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The culinary couple who built a British empire

CultureThe culinary couple who built a British empire

The young woman at the next table didn’t take off her shirt during the high-speed guitar riff of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

It was another raucous Saturday-night service at the North London restaurant Black Axe Mangal, and the music wasn’t even the loudest thing in the room. There was Kiss graffiti on the belly of the black-iron wood grill, the platinum-bleached hair of a line cook, Mexican-style flowered oilcloth on the tables and ropes of tattoos climbing the arms of the chef, Lee Tiernan.

There was the memory of the first dish: a shot of vodka for one hand, a shot of beet juice with a tincture of horseradish for the other, a bite of sausage and pickled walnut — a full round of shots and snacks, all on one plate. At night’s end, Cher sang backup to a deep-fried apple hand pie that arrived in a red plastic basket and dared to be even better than the McDonald’s version.

A couple of miles south, at the minimalist restaurant St. John, diners were finishing their marmalade puddings and madeleines in relative serenity. Just as the chef, Fergus Henderson, decreed when it opened in 1994, there was no music, no art, no flowers and no color anywhere but on the plates. There was a pleasing hubbub of conversation, a cadre of neatly aproned cooks and servers, and a smart but soothing palette of black, gray and white. On a plate lay a shining-fresh whole mackerel with a sharp glare, a perfectly plump lemon and a ruby pile of horseradish-spiked beets.

Modern Britain may be a nation torn by the political and cultural battles over Brexit, which took effect on Jan. 31. But in London’s food world, these vastly different restaurants and a host of others, all shaped by Henderson, still happily coexist.

St. John, which Henderson opened with a revolutionary menu of marrow bones, meat pies and pig’s feet, has inspired countless nose-to-tail dishes, expanded the definition of fine dining here, and helped build a generation of proudly British chefs, including Tiernan.

You may have to squint to see a through line other than beets and horseradish, but the influence of St. John on Black Axe Mangal — the respect for local tradition, the attention to detail, the balance and technique in each bite — is now settled law.

“Fergus Henderson is the most influential chef of the last two decades, even though you have likely never heard of him,” Anthony Bourdain declared on “Parts Unknown” in 2016.

It’s even more likely that you have never heard of Margot Henderson. A chef with two popular restaurants and a high-profile catering company, she and Fergus Henderson have been married since 1992. Their food is nearly indistinguishable: simple, elegant renditions of British classics, drawn from a local and seasonal larder.

Over the last two decades, dozens of young chefs have been mentored by one or both Hendersons. Taken together, the couple’s North London restaurants — St. John in Smithfield, St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields and Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch — form a kind of Henderson Triangle that has not only helped the city become a culinary destination, but changed the course of British cuisine. There are other important modern restaurants in England, like the River Café and the Fat Duck, but none as peculiarly British as St. John.

They didn’t set out to revive any particular traditions. “I didn’t want to make nursery food,” Fergus Henderson said in an interview last month, about the stodgy classics that long gave British food a bad name. (Toad-in-the-hole, mushy peas and the like do not appear on any St. John menu.)

But in the early 1990s, he saw possibilities in potatoes and pigs that no one else did. A decade before the much-praised Noma opened in Copenhagen, Henderson was spreading the gospel of strictly local, seasonal cooking in Northern Europe. In fact, many say that Henderson wrote it.

“Literally no one was serving cabbage,” said Henrietta Lovell, a tea importer in London who works with chefs and tea farmers all over the world. “It was all kiwis and kumquats and tomatoes in January.”

To eat at St. John and its offshoots in the winter is to become intimate with turnips, beets and a dizzying, delicious parade of brassicas: cabbage salads, radishes with leafy greens attached, thinly shaved kohlrabi, butter-braised Brussels sprout leaves.

“Everyone talks about the snouts and ears, but you can’t eat like that all the time,” Lovell said. “It’s the excellence of everything else that make you go back over the years.”

In 2005, for his services to the nation’s gastronomy, Henderson, now 56, was royally honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (popularly known as an MBE; M.I.A. and Jackie Chan belong, too).

Since then, the legend around Henderson has reached heroic proportions. As the story goes, he picked up the sputtering torch of traditional British cookery, nearly extinguished by postwar rationing, frozen food and American fast food; single-handedly liberated the nation from the culinary tyranny of France and Italy; and led it back to a preindustrial paradise where each pig was known and loved, every fish was fresh and local, and no one ever got tired of cabbage.

There are several things wrong with this story, and the restaurant’s silver jubilee seems like a good time to correct them.

First, as Henderson is quick to say, he did nothing single-handedly. His longtime business partner Trevor Gulliver has managed the restaurants and upheld St. John’s quirky tenets (including an old-fashioned all-French wine list) since the rocky beginning. Londoners stayed away in droves from the drafty former smokehouse near Smithfield Market (the anchor of that city’s meatpacking district at the time, and just as deserted at night as Manhattan’s was).

