has vastly impacted the way he operates today. "There are things I still carry with me now," he tells me. "It was the catalyst, it made me realise what I wanted to be and how I wanted to do things."

He also mentioned the likes of River Café to be at the forefront of what could well be dubbed a "movement", a way of cooking and working that trumpeted sincerity and respect, a dedication to a less Rottweiler-like approach, one more focused on bringing out the best in people rather than teaching with fear.

"There's no question St. John has been part of a transformation in that sense," Siadatan continues. "In London and New York, especially, there are so many people doing similar things now. It's about understanding kitchens don't have to be full of aggro chefs."

It goes without saying that the food is paramount, too. "The fact there's a festival called FergusStock says it all. The way Fergus cooks is a culture."

Today, Siadatan looks after his own staff in his own kitchen. He tries to impart his own knowledge in the same way Henderson did. If that means spending 15 minutes talking to a young chef about salad, so be it.

"It [the bone marrow and parsley salad] was more than just a plate of food," he says. "It went deeper. Fergus said if I can put my energy and passion for food into each and every leaf, the salad would be memorable. Fergus is quite a character. The way he does things is infectious and he's wonderful mentor. I'm one of many to see that."

British-born April Bloomfield, who trained under Henderson and went on to open The Spotted Pig in New York with immense success, recently wrote that cooking with Fergus is "always a wonderful experience for me and my team. He is a great teacher, always explaining why you should be doing something and he's very engaging and funny."

The mindfulness employed at St. John has spread far and wide. The wild, aggressive militance so indelibly associated with high-profile kitchens still exists, but St. John offered an alternative, and any chef who has worked at its stoves will take the St.John approach with them, employ the same ideas and attitudes in their own kitchens, widen the scope.

James Lowe echoes these sentiments at his restaurant, Lyle's. Having been head chef at St. John Bread & Wine for five years, he speaks of the "importance" of what's been achieved. Lowe has never been a hot-headed plate-smasher, yet concedes even he had to embrace a slightly more temperate order.

"Kitchens are high pressured places," he says. "When I first joined, actually, I was told to calm down a bit. Fergus likes a positive atmosphere.

"Success isn't founded on bullying or abuse. It's wrong. How are you going to create the best food if everyone's losing the plot? Of course there are difficult moments but I just think, okay, that's gone wrong, but we'll deal with it. It's a sensibility."

Lowe also says that St.John is "a big family. All the chefs who've worked there know each other—we all have such respect for one another."

He also notes Henderson's resilience to early uncertainties around what he was doing. "His philosophy makes sense. He knew what he was doing was right and valid. It's honest." He describes Henderson's kitchens as somewhere where "warmth and transparency" is projected onto others.

Lowe, like Siadatan, says he took these beliefs with him. They had been pressed into his psyche like thumbprints in the crust of a game pie. Before opening Lyle's, he and his business partners spent "fucking ages" finding the perfect spot, one with an open kitchen like St. John, where openness will prevail, with no risk of a divide between the front and back-of-house. He wanted that same inclusivity. "Communication and working relationships are key," he adds. "Being one unit was an absolute must for Lyles."

James Lowe's aged Dover sole, collard florets and cider butter

A Lyle's dish from earlier this year—Aged Dover Sole, Collard Florets and Cider Butter.

Today, the message of positivity is as prevalent as ever at St. John, as its sous chef of seven years, Jonathan Woolway, tells me. "I've worked at lots of different restaurants, and don't want to name names, but I've seen and experienced some angry kitchens," he says. "There's always been that bravado that comes with being a chef." At St. John, though, the only stereotype is a distinctly un-rock 'n' roll level of respect, both for the food and each other. Even the body clock of its chefs are taken into consideration.

"The hours you work at St. John are more regular, says Woolway. "A fresher, more rested chef is going to perform better. The working environment here is comparable to the food—it's all very humane and relaxed. There's no shouting, just mutual respect, which is transferred into the cooking. The two things are synonymous."

Nose-to-tail was never going to be a fad. It made too much sense. What Henderson offered—and still offers through the continuing influence of St. John and the successes of its alumni—is clarity. Food might have been good before he made bone marrow, hearts, tripe, and pig face sexy, but the industry needed someone to come along and strip it right back. His efforts encouraged a far greater respect for ingredients—particularly those that were once living and breathing—and to say, hey, it's not hard to not be an arsehole. That man was Henderson.

The most important thing, though, is that food tastes so much better when it's cooked with happiness.