On a recent Friday morning I took London’s Circle Line to sit down for a chat with celebrated nose-to-tail chef and evangelist Fergus Henderson at his restaurant St. John. I had missed him on his last visit to New York for April Bloomfield’s annual celebration of all things offal, Fergustock, so the next best thing was meeting with him on his home turf. At just a hair after 11 a.m. I sat in his airy, unpretentious restaurant to sip glasses of Madeira and talk about textures, butchery and the tragedy of pig-in-plastic.
You are a legend in New York. What is it like to be so revered by so many of the city’s chefs?
Ummm, I’m not really sure. I’m not really sure I do such a good job of being a legend. It’s certainly nice to have such a warm welcome. (He looks embarrassed, and then relieved, when our Madeira and coffee arrives.) Something warm and simple, cheers!
You seem a bit flustered by the acclaim.
YES! Of course. You should really ask someone else these questions.
What are your words of encouragement for people who are sometimes nervous about atypical textures, like with tripe, and the use of unusual cuts of meat?
When people find out the nature of a pig’s tail or trotters, they will go,“Eeeuuughh, tripe!” But tripe. Proper tripe. Unbleached tripe that we cook for eight hours. There is a sort of meatiness that actually has a very soothing texture. But there’s not much encouragement, if people have a thing for textures…
It’s something I work on, as a person who enjoys food. To challenge myself to get over these things. Food is not meant to be scary. We get a table of City chaps to come in and they say, “Who’s going to have the scariest thing on the menu?” It’s not what we’re about. It’s all meant to be delicious. We don’t want our menu to be scary. And I’ve got this reputation for cooking offal, and that wasn’t really ummm…well, it just seemed like common sense to cook the whole beast.
Yes. It’s polite.
Don’t throw parts away.
No, and they’re jolly good. They all have their own textures. Like the kidney with that sort of squeak and then give – ooof! (he makes an appreciative noise) – that I love. Or pig’s heads, there’s so much going on there. It’s cheeks, tongues, some of the best stuff.
But it is challenging for people who are used to eating a beef fillet or chicken breast, or…
Fair enough. But it didn’t use to be that way in the old butcher’s shops. It’s pig meat in plastic at supermarkets, which is awful. The texture is awful. I don’t know why, but that’s the way people are eating. Butchers are disappearing; there are very few butchers left.
Do you have a favorite butcher for personal use?
Well no, I have a butcher. (Points towards the kitchen.) I had a fantastic butcher near home, but he went.
It’s a shame how these things are disappearing. In New York, I used to have to go to the Bronx for a good butcher, but that’s starting to change. Is there a “return to a butchering” trend in London at the moment, like we’re seeing in New York?
Jamie Oliver is doing something with butchers. Well, there’s Lidgates, but they’re a bit expensive. Or Ginger Pig, a very good butchers, but they’re expensive too. It’s a two-tier system: the glamour and the Prada of butchery, and there’s the pig-in-plastic. Which is very much a tragedy of the middle somewhere.
I wonder if there’s any culture still of butchery in some of the more immigrant focused neighborhoods.
Yes, probably. But it all seems like there aren’t many shops, it’s all Tesco or whatever.
I lived in London many years ago and I remember to go to the supermarket you had to really travel to get to one.
Now they’re everywhere!
You don’t talk to anyone at the shop and I hate it. There’s an Italian shop in Soho that I work my way through. Sausages, polenta, pasta, risotto. Italians like to cook at home. My wife and I have been making things from there. It’s very sad, everyone should hug their butcher.