Margot & Fergus Henderson

6th October 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Steve Ryan

6th October 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Steve Ryan

Until a couple of years ago, Margot and Fergus Henderson lived with their three children in a small, full-to-bursting flat in Seven Dials. They enjoyed being right in the centre of London, a stone’s throw from Soho and not far from Fergus’s original St John restaurant in Smithfield (Margot’s wonderful Rochelle Canteen is a bit further to the east in Shoreditch). But the kids, all well into their teens, were getting a bit old for sharing bedrooms and Margot rather fancied having a garden, so after more than 20 years in Seven Dials they upped sticks and moved south of the river to Stockwell.

They now live in a large Victorian house in one of the pretty pockets of an otherwise quite anonymous neighbourhood. (“It’s a weird process, buying a house,” Fergus tells us. “One day you’ve got money, then you look for a house and suddenly all the money’s gone.”) When we arrive, on a very sunny morning in June, Margot is firing up the barbecue in the (large, verdant) back garden to grill nine quails for lunch and Fergus is on the patio opening the first of several bottles of wine – from St John’s own winery, Boulevard Napoleon in the Minervois, no less.

We had high hopes for this interview – who wouldn’t get excited about meeting London’s greatest food couple for a long boozy lunch at home? And it really doesn’t disappoint. It’s not just the constant flow of fine wine or the simple but deeply satisfying food – Margot dishes up the quail with lentils and a tomato salad and Fergus rounds off proceedings with a devilishly good toasted cheese sandwich (using St James sheep’s cheese). It’s also that they’re so much fun to hang out with – Margot vivacious and funny, Fergus quieter but no less wry and opinionated. The following conversation, ranging from the evils of coriander to the seductive power of well-cooked pasta, has been extracted from four hours of lively and increasingly tipsy chat. Hope you enjoy it.

Continued below...

On a day off – if you get days off…

Margot: Oh we get days off.

How does your day unfold? Is there anything you need straight away – coffee, for instance?

Fergus: A lunch plan.
Margot: Fergus is making a lunch plan in bed. “What’s for lunch? Are we going out for lunch? Has someone invited us for lunch? Have we invited anyone for lunch?” It’s that sort of thing. So what we need straight away is coffee and breakfast.

What’s for breakfast?

Margot: I would have marmite toast. I like marmite, I prefer it to Vegemite (sorry New Zealand!). Fergus likes to have eggs and bacon, he likes a cooked breakfast.

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How do you like your eggs?

Fergus: Depends on the mood.
Margot: He has a lot of boiled eggs.
Fergus: And soldiers.
Margot: He likes a bacon sandwich too.

What’s your approach to bacon sandwiches?

Fergus: I tend to use back bacon rather than belly. And ketchup, which I make myself, instead of brown sauce.
Margot: I make brown sauce. I can’t believe you’re not making brown sauce, Fergus, catch up! Actually Fergus’s ketchup recipe comes from the Edmonds Cookbook, which is the cookbook you’ll find in every household in New Zealand.

I ordered pigeon and peas, and what did I get on my plate? Pigeon and peas [laughs]. I wasn’t used to that

To what extent does your New Zealand upbringing figure in what you eat?

Margot: In my life? Every day, New Zealand is with me [laughs]. No, it’s not every day. But I think you take your childhood with you. I had quite a free childhood. Outside all the time, barefoot and wild. My mother was a health nut, so everything we ate was brown. (I’m trying to get rid of white flour in my life but I’m struggling with it – chefs love white flour.) The first 20 years of my life was in New Zealand, so that was an influence, but it’s quite hard to put a finger on it. The way I take the tube, do I take it as a New Zealander? No I think I take it as a Londoner. So I’m also a Londoner.

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When you left home, did you move straight to London?

Margot: I went to Australia for a weekend. I couldn’t believe it – got real culture shock. It was hot city, on a Sunday night and there were thousands of people – I’d never seen more than three people on a Sunday night in Wellington. It was definitely wild coming to big cities and lots of people. And all this brick here [in London], I couldn’t believe all the brick, I wrote lots of letters about the brick.

Were you making positive comments about the brick?

Margot: Yeah. It was all about brick and season change. I had a little typewriter [laughs]. It was very romantic, Fergus, don’t take the mickey out of me.
Fergus: I won’t.
Margot: You know when you’re 20 and you’re missing home? And London then was much darker, it was bleak. The country had just come out of a war with Argentina, the miner’s strikes had just finished. Everyone was living in bedsits where you shared a bathroom.

