An interview with Fergus Henderson

I can hardly believe that I’m posting this.  Mr. Fergus Henderson – winner of countless awards, recipient of a Michelin star, and owner of the 14th ranked restaurant in the world – took time out of his day to answer my questions. I’m awe-struck and honored to say the very least, and I thank him and his Office Manager Candice Martin for humoring my interview request. Personally, my favorite part of the interview was his first line:

Dear Ryan,

I am very impressed by your endeavor to cook everything from my book, good luck and I wish you a larky appetite.

Mr. Henderson has given some very interesting answers to the submitted questions and I invite you to read into them as you see fit.  I hope that you enjoy his answers as much as I have.


You’ve mentioned in prior interviews that your mother was a fine cook.  If you had to pick one dish she made as a favorite, which would it be and why? What other comfort foods do you tend to cling to? Any particularly guilty pleasures?

Gosh, where to begin? Mum’s fish pie and peas is comfort itself, or steamed treacle pudding. I seem to be immune to guilt when it comes to food.

Under what curious circumstances did you come to find the Bicyclette?

Unfortunately, probably due to too many Bicyclette, I can’t remember our first meeting but here are all my needs gathered in one drink: bitter, medicinal and cleansing.

Have you considered opening a restaurant in America, and if so, where?

It has crossed my mind in New York. But I love New York so much that it would be a shame to spoil things with a restaurant to worry about. Also London is what I know so I am staying here for the time being.

If approached to do a reality TV/cooking show, would you do it? Why or why not?

Reality and TV don’t go hand in hand so no.

What was the reason you decided to abandon architecture and pursue cooking?  Did you have second thoughts about the change, and if so when did you know that you were going to succeed?

Fickle finger of fate, you can’t fight it. I’m still an architect, slightly distracted by kitchens. A happy place to be.

The following questions were submitted by fans of St. John and Mr. Henderson.

Tricia Homis – If you have a person that has taste and texture issues, where do you recommend that person begin in regards to offal?

Tricia, tripe strokes your innards as it goes down, but that’s me. What is maddening is that people take a stance on texture and flavor before they have even tried something.

Jaden Hair from SteamyKitchen.com – Is there ANY part of an animal that you’ve tried cooking with that just didn’t work in any sort of recipe?

Well Jaden, most bits of the animal I have found a culinary home, but I’m afraid I can’t quite warm up about animal genitalia.

Hank Shaw from Hunter Angler Gardner Cook – I love your food, Fergus, but there are a few recipes in your cookbook that skip deep browning or crispiness when it could easily be added.  What is your reasoning behind it?

Superstition Hank! If you say brown something or make it crisp, it will never happen.

John Michael Guerrero -  The Mexican cuisine celebrates the nasty bits much like you do.  What are your impressions of their style of cookery?

They are not the nasty bits!

David Shaw from Belm Blog – Your plates always seem to have exactly enough on them to highlight the main ingredient. How do you know when to stop adding components to a dish?

Don’t start adding components, say farewell to garnish David, and just make sure your slice of whatever it is on the plate is as it should be.


Special thanks to my friend Tricia for helping me edit and improve the interview questions.

How To Eat Radishes At Their Peak

Always look for sea salt.  Such things as table salt have that twang of the chemical industry about them.  Experiment with sea salts as they can vary dramatically in shape and flavor. It’s amazing how a particular salt can be to a certain dish.

Back in March, my friends Brent and Harmony managed to score me a day pass to South By Southwest.  It was incredibly kind of them, and so to show my gratitude I offered to make a multi-course dinner in return.  Since they’re both vegetarians this was the perfect chance for me to burn through a bunch of salad and vegetable recipes from “The Cookbook”.  A few of the courses were from recipes I’ve already covered like the Cucumber, Mustard, And Dill salad and Celery Salt And Boiled Eggs, but most were brand new, like this one.

I do feel a bit bad as this “recipe” isn’t really what most people would call a recipe.  I consider it more of an insightful suggestion than anything else.

The morning before the dinner, my wife and I visited the Farmers Market in downtown Austin looking for the freshest possible ingredients.  After picking up some green garlic, potted herbs and small cucumbers we came across these perfect breakfast radishes.  Later on that evening, right before I needed to serve them, the radishes were scrubbed gently in cool water to remove any dirt.

A quick trimming of the tops and tails and the radishes were ready to be eaten.  I served them alongside some nice unsalted butter and coarse sea salt.  This method is wonderful because it allows you to tailor each bite to your particular desires.  The radishes on their own had a very crispy, firm texture with a subtle and pleasing bitterness.  Brent really seemed to enjoy the simple, straightforward presentation and said as much as we munched away.

