When it comes to the more carnivorous strain of contemporary cuisine, Fergus Henderson is a living legend with no shortage of praise. Anthony Bourdain called his London restaurant St. JOHN the place of his dreams, and its signature roasted bone marrow his death-row dish; April Bloomfield refers to the extremely British chef as an “icon in New York”; and Mario Batali claims Fergus’ recipes make him want to torch his own restaurant for even claiming to pose as one. His status as “a walking Buddha to chefs all over the world” is well-documented. And yet, the man himself is more modest, affable, and industrious than could be believed of anybody commanding such universal respect.
Fittingly, Henderson’s humble disposition ties directly into his ongoing legacy—one of reconnecting British cuisine to its thrifty, utilitarian roots through the championing of lowly, under-appreciated animal parts. Alongside a similar counter-cultural movement in America’s gastronomic circles, Henderson helped convince diners across the pond to understand the true virtue of a slaughtered animal—and the gastronomic joys of valuing its entirety.
His love for roasting bones, deep-frying pigs’ ears, utilizing tough game-birds, baking savory pies, and stewing stomach-lining and trotters, however, has never been about forcing an agenda. The menus and recipes, he’s often said, aren’t designed to be challenging, but simply to give pleasure—and it’s clear when he speaks with sparkling eyes about his mum’s tripe and onions, or recalls with glee with joys of eating cleaned-out pig’s “poo-pipe” with fries in Paris, that these are not empty words.
Despite Henderson and his wife Margot—a tenacious and highly respected chef in her own right—being centers of gravity in the burgeoning London food scene of the early ‘90s, it wasn’t until he opened St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant in 1994 that the core principles of his essential 1999 book, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, were truly realized. A loving ode to meat and rural tradition, the book was re-published in the U.S. as The Whole Beast in 2004, and has subsequently been described by the New Yorker as the "Ulysses of the whole Slow Food movement.”
Henderson has gone on to inspire countless evangelists across the West, from the well-established likes of AA Gill (who famously retracted his hostility towards Henderson in favor of the phrase “tears of joy”) and April Bloomfield (with whom Fergus cooked a guest menu at the Spotted Pig at an event known as ‘Fergustock’), to legions of younger chefs, including Tom Adams, the pig-loving co-owner of London’s infamous Pitt Cue restaurant, and Lee Tiernan, now head chef at the critcally acclaimed Black Axe Mangale.
Henderson has fostered this community of chefs and admirers while stoically battling Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative disorder which slowly impacts his motor system. Twenty-two years, one round of Deep Brain Stimulation, and an MBE after his diagnosis in 1998, his speech and motor skills are heavily affected—but it far from defines him. In fact, despite being constantly abandoned by his own enunciation, he is one of the most expressive men, with one of the most brilliant minds, you will ever meet. When he cannot quite vocalize something, his body takes over, with great conductor-like swings of his hands and untranslatable exclamations standing in for words. Nothing is lost in conversation with Henderson—each of his days, nights, and tobacco-laden hangovers come across as clearly as if you’d shared each of them with him.
We meet in the white-walled space of St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant, where he jovially pulls out a postcard scribbled with notes (the words almost illegible, even to him) on what have been the most important foods to him throughout his career as one of the most important figures in contemporary food history.