We know a bit about Chinese food so we ordered jellyfish, and they were like, okay. Then things started to happen.
Margot and Fergus on their favourite restaurants in south London

How was the food?

Margot: Back then? I didn’t have any money. We ate at the Pollo Bar on Old Compton Street – Fergus was probably at the table right next to me.
Fergus: It was all formica.
Margot (to Fergus): Did you eat upstairs?
Fergus: Depends.
Margot: It was more attractive upstairs but downstairs was humming. It’s still the Pollo but it isn’t quite the same – or maybe we know more about food. What would you eat there? I always had the pesto…
Fergus: I once had pesto poisoning from there, woke up in pesto sweats.
Margot: But you got a really big plate of pasta for £7 and cheap bottles of wine. Fergus was obviously a regular. And I was drinking at the French House – that was the first pub I went to. We must have been just at the other end of the bar.

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The deep-fried squirrel deckchair at the back of the garden

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So you were crossing paths all the time without knowing it?

Margot: Yeah.

How did you eventually meet?

Margot: Through Simon Miller-Mundy, this mutual friend of ours who had been washing dishes for me because he was down on his inheritance.

Where was that?

Margot: First Floor [in Notting Hill] – my first head chef job. Then Simon said he was going to leave – I couldn’t believe it – and he was going to work for this brilliant young chef, Fergus Henderson. “The food is so simple Margot, you’ve got to meet him.” They had a club in Covent Garden [17 Mercer Street] – what you’d call a pop-up now – where they were doing huge lunches on Sunday. They’d do one dish, cassoulet or something, and a hundred people would come.
Fergus: Two hundred.
Margot: Two hundred, sorry! I didn’t want to exaggerate too much. And this club which cost £15 to join…

Do you have any tips for cooking pasta?
Fergus: Feel the force.

Where was it?

Margot: On Mercer Street. The place is still there. And I went in. On the menu it said pigeon and peas. I thought, whoa, that is so cool. I ordered pigeon and peas, and what did I get on my plate? Pigeon and peas [laughs]. I wasn’t used to that, I was used to garnishes and boning out, that sort of thing.

What did you think?

Margot: I loved it, I thought it was brilliant. And then I went to see Simon upstairs in the kitchen and I met Fergus. That’s when he said he fell in love with me, but we didn’t meet properly till a year later.

Under what circumstances?

Margot: At the Eagle pub in Farringdon. I was working there and he came in for lunch and I said to his sister the next day, “You know, your brother and I should open a restaurant together.” He called me that night and said, “What a good idea.” At that stage he was working at…
Fergus: The Globe [in Notting Hill].
Margot: He said, “Let’s talk about it.” So I went over that night after he finished his shift. He let me talk about coriander. What a prick! [laughs] He could have said, “I don’t actually like coriander.”

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You don’t like coriander?

Fergus: No.
Margot: It got overused back then.
Fergus: It’s a real bully.
Margot: Coriander has its place, everything has its place. Aubergine and coriander, it’s a beautiful thing. But we don’t have to shove it into everything, just because we can. Fergus stood his ground, of course.

To clarify, when you were rhapsodising about coriander, was he saying nothing?

Margot: No he wasn’t saying anything, he was schmoozing me.
Fergus: I saw no need to ruin an evening over coriander.
Margot: Then within a month or two we opened the French House Dining Room with Jon Spiteri and it was a brilliant little restaurant.

Her understanding of pork fat, duck fat, prunes and foie gras is unbelievable.
Margot and Fergus on their favourite cookbooks

That’s a quick turnaround. Was it a good experience?

Margot: Yeah it was great, I wish we still had it. They kicked us out. After seven years – we were there seven years.

I didn’t realise it was so long.

Margot: Yeah. We’ve got lots of marriages from the French House, we’re almost going to get grandchildren soon. I love it when people propose in your restaurant.

That probably happens a lot in St John and Rochelle Canteen.

Margot: I don’t think we’ve had any proposals. Although I think St John is a very cool place to take your girlfriend for a first date. Guy Ritchie took Madonna there right in the beginning. “Look at this place! London is cool, okay?”

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After the French House, how long did it take to start up your own places?

Margot: Fergus left the French House after a year and a half, to do St John. And I started having babies, and stayed at the French House. I got to know Jon Spiteri’s wife Melanie – who is my partner, still, after 22 years – and we set up Rochelle together.

Are your kids interested in food?

Margot: They do like to eat [laughs]. And I’m very proud of their taste buds. They eat well, but they’re not poncey about it.

Is Hector the only one considering it as a career?