“We didn’t know it then, but a restaurant develops a relationship with people and a relationship with a city,” said Gulliver, 66.

Fergus Henderson had little professional experience when he and Margot Henderson met; she had already cooked in her native New Zealand; in Sydney, Australia; and in trendy restaurants in London. “She made me a chef,” he said simply.

Her experience, she says, is why she was able to spot the genius in Fergus Henderson’s early experiments. “Everyone else was fiddling with chicken breasts and coriander, boning out quail and making food look like something it wasn’t,” she said.

They opened a tiny restaurant together in 1992, above the French House, a venerable Soho pub. When Fergus Henderson left to open St. John, their first child had just been born. “I was out of my mind with motherhood, absolutely gaga, but in a good way,” Margot Henderson said. She left the restaurant world to raise their three children, now safely into young adulthood.

For many female chefs, that is a career-ending decision, but Margot Henderson never stopped cooking. Instead, she started Arnold & Henderson, a catering company, with Melanie Arnold, also a mother and a restaurant refugee. When the business outgrew their home kitchens, they moved it to a bike shed in the then-remote, now-hip Shoreditch district, then grew it into two restaurants, both called Rochelle Canteen. (The second is housed in the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in central London.)

Arnold & Henderson now handles chic events like the designer Paul Smith’s recent 50th-anniversary dinner at Paris Fashion Week, and clients like Keira Knightley and Gwendoline Christie.

In short, Margot Henderson has done the improbable: At an age (54) when most chefs find their knees and energy are giving out, and in an industry that routinely chews through working parents, Henderson is becoming a famous chef in her own right.

“What she does has so much complexity, but it reads as effortless,” said the chef Danny Bowien, a St. John and Rochelle Canteen superfan. His own explosively seasoned food at the Mission Chinese Food restaurants in New York and San Francisco is the opposite of minimalist, but he worships at the Hendersons’ altar of perfectionism through technique.

“You can’t separate the two of them,” said Kitty Travers, a craft ice cream maker who worked with them for 10 years and, like many others, is fiercely loyal to both.

In another contrast to other British chefs of their generation, like Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, the Hendersons run intensely focused kitchens with a minimum of tantrums and a maximum of instruction. Chefs tend to spend far more time in the Henderson Triangle than is common in restaurant careers.

That loyalty has only intensified as the partners negotiate the progression of Fergus Henderson’s Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed in 1998. He can no longer cook fast enough to work during service, but — as with many eminent chefs — his absence doesn’t seem to matter: He is still unquestionably in charge.

Travers is one of a growing group of influential young cooks descended from the St. John/Rochelle Canteen line, along with the baker Justin Gellatly, the jam-maker Lillie O’Brien, the zero-waste advocate Douglas McMaster, and chefs like James Lowe, Anna Tobias, Theodore Kyriakou and Tiernan of Black Axe Mangal.

Lowe, who opened Lyle’s and, recently, Flor, has made a mission of uncovering forgotten British ingredients like Alexanders (a variant of parsley), beremeal (an ancient strain of barley, grown in Scotland) and Stichelton, a veined blue cheese made from raw milk. (Stilton, England’s famous blue, is now made from pasteurized milk.)

Travers no longer restricts herself to local ingredients. “I was always trying to sneak pineapple onto the menu” at St. John, she said, by arguing that Victorian-era aristocrats grew them in hothouses. But she does go to the source for ingredients, driving to Italy to pick out Amalfi lemons and to France for ripe apricots for her small-batch ice creams.

Whether she will be able to keep road-tripping for fruit now that Britain has left the European Union is in question. And the national debate over Brexit has highlighted thornier questions — about what and who belongs inside British borders — that extend into the food world and, by extension, the Henderson Triangle.

“I don’t think they set out to romanticize British food,” said Anna Sulan Masing, who writes about food and identity and is co-host of a podcast called “Voices at the Table.” “But there is this magical narrative with rose-colored glasses about what Britain used to be.”

At St. John, that narrative does not include plantains from the Caribbean, pomegranates from the Middle East or pasta, for that matter. “They have their core ingredients,” Bowien said admiringly. “They’ve never wanted to take their ox head and put it into tacos, or start nixtamalizing corn.”

Still, the Hendersons are trying to move the needle on diversity among their employees. Like most restaurant kitchens, St. John’s have long been overwhelmingly male. The Rochelle Canteens are largely staffed by women, but there has not yet been a female head chef at a St. John restaurant.

The current chef at St. John Bread and Wine, Farokh Talati, is the son of Parsi immigrants from India, and the first person of color to head a St. John kitchen.

Since Talati started at St. John in 2015, he said, few people who are not white and European have applied for jobs. “I can see how some chefs might feel they don’t belong” in a kitchen with a reputation for rigorous British tradition, he said. “I hope I can open the door on that a little bit.”


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