“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.
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
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