Fergus: No.
Margot: Frances was saying the other day, “Oh maybe I should be a chef, if it all goes wrong at university.” It’s always good to have an option, isn’t it. She’s just done her work experience at the [Rochelle] Canteen, she was very good – very good at cooking crab. She made chocolate brownies, lots of cakes. She was great.

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Did you introduce them to cooking early, or let them do it themselves?

Margot: We just let them do it themselves. But they don’t cook that much. I cooked a lot when I was a child. I cooked non-stop.
Fergus: Yes, I read cookbooks like they were thrillers, I just devoured them.

Does one of you take charge of the cooking at home?

Margot: I think we both do our bit. Fergus used to cook all the time. When the kids were little, I was doing more baby cooking, Fergus was doing the grown-up cooking. I was actually really happy to sit down and do nothing. But I think it’s equally shared. Some people have particular roles. I like to barbecue. Fergus likes to cook risottos and pasta. I can’t cook pasta as well as Fergus, so he generally does that – he’s very good at Italian cooking.

Do you have any tips for cooking pasta?

Fergus: Feel the force.
Margot: You love that posh pasta.
Fergus: Cipriani, it’s very good.
Margot: The first dish Fergus ever cooked me, it wasn’t Cipriani, it was just normal spaghetti with cabbage and truffle oil and parmesan. I just thought, god he’s cool [laughs].

There’s a lot of power in food to make people like you. If you’re all sitting around starving and you butter up some bread and serve a bit of salt cod potato bake, everyone’s like, “Oh she’s really nice.”

The power of good food to win a person over…

Margot: And it was so simple, so it didn’t feel like he was showing off. Good dish, that.

Did you reciprocate?

Margot: I’d cooked for him already: salt cod potato bake.

Did it go down well?

Fergus: Very well.
Margot: You can’t go wrong with salt cod, can you? I think there’s a lot of power in food to make people like you, to make friends. If you’re all sitting around starving and you butter up some bread and serve a bit of salt cod potato bake, everyone’s like, “Oh she’s really nice.” Friendship’s got to go further than that, of course, but it’s a good starter.

When you go to someone’s house for dinner, do you sense they’ve been sweating a bit trying to cook for you?

Fergus: They usually tell you, “I’m really scared.” Which is silly because chefs are always happy to be cooked for.
Margot: I’d say we’re very good guests. Because we like to eat. Also if we go for a weekend, we’re very helpful. Last time, we whipped up the mayonnaise. It’s nice to be helpful. I don’t know why you’d just sit around. Do a few of the dishes or clear up. Do you cook a lot?

I do, though I started cooking quite late. I’d say I’m still an enthusiastic learner.

Margot: I’m still a learner. You have to do things a lot. Repeat, repeat. You need to. That’s why Italian women are so good at what they do. Whereas I do Japanese, I do this, I do that.

So you become a jack-of-all-trades.

Margot: Yeah. I should be cooking Japanese for six months straight. Then I might be okay at it, instead of being a very average Japanese cook. I did a Japanese barbecue for my daughter’s birthday party the other day. God it was hard work. Really hard work.

Why?

Margot: Because Asian food is very mother-intensive. Chinese as well. I don’t think the women sit down very much.

On The Menu

Lunch with Margot and Fergus Henderson
London, June 2016

To eat:

Barrosa ready salted potato crisps
Barbecued quail with lentils and tomato salad »
Toasted cheese sandwiches »
Raspberries from the garden

To drink:

Boulevard Napoléon, Grenache Gris “Le Pal”, 2011
Boulevard Napoléon, Bourgogne, Pinot Noir, 2013

It needs constant attention.

Margot: You want to be doing it fresh – it’s not like a big slow-cooked leg of lamb that you put in the oven and sit down. There’s lots of little bits. And maybe I slightly overdid it with all the little bits as well. Less is more, Margot. Always forget that one. Fergus is the artist of less-is-more, he understands it.

When we started having people around to dinner at our flat, we were cooking the most outrageously elaborate things and messing it up. We gradually realised, it stresses our guests out as well.

Margot: People just want to talk to you, hang out, have a lovely time together. That’s very important.

Exactly. So we’ve gone the other extreme and now we just keep it really simple.

Margot: Roast a chicken.

Pretty much.

Margot: That’s what we’ve done for 20 years. We should have roasted a chicken for you. But we have done a lot of quails, too, over the years.

For info on the St John restaurants, click here. For info on Rochelle Canteen, click here.

Follow Margot: Instagram | Twitter
Follow Fergus: Twitter

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Posted 6th October 2016

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Steve Ryan

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