Fergus Henderson on 20 years of St. John
Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti
12:00AM, May 2, 2014
As his restaurant comes of age, Fergus Henderson salutes fickle fortune and roast bone marrow.
We are about to be 20 years old. I can hardly believe it. St John has grown up and can now truly be said
to be long past its teething problems. Some of them, in retrospect,
should have been easier to predict than others. After our first
winter we realised we needed heating, having watched our customers
shivering in their coats; after our first summer we realised we
needed air-conditioning after witnessing our customers sweltering
in the heat. The initial menu was possibly heavier on the offal
than it is now, which gave rise to such reviews as "you're offal,
but I like you". Then came the commentary: "Offal, what a brilliant
concept!" Here I would like to put things right: choosing to cook
offal was never a "concept" for St John; it has just always struck
me as the appropriate way to cook. Looking back, though, planning
to open a restaurant in the dourest of white rooms, and
specialising in innards and extremities, we were more or less
asking for trouble.
But I love that room. From the moment Trevor Gulliver, my business partner, showed me the Smithfield site, even covered as it was at the time in pork fat and soot, I thought it was a thing of joy. Psychedelic paintings from illicit raves adorned the walls, but these were nothing compared to the porky black crust left from its days as a smokehouse, even though it hadn't seen a side of bacon since 1967. Just to add local character there was a police cordon across the street that day: a "private" cinema had just been fire-bombed. And now? There's something welcoming about a restaurant that's been there for a long time. It's almost institutional, but not in a negative sense - more old friend than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
A haze rather clouds my memory of our first year. The fog is not helped by the large quantity of white wine mixed with Campari (a drink known in Italy as a Bicicletta) and the bottles of gamay, which we drank to steady our nerves. People were pouring in; everyone wants to try a new restaurant and there weren't the daily openings of new establishments back then that there are now. I was coping with my new brigade of chefs - just. They regularly either disappeared or arrived drunk. It was one thing to catch them in the morning and send them home, but after work the chefs would get truly atrocious, burst into tears and collapse. And who could blame them when Trevor was doing that too?
Our first celebratory lunch, at Lucas Carton in Paris, was possibly a little premature, especially with Trevor choosing a magnum of Château Latour, confidently saying that these sorts of restaurants are just the place to find a bargain. Unfortunately, one of the noughts on the price had eluded his gaze.
After the initial frenzy of customers, things got calmer. Possibly too calm. In fact, we began to wonder where all the people had gone, and where had my chefs gone, too. Things looked bleak for a while. We waited, held tight, and then, as if accompanied by a distant Magnificent Seven theme tune, a dream brigade rode into my life, bristling with enthusiasm. My merry band of chefs included Karl, who had been our head chef at The French House in Soho, and who was to become head chef of St John Bread & Wine, and Justin, our lovely baker. This is to name but a few. These boys could cook, and enjoyed it too, true to the course I had set.
Our first menu has disappeared in the great filing system in the sky, alas, but one thing is for sure: roast bone marrow was there from the outset and has never left it since. Other signature dishes followed in time: brown shrimp and white cabbage; smoked eel, bacon and mash; grilled chitterlings; Eccles cakes with Lancashire cheese; and many more culinary friends. Slowly, prizes were won and customers came back.
With a change in fortune came the need to celebrate again. Trevor and I headed to Bordeaux for supper. And what a supper. As soon as we sat down chitterlings cooked in duck fat appeared before us, with radishes. All boded well: an omelette of chicken blood followed, then a lobe of foie gras baked to a wobbly thing of joy, tripe cooked with wild mushrooms, pot-roasted leg of lamb, pain perdu for pudding and, the final straw, Armagnac to match our ages.
These wild west days are long behind us now, but we still have the occasional festive lunch. Fortunately Trevor's eyesight has not improved.