Oft considered the founder of the nose-to-tail movement, FERGUS HENDERSON flew into Hong Kong for one dinner and many, many drinks. CHRISTINA KO is swept into the maelstrom
AFTER FERGUS HENDERSON blew in and out of town like a Fernet-Branca-guzzling hurricane, I run into Matt Reid, one of the men responsible for bringing the legendary chef into town for a pop-up at Blue Butcher late last year. “I’m transcribing,” I whine. “And I can’t make out what he’s saying.” An understandable issue, as Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1998, a condition that, among other things, alters the speech.
Reid laughs. “Neither can I. But he parties like a rock star!”
That he does.
I meet Henderson the day before his one-night performance, an hour or two after lunch. He offers me a drink of Fernet-Branca, a bitter green spirit that’s known both as a hangover cure and as Henderson’s drink of choice (and is so deeply associated with the chef the Italian producers should really offer him a commission, or an endorsement contract). And then we talk about things, from his days training as an architect, to who cooks at home, to how he got into this whole business of nose-to-tail.
Henderson, for the uninitiated, is God’s gift to offal. When most chefs were putting their ingredients on pedestals – “Oh, how these lush, green vegetables speak to me! Oh, how this stunning sirloin sings!” – Henderson was mucking around with things like livers and trotters, hearts and throats. At some point, he stopped being known as the guy who likes to eat brains, and started being called the father of nose-to-tail eating.
An architect by training, Henderson got his culinary education on the job, working in kitchens until he and his wife Margot took over the dining room at The French House pub in 1992. “It was lovely,” he recalls. “It was a tiny little restaurant and pub in Soho, and it was so nice. We could have huge arguments, then go home, kiss and make up. It was quite happy days in the kitchen with my wife. She’s now got her own thing, so everyone’s happy, I hope.”
His own restaurant, St John, premiered in 1994, putting the spotlight on offal. It wasn’t a marketing idea or anything so considered as that. But it’s probably the question Henderson fields the most: how did you come upon this revolutionary idea, to use the entire animal?
“It’s common sense,” he gamely replies. “I was in Sweden for some award. And this lady said, I want to present Fergus Henderson with the award for common-sense cooking. There are things that lie beyond the fillet – tastes, textures that are extraordinary. A heart or a kidney or a trotter…there’s so much potential that seems to be ignored, that ends up in tins rather than for us.”
Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 32, just as St John began to see its greatest success, which led to his stepping down as head chef – “knives and pans don’t go well with flying arms” – and taking on a supervisory role. “It was awkward. It felt like giving in to Parkinson’s.” He decided, in 2005, to undergo a risky operation called deep-brain stimulation, a procedure that paid off, and has minimised the tremors. He’s extremely open and good humoured about the whole affair: “I feel like it was sort of a brain retribution for all the brains I’ve cooked. It’s like going to the Pearly Gates…I’m sure there’s lots of pigs there to beat me up.”
That sense of humour has been instrumental in getting him through tougher days, but also lends an avant-garde sensibility to his cookbooks, the latest of which, The Complete Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking, features shocking photography alongside his unusual recipes, including a platinum-blonde Barbie given “wings” that are actually pig ears, and a maiden cradling a skinned lamb carcass as if it’s her child. His art-world pals (St John is known as a hangout for the Young British Artists) would no doubt be proud.
I share with Henderson my most recent faux pas, tempting Marc Quinn with tales of Peking-duck repasts. The chef offers a knowing laugh. “There’s a joke. How do you tell if someone’s vegan?
“They’ll tell you. As Marc Quinn did!”
The vegans are somewhere far, far away the following evening, as Henderson mounts his menu at Blue Butcher. We know that ingredients have been flown in, but we don’t know what. At the early seating, a 6.30pm start, Culinary Director Malcolm Wood is extremely well lubricated, for which he has his visiting chef to thank. The meal is a blur of plates small and large – an espresso cup of trotter and quail egg, a slice of pressed pig ear, a sliver of ox tongue in green sauce, a haystack of dandelion with pig jowl and a mountain of devilled lamb kidneys. He tells us, “Our bookings were full on the first day the announcement went out.” And we are not surprised. Although customs regulations, I’m sure, have somewhat restricted the offal offer, it’s a good introduction to Henderson’s cuisine, and a titillating incentive to book a ticket to London for the real deal.
“I think I’ve been drunk since he got here,” muses Wood of the last two-and-a-half days. And we are not surprised at that, either.
+Prestige Hong Kong