Fergus Henderson: What I've Learned

The restaurant-owning chef on his shoes, films and breakfast of choice

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Twenty years ago, we opened St John. There wasn’t really a concept behind the restaurant. We just wanted to have this place where everyone could come and eat good food. You, the customer, are the decoration. Merry chatter and the glugging of wine are the music. There are no red velvet banquettes because, well, who wants red velvet banquettes? It’s quite straightforward.

My wife’s from New Zealand so when the All Blacks play she gets all hot and bothered. I’ll watch the match because it has a sway on how her mood is going to be, but that’s as far as my involvement goes.

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Be kind, civilised and something else was my dad’s life statement. Generous, I think, was the other one, which he was. We travelled a lot and ate a lot together. Dad’s sadly passed away. We had a great wake for him, which he would have enjoyed. We had 250 people to lunch in my folks’ garden in Wiltshire. There’s a forest. When we went for a walk, at some nice place dad always said, “Why isn’t there a champagne bar here?” So we put a champagne bar in the forest for people to discover. It was a happy, “Cheerio, dad”.

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Supper is sort of a punctuation mark, I find. You eat supper, you’re full and then you go to bed whereas lunch has possibilities. Some people want to have lunch with me because they think that it’s going to be a long lunch. Other people don’t want to have lunch with me because they’re terrified that it’s going to be a long lunch. I can’t win.

I’m not crazy about slip-on shoes. There’s a certain squidginess to them. I like shoes with some rigour. I get mine at Crockett & Jones. I found my shoe. It’s a brown shoe. I always get the same ones.

Money facilitates things, which is helpful. I wish I was better at managing it. I never seem to have the upper hand. Don’t open a restaurant if you want to make money. It’s a very good life – huge reward there – but I won’t be retiring to my yacht or anything like that.

My dad was an architect. My mum was an architect. I trained to be an architect. Before that I had a job in a kitchen to try it out and it was a nightmare. It was an old-fashioned kitchen. The head chef swore at everyone. People didn’t know what they were doing because they were so scared of asking him anything. There was one lad whose idea of a good night out was getting really drunk, throwing up and doing a moonie. This person was cooking your lunch the next day. I thought, “That’s enough for me.” So I did architecture instead. Which restaurant was it? It was... we’ll draw a veil over that.

I like wham-bam movies. Who’s the driver chappie? Jason Statham. Fantastic. Talking-animal films make me cry. I have no idea why but they do. There’s one called Racing Stripes where some zebra wins the Kentucky Crown. I mean, such shit but I’m blubbing.

Get to know your local butcher. Hug them and love them because they’re disappearing. A supermarket sells this bright pink thing in plastic. It’s anonymous and awful and you just mistrust it. The butcher gets his carcass in, he knows how long it’s hung for and where it’s come from and has some relationship with it. Also, if you talk to them they’ll have some of the bits that seem weird. Ears or trotters or whatever.

Do I believe in God? There may be a giant, all-knowing carrot or something like that – but, no.

You can get anxious about your kids and try to help them out but they’re very much their own characters and you can’t steer them. That can drive you nutty but they also bring much joy.

For breakfast I’ll have an espresso with a glass of water, Fernet Branca and a cigarette. Fernet Branca is a digestif from Milan. That opens the eyes and shakes up the doo-dahs. Very good for the humours. Liver, feeling any trouble? Ping! Stomach, any trouble? Ping! It’s a miracle, though if you turn to its curing powers too much then it becomes the cause.

How do you know if someone’s a vegan? They’ll tell you.

I have a seed cake and a glass of Madeira at 11 o’clock. By then you’ve woken up and you’re in touch with your extremities but there’s two hours to go until lunch so it just sort of does the trick. Buttery sponge with Madeira. It’s a symbiotic relationship. They need each other.

You know how John Wayne rides a horse with his arm out in front of him? I’d been walking around like that for a while so I thought I had a trapped nerve or something. I went to see the doctor. He said, “These are the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.” So that was a bit of a shock. I had a good lunch, which helped. If something’s gone wrong, lunch can always chirp you up. I thought it was something other people get – I don’t get Parkinson’s – but I’m not going to let it get me down. This was around 1998. For a long time I didn’t take any medicine. Then this amazing nurse, a friend, made a very convincing argument why I should start the medication, which was quite fruity: “You’re a young man, you want to be able to put your wife  against the wall...” That sort of thing. The medication works quite suddenly. Then I had this operation where they drilled into my skull and stuck wires into my head. Deep brain stimulation. That was about nine years ago. You’re awake for that, then they put the plugs in, flaps down and it’s brilliant. Life-changing stuff.

If I lose my temper, that’s bad and I feel rotten about it for days afterwards so I try to avoid blowing my top. The kitchen is a place where people are known for losing their tempers. We have a very polite kitchen. A happy kitchen. I’m not a shouter.

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MORE WHAT I'VE LEARNED:

Sir Ian McKellen
Tom Ford
Ralph Fiennes
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