Food for Thought

14th January 2010 (Last Updated January 14th, 2010 18:30)

Architect-turned-chef Fergus Henderson is the pioneer of modern British ‘nose to tail’ cooking. His two London restaurants, St John and St John Bread & Wine, have generated two books and a Michelin star. Henderson is a central fi gure in east London’s arts community as well as an active campaigner for Parkinson’s charities.

Food for Thought

“I love taking the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban to the Hebrides, in Scotland, because it means I’m on my way to my favourite place for the summer holidays. But in a perfect world I’d travel everywhere in the dining car on a train. The sense of movement while eating is very satisfying and strangely they insist on silver service on a wobbly train.

Airplane food is another thing all together. I can’t resist it, but don’t really eat much of it. Fortunately I fly much more comfortably than I used to but this means that the food has aspirations that possibly it should not. Having said that, there’s a particular flavour to the chocolate mousse on planes that I’m rather taken with.

When I’m in New York I go straight to the Spotted Pig. After the first Campari and white wine I feel I’ve arrived and of course April Bloomfield’s food is delicious. Restaurants are amazing ways into a city. They are touchstones for the tummy. There is something fantastic about your first lunch in a city.

The excitement of the first view of Manhattan is always a moment of delight. In the same way, when I arrive in Paris I will go to the Le Rubis for lunch tete d’ veau and chilled Brouilly. However, in Florence, standing in the courtyard of Brunelleschi’s Ospedale dei Innocenti makes me think ‘this is pretty good, why don’t I become an architect?’. The centre of Glasgow always gives me a similar thrill.

“In a perfect world I’d travel everywhere in the dining car of a train”

Working with American chefs has been a treat; they are helpful to an extreme. Alice Walters let me do a night at Chez Panisse, which felt very grown-up. I visited Paley’s Place in Portland as part of a game festival and got to grapple with such things as elk and bison tongue; things you don’t run into every day. The third Fergustock event took place in New York in October and I cooked at April and Ken Friedman’s new restaurant, the Breslin, at the Ace Hotel. My memory is so bad that I’m not quite sure how it all came about, but amazingly pig heads, bone marrow and ox heart go down very well in New York.

I love the Chinese food in London. Dumplings are great for the kids. There are graduations of dim sum: Yauatcha and Hakkasan, then the Royal China. I had the wildest thing at the Royal China Club – delicious crab cooked in vinegar and egg white, but I really go to the Royal China for dumplings.

I like visiting Bar Italia in Soho, in the morning, when it still has a nice gentle atmosphere. You can go for a coffee, bump into friends, and it can turn into a very long and jolly day. My favourite stretch in Soho is what I think of as the ‘dangerous one’. Dean Street: Groucho, Quo Vadis and Jerry’s … things can go on until very late.

Soho in London is on a good scale. It’s really just four streets, and very manageable. Centrepoint has become very attractive in a strange way, it’s really found itself. With the writing on top it’s a real beacon. I think the seafood restaurant Sweetings, in the City, which only opens for lunch during the week, represents a lesson for any architect. It is a lesson in space. You sit at counters around the sides of the room and you put your orders in and they yell it over to a runner who hands it back to the waiter. It’s a ritual and it works. But if you designed it, it wouldn’t work. You need to ‘catch it’.

For the TV show Could You Eat an Elephant? Jeremy Lee and I went travelling in search of unusual meals and had cobra washed down with bile vodka in Hanoi. Then there was brandy made with gecko and sea horse. Particularly unusual was the serving of crinkle cut chips with the snake. All good!

Interview by Christopher Kanal