The modern pioneer of nose-to-tail eating changed the way chefs cook — without ever selling out on TV or attending culinary school.
Now he’s determined to change the way you eat.
The modern pioneer of nose-to-tail eating changed the way chefs cook — without ever selling out on TV or attending culinary school. Now he’s determined to change the way you eat.
by Daniel Duane
As Fergus Henderson leads me into the kitchen of his world-famous London restaurant, St. John, he pauses to watch one of his cooks chop the arteries off crimson ox hearts big as cantaloupes, cut apart their blood-pumping chambers, and then slice up the deep red meat for char-grilling. Nearby, another apprentice eagerly trims rusty-red lamb kidneys, cutting white fibrous lobes from their middles. Henderson then opens the walk-in cooler, pulling back the massive door to reveal pretty little pink suckling pigs packed like dead babies into a white plastic tub, young and peaceful as if napping in th soft English sun. Chopped-up cow bones fill several bins, pig livers cure in a salt-sugar mix, and fresh pigskin, rosy and supple, sits in big folded sheets.
A deliveryman brings in crates of fist-size pigeons and decapitated, skinless rabbits looking like greyhound racing dogs slaughtered mid-run, quick little legs fully extended. Over near the industrial range top, another of Henderson’s underlings cuts around a blood clot in a deer’s liver, while still another chops chitterlings — or “pig’s poop pipes,” as Henderson calls them, adding, perhaps to settle my nerves, that “they’ve been brined quite far away from all that.”
As the acknowledged master of the odd bits, the man internationally credited with putting organs and
extremities back on upscale menus — and getting people to pay upward of $30 for such forgotten delicacies as seagull eggs and squirrel — Henderson has become one of the great underground heroes of the food world, a chef’s chef considered untouchable when it comes to transforming scary proteins into thoroughly delicious and even comforting fine-dining fare.
Anthony Bourdain has called Henderson the “most influential chef in the world.” While most chefs make their name by fusing unlikely ingredients into new combinations, Henderson has done it by looking backward in time. He finds recipes for forgotten fish, birds, and animals, and the rejected organs and limbs of all of the above, and then presents them in the plainest, most direct manner: half a pig’s face, for example, staring up at you from a white dinner plate, daring you to cut a piece from its cheek and discover the other, more succulent bacon.
After the kitchen tour, Henderson claims a lunch table in St. John’s spare dining room, which has high
ceilings, white walls, and black-metal industrial lighting. At age 46, he looks very much the cultural visionary, with his buzz-cut gray-blond hair and the circular tortoiseshell eyeglasses of the modernist architect he once hoped to become. Henderson turns out to be painfully shy and polite. Severe Parkinson’s disease, which has relegated him to a supervisory role in the kitchen, causes such serene stillness in Henderson’s ruddy-red English face, and then such unpredictable jerking movements, that he can seem like an otherworldly artist, thrashed about by creative impulses.
He orders us a round of champagne and then a lunch of roasted marrow bones, chitterlings, and other dishes. I ask him to talk me through all the various organ meats and their culinary potential.
Henderson answers the way he answers nearly all questions, in a series of halting, meandering poetic vagaries:
“Well, the heart!” he says, as our waitress sets down plates of duck and ox heart. “I mean, they are the heart of the beast, and it seems really…ox heart really expresses…ox. Little duck hearts express…
Parkinson’s disease so interrupts the flow of Henderson’s speech that his words come out in startling floods, like an experimental jazz drummer so contrapuntal you can’t tap your foot. His words pour forth — “I like organs; they look like themselves” — and then cease, leaving a silence. Then he begins again: “Kidneys, there’s a magical squeak, when you bite them, and then a give.” Pause. “…andthenagiiivve…
“I believe it’s that squeak that acts as a sort of…Cupid to me. Like brains, it’s a textural experience…. We poach them very gently, and then we bread and fry them. You get this crunch, and then this rich, creamy give, and…gna! It’s sort of the gna! Theory of brains. In fact, there’s some story…”
Long pause, twitching.
“I can’t remember. Someone once said, ‘All those memories…’ ”
“In a brain?”
“Ah!” he said. “There we go.” Then he looked at the spread before us and said, with a smile, “Well, stab a heart!”
