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“I had some magical trotters on my wedding night”

The NS Interview: Fergus Henderson, chef at St John

Is there any food you find disgusting?
Raw celery. I don't understand the point of it. Braised celery - lovely! But raw celery is just stringy and wet. Lung, too. Oh, and genitalia. I know we've had testicles on the menu, but on the whole I don't really wish to go there.

At St John, do people do a macho "I'm going to order the most horrible thing on the menu"?
They do, but nothing's scary, it's delicious! It's just a mistake - we're not a macho, testosterone-laden kitchen; we're all gentle flowers.

You don't strike me as a shouty chef.
No. I'm infuriated by that. Don't believe in it. Went to a kitchen once - long time ago - the chefs wouldn't ask what to do because they were so scared. It doesn't make sense.

What's your guilty TV dinner?
Cheese on toast, always. A bit of chutney in there. Everyone likes cheese on toast.

Were you ever tempted to lend your name to something - the Waitrose Fergus Henderson offal range, perhaps?
I did dabble with trotter gear [stock]. Wonderful stuff, but it didn't really catch on. Trotters are just sumptuous - I had some magical trotters on my wedding night.

Flew to Paris, went for supper, my wife fell asleep into her meal. It was steak tartare, so at least it was a soft landing.

What do you say to the criticism that "foodies" preach a diet that's not affordable to those on low incomes?
We have two-tier food: the organic thing is fantastic and the rest is spongy chickens, or whatever. We have to meet in the middle.

Can schools solve the problem of our bad eating habits, or should it be parents?
I think it's the families - the whole culture. My benchmark is in Rome. I spent the night with these groovy young fashion folk there once, and discussed chicory all night. They were so proud: "This is Roman chicory." The night I spend with groovy fashion folk in London and they go, "Aah, cabbage. Savoy cabbage. That's London cabbage," I feel we'll have jumped a hurdle. It's a way off - a long way.

Were you tempted to become a campaigner?
I'm not Jamie [Oliver], who takes up causes. He's something else. He's a huge character. I don't think I'm cut out to be crusader. And chain mail doesn't suit me.

How could we, as a society, improve our relationship with food?
We are strangely fearful of food. It's got this huge stigma - how you present food, or what kind of food it is. Enjoy it. Relax. Also, if you're afraid of it, it misbehaves.

Do you have a favourite dish on your menu?
Bone marrow does express everything I think about food. It's not a fait accompli - you have to grapple with the bones, you have to season it at the last minute with sea salt. It requires salad, though, such as parsley. You chop it once or twice just to let it know that you're in charge.

Is banning smoking indoors a good thing?
Oh, it's awful. I hate it. It's so sad. Suddenly, people [who] used to sit there having their wine and a coffee - now you're up and down all the time going inside, outside . . .

At the St John Hotel in Soho, you insisted on having Toblerones in the minibar. Why?
You bite into it and you think, "Ooh, Toblerone, yum yum!" But it's always too big for your mouth and you can't fit it in - reminding you not to be too smug with your situation.

What is the most overrated food?
Depends who's cooking it. It's chefs who have erased their ambitions you should watch out for.

And what is the most underrated food?
I think tripe is maligned. It's wonderful stuff, but everyone goes "urgh". You have to wash and then cook it, very gently braise it, for eight hours. It uplifts you but steadies you at the same time. But watch out for bleached tripe: I have a fear of that. That white honeycomb stuff that's been in the same stuff as people bleach their hair with. Evil.

Do you vote?
I do. One should vote. Not sure of my last vote, though. I voted Lib Dem - I always do.

Do you feel disappointed with the party?
Generally, it's quite frustrating. They should have hung on and been the third party until the moment came, because they seemed much better. They have sensible ideas. But anyway.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
Fortunately, I forget most things anyway. Don't really need the aid of wine or whatever.

Are we all doomed?
Possibly. But we shouldn't get caught up in the doom so much. If we're doomed, we're doomed, I think, so enjoy yourself while you're here. Have fun.

Defining Moments

1963 Born to Brian and Elizabeth, architects. Later studies the same subject
1994 Opens St John Restaurant in London. Signature dish is bone marrow
1996 Is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He reacts by having "a good lunch"
1999 Nose to Tail Eating is first published by Macmillan; it champions the use of offal
2004 Undergoes deep brain stimulation to ease worst symptoms of Parkinson's
2011 Opens St John Hotel in Soho, London

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.