Fergus Henderson's food milestones
Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti
12:06PM, Sep 12, 2013
Fergus Henderson sifts through the cigars and crèmes brûlées
of years gone by for his career turning points.
We are shaped by moments, those "ah-ha!" lightbulb flashes when something becomes clear. I had my first clear food thought back in the '60s at the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath - a seminal eatery in its time, when the land was ruled by Queen Elizabeth David. The memory: a white heart-shaped Apilco dish of crème brûlée. At this early stage I was corrupted.
The bitter caramel crunch, the rich yum lurking under the crust - a heady moment. I thought to myself, I want part of this action.
Through the fog of time another childhood memory has stayed with me. In fact, it has been a benchmark in my endeavours: like Glen Miller in pursuit of a new sound, my search is for a musk. It is the musk of a good time, which I first experienced emerging one morning to find the remnants of my parents' entertaining the night before: a paisley tablecloth, half-drunk glasses of wine, the remains of a large crème caramel and the intoxicating cloud of spent cigars. The claret was good and these were the carefree times of the late '60s and early '70s, when caution was thrown to the wind and you went to bed without tidying up.
The years passed. I found myself working in an architects' office; the musk Richter Scale dial barely managed a wobble. To my horror, this so-called "creative profession" was fuelled by chicken tikka sandwiches, bags of crisps and cans of Coke, all eaten at the drawing board at lunchtime. Lunch should be a moment of transition: things that caused problems earlier in the day should have been sorted; you can decide whether the day is working or not and order another bottle of wine accordingly. Though, reflecting on my architectural heroes, neither Corb nor Frank Lloyd-Wright look like they tucked into a hearty lunch. Mies van der Rohe, on the other hand, had a good set of jowls on him, suggesting a more lively interest, but it took Jim Sterling to put the trencherman back into architecture. Just as people say never trust a thin chef, should you trust a thin architect?
My first kitchen had been an eye-opener: young, frightened thugs being yelled at by a bigger thug to the point they didn't know what they were doing - thuggish headless chickens, you could say. So, I'd changed tack and trained as an architect, but food was very much at the forefront of my mind: buildings that ended in feasts, to buildings prescribed by the feast, then finally recipes for buildings. I learnt about inhabiting and occupying space, how the space should have an effect on your manners of occupation. Architecture being a permanent thing, unlike lunch, you have to be able to justify every move. But "why?" is just as important in the kitchen.
And then all becomes clear. I find the perfect combination of chaos and systems working together to produce lunch: Sweetings is open for all. It is an amazing example of tolerance and surfaces that can withstand the rigours of a lively lunch due to starting its life as a wet fish shop. But I quickly realised that the extraordinary ritual of lunch at Sweetings cannot be designed, as it would become trite and boring almost instantly. The closest you can get to it is to create a fertile environment and wait and see. To paraphrase Kevin Costner, build a field and they will come.
You go to a restaurant to eat and drink and make merry. A lot of folk find this hard and require the aid of music, low-voltage lighting, brass, marble, art.
At St John we do away with these aids, making you, the customer, the decoration. The music is your chat, munching and glugging of wine, the waiters' white patrol jackets are not to emphasise their servitude but to celebrate them as sentinels of joy. Some say we achieved an abattoireal look. Next time they're sitting in a red velvet banquette with a beam of low voltage on them and background music, they should ask themselves why.