St. John occupies a brick Georgian townhouse, down the block from the 800-year-old Smithfield Market, where butchers hack at thousands of bloody animal carcasses, seagulls caw in the cold gray sky, and price tags poke up from lamb balls and gory skinless goat heads. Signs advertise offal brokers and tripe dressers, and crowds of off-duty butchers in white coveralls drenched with blood smoke cigarettes and devour eggs at sidewalk tables. Historical plaques celebrate the good old days, when criminals were drawn and quartered and unwanted wives sold.
There may soon be a plaque for the market itself: Smithfield, among the very last English markets of its kind, is an atavistic throwback to an age before remote feedlots and slaughterhouses began protecting urbanites from the knowledge of how their food lived and died. Modern English meat-eating culture, in fact, is every bit as squeamish as our own, savoring the obvious skeletal muscles — steaks, roasts, ribs — while shying away from the pumps and filters, the ears and snouts that our farming
Much of Henderson’s appeal comes from his assault on this sorry state of affairs, his insistence that we needn’t fear our meat. Everything about St. John’s plain paper menu and austere decor — along with every detail of his cult-classic 1999 cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (published in the U.S. as The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating), with its old-fashioned typeface and startling black-and-white photos of organs — deliberately conjures a parallel universe in which human history took a different turn and arrived at a different present tense. A world where the modern male never learned to view his beloved steak as a pink rectangle magically appearing in cellophane.
Not that everybody gets the right message.
“You know, there’s two types of offal eater,” explains Thomas Blythe, St. John’s longtime manager. “There’s the group of chaps who come in at lunchtime, and they’ve not been before, and it sort of gets a little gladiatorial. ‘I’m going to have the bone marrow, and then I’m going to have the chitterlings!’ While the seasoned offal eater fully appreciates what a brilliant dish deviled kidneys on toast is, especially for lunchtime on Monday after a racy weekend. So you hope that the offal gladiators turn into the more monastic types, over time.”
Henderson himself claims to have no interest in culinary adventure, insisting that he simply follows a personal ethos opposed to waste. Long haunted by visions of discarded animal “middles” — unwanted parts left lying in fields after the harvesting of the carcasses — Henderson says he’s come to feel that “it’s only polite, once you’ve knocked the animal on the head, to eat it all.” Beyond that, he’ll just say that his food draws inspiration from England’s rural past, and that he lets nature set the menu — oysters in January, game birds when the hunting begins. Henderson also sources most meat from sustainable, humanely operated family farms, but there, too, he disavows any revolutionary tendencies: “I just have this sort of hippie-dippie happy theory,” he tells me. “It starts with the animal, when it’s happy, and it skips into the slaughterhouse and knock! It goes, ‘Oh! I was happy,’ boof. And then we cook it happily and respectfully, and it comes to you, the diner, and you’re happy.”
But it would be disingenuous to pretend that shock value hasn’t played a great role in Henderson’s success, especially among his fellow chefs. In a culinary profession bored sick with the predictably bland filet mignon, seared ahi, and, worst of all, boneless, skinless chicken breast, Henderson has had the courage to believe in his own vision — by putting all this stuff on his menu, and little else — and has emerged as a figure of intense culinary inspiration, proof that a chef can follow his own path, however eccentric, and succeed. Thus the popularity of the now annual FergusStock in Manhattan, where chefs like David Chang put on Fergus-themed events packed with culinary celebrities, and the proliferation of openly St. John–inspired restaurants around the U.S., like San Francisco’s Bar Tartine; Animal, in Los Angeles; and New York City’s the Spotted Pig. Bourdain has named St. John his favorite restaurant in the world and has repeatedly fingered Henderson’s roast bone marrow and parsley salad as his “death-row meal” — it’s the last thing Bourdain wants to eat before the firing squad. In his introduction to Nose to Tail Eating, Bourdain calls Henderson’s cooking an “outrageously timed head butt to the growing hordes of the politically correct, the PETA people, practitioners of arch, ironic Fusion Cuisine, and all those chefs who were fussing about with tall, overly sculpted entrées of little substance and less soul.”
“What he did was he went out and did this shit,” says James Silk, a former St. John cook and now co–executive chef and part owner of Feast, in Houston. “Pig’s ear salads! Lunatic stuff! And he got away with it! He’s empowered people.”