Once we had finished eating the radishes,  I washed the leftover leaves, tore them slightly and dressed the whole lot with a simple vinaigrette.  Harmony is a big fan of pepper, so the intensely powerful leaves were right up her alley.  The bitterness and staggering bite were just too much for me so I gladly surrendered the entire bowl.

One down, seventy four to go.

An interview with St. John’s General Manager, Thomas Blythe

A little while back, I found out that St. John had a Twitter account.  I sent the account a small tweet, asking if an interview was possible.  The response was, “You mean you want to interview Fergus, right?”  Of course I wanted to interview Mr. Henderson (which I’ll post later this week) but I truly did want to talk to the person behind the Twitter account, as they had been posting some incredible behind-the-scenes information of the goings on in the kitchen, and jaw dropping pictures as well.

It turns out that the man behind the account was none other than the General Manager for both St. John and St. John Wine and Bread, Thomas Blythe.  Mr. Blythe is an integral part of the restaurants, having worked with Mr. Henderson for over 13 years.  It was a real pleasure and honor interviewing him. I very much look forward to shaking his hand in person and buying him a drink as thanks sometime in the future.


What is your favorite memory of working with Mr. Henderson, and of working at St. John?

There are so many, eating beyond our appetites at L ‘Ami Louis in Paris, the extraordinary St. John 10th birthday party in 2004, my job interview over Campari and White Wine when I joined as a chef in 1995, the night the mariachi band snuck in to the dining room and started playing, so many services, lunches and suppers at the restaurant and beyond – being served Pigeon Prince Rainier III at Le Grande Vefour and laughing like kids at the giddiness of it all.

Fergus and Trevor are quite the Dickens to work for.

And then at work, the brilliant focus and extraordinary simplicity out of which something so exciting happens every day at both the restaurants. I think it’s very rare to meet someone who has the courage of their convictions and Fergus has it in spades.

Nothing quite comes close to a heaving dining room on a Friday evening, everyone is happy, the noisy hubbub of a full restaurant, the team working calmly, confidently – chefs, waiters, barmen, porters – and taking it in their stride, and afterwards you think, blimey, we made that happen – we did that.

I feel very privileged to be General Manager for both restaurants.

What has been the overall best dish that you’ve ever had at St. John?

The Pigs Head and Potato Pie we served at this years’ Top 50 restaurant lunch was pretty special, then there was deep fried baby rabbit one lunchtime, achingly slow cooked Speckle Faced Lamb from James and Lee at Bread and Wine, custard doughnuts from Justin and the bakers… there simply isn’t one… you walk in the kitchen of a morning and there’s Big John crumbing veal breast and you know that’s what you want for lunch…

Working in a bakery is usually thought more of as a early morning/daytime job, where the restaurant business seems to be primarily afternoons and evenings. Are you a morning or evening person, and how do you balance the two since you help run both St. John and St. John Bread and Wine?

The thing is restaurants are an all day business – we open at noon but there’s a fantastic amount of work going on from early in the morning, REALLY early if you’re the baker.

Am I a morning or evening person?

Both. I like morning rituals, the civility of lunch service but also love a buzzing supper service.

A morning or two a week at my desk means I almost keep up with admin but the brilliant office team make that side of things much easier.

Before you worked at St. John, what was your personal position on offal and had you experienced it before?

Very little experience of it actually, a friend of mine was managing the restaurant at the time and asked me to supper – it was like nothing or nowhere else I’d been and the menu back then was quite full on. Only three or four options per course and I think I ate Bone Marrow followed by Deviled Kidneys, I loved it.

Before that I had eaten Tripe but it’s a testament to how good our kitchens are, I hated it before coming to St. John. Now I’m a fervent Tripe lover.

Social networking and sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp have changed the restaurant industry, and do you think they will have a bigger or lesser influence as time goes on?

I suppose there’s an irony to St. John being on Twitter, Facebook and so on when you think about how simple the restaurant and the dishes we serve are.

I started a personal Twitter feed and then it made sense to do one for the restaurants as it’s a very simple interface but so effective.

It’s proving quite useful and I would like to see it grow as a resource among restaurants for sharing information.

I guess it’s a line of communication beyond the four walls of the dining room, a way of expressing what we do to a wider community of eaters and drinkers, bakers, barmen and chefs. No question it’s been an advantage in terms of recruitment and we wouldn’t enjoy the wider reputation we do were it not for the online food communities.

Blogging is fine but is everyone qualified to be a critic? I’m not sure.

I don’t think it changes what you do as a restaurant though – at the end of the day it’s about what’s put down on the dining table that counts and the internet will never be able to simulate that.


Again, thanks go out to Mr. Blythe for his insight and opinions, and next week I’ll be posting the interview with Mr. Henderson!

Pickled Shallots

A version of the pickled onion that makes lively company for meats hot or cold, and cheese.  Use small round shallots, peeled but left whole.