“Like fried squirrel! They’re fucking everyfwhere! They’re in every park! And yet I got over there and had fried squirrel!” says Chris Cosentino, executive chef at one of the first and best American restaurants to follow Henderson’s lead, San Francisco’s Incanto. Cosentino specializes in Henderson-inspired “whole pig” dinners, at which diners can eat, quite literally, an entire pig. He became apoplectic at the very memory of his St. John experience: “I had seagull eggs! Could I do that here? No. I’d be shackled and thrown in jail.”
The standard resume of today’s ambitious young cook reads like a listing of every famous chef the young cook has ever met — how he apprenticed for 10 minutes under Thomas Keller, at the French Laundry, and then staged for half an hour under Tom Colicchio at Craft, and then served as sous chef under Gordon Ramsay. Everybody wants the world to know who influenced them, where they got their ideas. Henderson, by contrast, has literally never worked under a single other chef, nor has he ever been to culinary school. In an industry built around lengthy apprenticeships, Henderson is 100 percent sui generis, a creation of his own imagination, and of his considerable ambition.
Over another lunch together — this time at one of his favorite restaurants, a fish place called Sweetings, in London’s financial district — Henderson tells me he was born in 1963 in London, into a middle-class family that, not surprisingly, enjoyed both offal and fine dining. He has fond memories of his mother’s tripe and onions and equally warm recollections of the family’s endless high-end-restaurant meals while traveling.
“Our family was kept together by the white tablecloth,” Henderson tells me, ordering a plate of smoked eel and a glass of white wine. “We’d always stop for lunch or supper wherever we were, and if you could fit in a church between meals, that was all the better.”
Henderson’s father, an architect who loves great food, was such a powerful influence that Henderson tried at first to combine his father’s two interests, entering architecture school and planning his buildings by thinking first of the feast he’d like to give upon the empty site — like the vision he once had of pigeons and peas with a huge chunk of parmesan, at a table for four in the middle of Mexico City’s vast public square, the Zócalo. Henderson would then write up a kind of recipe for the building itself.
“I think of myself as an architect distracted by kitchens,” he tells me, explaining that when he wasn’t busy drawing in architecture school, he began a kind of pop-up restaurant — cooking a French cassoulet for 200, for example, in a borrowed space. On the strength of those meals alone, Henderson was asked to rescue a failing restaurant by coming in as head chef and creating a new menu. So he left architecture for good.
That first professional cooking gig lasted a few months: “The architecture school didn’t mind my being obsessed with food,” he says, “but chefs weren’t happy being told to cook by an architect, so it was a slightly fraught period, but I battled on.” Henderson met his future wife, Margot, in that period. She, too, is a chef, and they’re still married, with three children. In 1992, they cooked together at a famous old English pub, and that’s when Henderson’s own style took shape. He served all offal all the time, and he would characterize his attitude as: “If you’re going to come to my restaurant, you’ll eat it.”
“I suppose I should’ve sat at the foot of a great master,” Henderson says. “But I didn’t. I don’t believe this notion that chefs should sleep under the stove and never leave the kitchen. Everybody needs to breathe fresh air, read good books, see movies… Life informs what you’re cooking. I suppose that’s not a very chef-y view of the world, but there you go.”
Without any further professional background, Henderson opened St. John in 1994. It was an immediate hit and became a hangout for what was then a hot young London art scene. Henderson himself became a cultural celebrity.
Then he began to notice an involuntary twitch in one finger. Soon, he’d become what he calls a “human windmill,” twitching uncontrollably, and he had to face the greatest challenge and tragedy of his life, the onset of Parkinson’s.
At first, Henderson fought bravely to remain behind the stove, where he’d always been happiest. But it wasn’t long before he had to accept the inevitable, that after working so hard and building so much, he simply wasn’t safe with a knife in his hand.
“Got into trouble last night…. not a good thing…man my age,” says Henderson, shuffling up to the St. John bar early the next morning.
“Yes, trouble…. Not good. Not good. Care for a Fernet-Branca?” Henderson considers this jet-black Italian liqueur to be a great hangover cure; he seems to view alcohol in general as a powerful steadying influence on his nerves. So he downs a couple of shots, moves on to espresso, and begins talking about the painful decision to name his sous chef as his replacement in the role of head chef.
In 2004, Henderson began a new course of medication. A year later he had a surgery called deep brain stimulation. The idea was to plant platinum iridium electrodes in particular parts of the brain, pulsing in currents via wire running out of the skull, down the neck, and into a titanium-encased, battery-powered neurostimulator, buried below the clavicle. Nobody really knows why this works, but the procedure is used to treat a number of diseases, including Tourette’s syndrome and major depression.