A Happy Father’s Day to you and yours.  I headed to my parent’s house today and made my father his favorite dessert – grandma’s banana pudding.

dad

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Now, on to the update.

I picked up a few pounds of shallots at my local megamarket to start this recipe, then peeled and trimmed them.  Mr. Henderson instructs that they need to sit in a salty brine for a whole week, so into the brining bucket they went to serve out their sentence.

Seven days later the shallots had lost some of their bright purple color, turning dull and a little soft.  Next up I needed to make the pickling liquid.

Half malt vinegar, half white wine vinegar was called for, along with multiple spices like cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, bay leaves and peppercorns.

I rinsed the shallots with some fresh water and then added them to the same pot the pickling liquid was simmering in.  For five minutes the shallots bounced around in the pot before I removed them.  The liquid was strained to remove all of the spices, then the shallots and vinegar mixture were placed into a sterilized jar …

… like so.  The shallots needed to sit for a month to mellow and properly pickle, so I found a cool place in my cupboard for them to rest.

One month to the day, we cracked open a jar to be greeted by a pungent whiff of vinegar and shallots.  Not exactly the kinda smell one would want on their breath when interviewing for a job, or going on a first date.  The first bite was actually more powerful than I could have possibly imagined.  If the vinegar had mellowed even slightly, I couldn’t tell.  The flavor was overwhelmingly tart, with a slight sweetness showing up here and there.  My wife enjoyed them immensely, as did my father.  I’m happy to have them in my arsenal, but I think I’ll let ‘em sit for a few more months until the vinegar’s bite is softened.

One down, seventy five to go.

Salting Cod And Lingcod

Once soaked the salt fish should be refrigerated.

This is another one of those updates that I feel a little guilty about.  There’s no involved process or unusual ingredients, this is simply the age old technique of preserving fish for use later.  It’s pretty straightforward:  You pack salt around the fish until all the moisture inside is removed, and then hang the fish in a cool spot until it’s firm and dry.  After that the bacteria inside the fish can’t work their mojo to spoil it, and the preservation method can keep the meat usable for up to a year if you keep it in a cool dry place.

The recipe asks for a whole cod to salt.  I don’t consider myself a Texas apologist in any shape or form, but I’d have to suffer from some kind of super-powered delusional mindset if I were to tell you anything other than the fact that a fresh, diverse seafood selection just isn’t a possibility here in the middle of Texas.  The best I could do was visiting Quality Seafood, a highly recommended fish monger that’s fairly close by.  They had some very pretty cod fillets which fit the bill perfectly.  I picked up two fillets and cut them in half so they could fit into a plastic container…

… like so.  Salt was sprinkled into the plastic tub and then the cod was laid on top of it.  Next I poured more salt over the fillets until every inch was sufficiently covered.

The container was placed in the fridge for the next ten days, with me adding more salt every day and removing any excess liquid that had collected.  Fairly simple stuff, right?  Well, the next step ended up making me pause.  Mr. Henderson instructs that the salted fish needs to be air dried in a cool, dry place.  Damn.  Again, I’m in Texas.  The first day I needed to start drying the fish it was freaking 97 degrees Fahrenheit outside!  That is not cool by any stretch of the imagination, so I came up with the brilliant idea that I could dry the fish in the refrigerator uncovered.

WRONG. NO. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200.

Oh man, what a terrible idea.  I’ll cut the story short, but if you don’t like the idea of cod flavored ice, DON’T AIR DRY FISH IN YOUR FRIDGE.

I decided instead to wrap each fillet with multiple paper towels and stuff them into a Ziploc bag. Then I’d place multiple heavy books on top of the bag.  Every day I removed the damp paper towels and replaced them with dry fresh ones.  After a few weeks the paper towels stopped absorbing moisture, and the fillets were dry and firm.

And here are the fillets in all their glory.  I’ve not had a chance to make anything with them yet, so I can’t comment on their taste.  I can tell you that they smell very, very fishy.

Just like my ice.

One down, seventy six to go.

Update: Reader Christopher posted a salt cod recipe in the comments, and it looks so good I just had to add it here.

‘Baccala’ (Salt Cod)

Cut a salt cod fillet into pieces ~3″ long.  Soak the salt cod in water for 2-3 days changing water twice per day.
Pat the fish dry, dip in egg, dredge in flour, and then fry until golden.  Slice 2 medium onions and 2 red peppers into strips and lightly fry to soften, not color.

In an oven safe container combine fried fish, onions, peppers, lots of course ground black pepper, dozen-ish calabrese olives, oregano, chunky cooked tomatoes, olive oil and bake at 350 for roughly 30 minutes.

It’s one of my favorite dishes and really needs salt cod to have the right texture.

Thanks Christopher!