Henderson learned that he would remain conscious throughout the entire procedure. Surgeons bolted a metal brace to his skull — “a sort of Darth Vader–looking thing” — so that his head would remain steady, and they drilled two holes in his skull, each about a half-inch wide.
“There was a certain poetic justice, I felt, having cooked so many brains, to have my brains cooked a bit,” Henderson says.
Then another thought appears to strike him: “Hey, shall we go have lunch at St. John Bread and Wine?” he asks, referring to his only other restaurant, also in East London. “And perhaps a Madeira first, for elevenses? I find it immensely calming….”
And so, after yet another drink we climb into a taxi and head toward London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood. While the driver navigates bad traffic, I ask Henderson where the surgeons placed the electrodes. He claims not to know. “I find I like the ostrich theory…put your head in the sand. The more I know about Parkinson’s, the more symptoms I get, so it’s best to know nothing about it.”
The surgeons then knocked Henderson out with a general anesthetic and surgically implanted the unit’s battery pack in his chest. “It was a fruity experience but really successful,” Henderson says, and while he still can’t cook safely, he says, “I’m 100 times, 200 times better than I was.”
Friends and co-workers confirm this. They say his body is much calmed since the surgery, and although Henderson hasn’t returned to the kitchen, he appears to be thriving in his role as the chief St. John visionary, dreaming up new dishes and telling others how to execute them. He retains absolute veto power over every plate that leaves his kitchen, and yet he’s free to travel and broaden his influence even further.
Henderson now has a second cult-hit cookbook, Beyond Nose to Tail, which he co-wrote with his pastry chef, Justin Piers Gellatly, and his new business venture, the St. John Hotel, opens in London this summer. His influence in the United States continues to grow as well, as evidenced by the third annual FergusStock event this past autumn, where he served those pot-roasted half pig’s heads at the Breslin, inside the Ace Hotel, in Manhattan.
After we’ve paid the taxi driver, Henderson leads me into St. John Bread and Wine, another brutally spare space, borderline industrial, and he orders his usual champagne to start, his usual bottle of fine Burgundy, and yet another wildly challenging menu. Crispy pig’s tail is, it turns out, quite simply among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
“Oh, and you should try the rolled spleen, it’s wonderful,” Henderson says. “It swells in…”
“It swells in your mouth?”
“In love. It swells in love, which can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, depending….”
The waitress appears, and Henderson asks, “Can we have radishes and butter, rolled spleen, potted rabbit, sweetbreads, oh…and a salad, to keep the scurvy away?”
And there it is again, this impulse toward an alternate history: “to keep the scurvy away,” as if the scourge of ancient mariners were still a genuine problem; as if chefs and journalists in 21st-century London still had those mariners on our minds; as if, in other words, the world were other than it is.
Henderson admits that much like his manager, Blythe, he sometimes worries about the spirit in which people approach his food. “I mean…it’s sort of entertainment for city boys in here,” he says, referring to the young bankers who work in the British financial district. “‘Who’s going to eat the most scary thing on the menu!’ And that gives you the wrong… Nothing’s scary. It’s all delicious.”
Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad
This is the one dish that does not change on
the menu at St. John. The marrowbone comes from a calf’s leg; ask
your butcher to keep some for you.
12 three-inch pieces of veal marrowbone
A healthy bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked from the stems
2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 modest handful of capers
(extra-fine if possible)
Juice of 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
A pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A good supply of toast
Coarse sea salt
Put the marrowbone pieces in an ovenproof frying pan and place in a hot 450-degree oven. The roasting process should take about 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the bone. You are looking for the marrow to be loose and giving, but not melted away, which it will do if left too long.
Meanwhile, lightly chop your parsley, just enough to discipline it; mix it with the shallots and capers; and at the last moment, dress the salad.
Here is a dish that should not be completely seasoned before leaving the kitchen, rendering a last-minute seasoning unnecessary by the actual eater; this gives texture and uplift at the moment of eating. scrape the marrow from the bone onto the toast and season with coarse sea salt. then a pinch of parsley salad on top of this and eat. Of course, once you have your pile of bones, salad, toast, an salt, it is diner’s choice.
From The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, by Fergus Henderson
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Men’s Journal