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Q&A Fergus Henderson - Bread & Oysters

Q&A Fergus Henderson

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Fergus Henderson MBE, chef and restaurateur

The cookbook that has most influenced your cooking?

When Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking arrived in our house, it changed our lives forever. My father loved to eat and my mother was always a good cook, but this was transformative. It expanded our horizons and opened our eyes to a world of possibility. My mother’s signature recipe became Tomato Sauce III which has played a huge part in my upbringing – and in turn, the upbringing of my own children who are made up of 50% tomato pasta. Good strengthening food. The one I make now is more slapdash than the original; I have tweaked it to suit my tastes and needs. But my mother, who is a committed recipe follower, always makes hers to the original instructions and it is a joy.

The food of love: what would you cook to impress a potential date? And what piece of music would accompany it?

The first time I ever cooked for Margot she had just finished her shift at The Eagle in Farringdon. She came over to my little flat in Judd Street and I cooked pasta with cabbage and truffle with Zorba the Greek playing in the background. It worked.

The perfect dinner party: which five people (dead or alive, real or fictional) would you invite to dinner and what would you cook for them?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Audrey Hepburn, Fernand Pont, James Bond (though it would be a tough choice between Roger Moore or Sean Connery) and my wife Margot. I’m not sure they would all get on so it would be wise to serve Cassoulet, which has a levelling nature. Such good ballast can only lead to a happy lunch.

Fast food –  your top snack tip

I’m not much of a snacker, I prefer the ritual of a meal. But there can be rituals beyond breakfast, lunch and dinner – take, for example, elevenses, which you should embrace. Every morning at 11am I can be found at St. JOHN taking elevenses – Seed Cake and a glass of Madeira. It provides a vital punctuation to your morning, and tides you over until lunch.

Most memorable meal in  film/literature/painting

La Grande Bouffe has had the most dramatic effect on my life. I watched it when it first came out, in the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, which always smelt like leaking gas. My fellow viewers were scattered across the rows, each recognising the other as a food pervert so each sitting a safe distance away from one another. In an early scene the protagonists receive their first gargantuan delivery of meat; they take the huge ox bones and suck the marrow out of them enthusiastically – that was my eureka moment, the origin of my Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad.

Your worst kitchen disaster

Oddly enough it was Cassoulet, which is generally a forgiving dish. Early on in my cooking career my friends and I made dinner for 600 people, and we left the beans unrefrigerated overnight. They fermented slightly. We had to rinse them off and return them to the stock – happily no one died of ricin poisoning and the thing was a wild success – everyone asked “how did you get that essential sourness?”. I would not risk such a thing now, but it was a triumph for the foolishness of youth.

The best thing to do with a lamb’s kidney?

Devilled Kidneys on Toast, the ideal birthday breakfast paired with a Black Velvet. It sets you up for the rigours of the day, and birthdays tend to be especially rigorous occasions.

What would you like your final meal to be?

Sea Urchins, followed by hard goat’s cheese and excellent Burgundy.

What is your secret talent [in or out of the kitchen]?

It will have to remain a secret, I’m afraid.

What did you eat for breakfast?

A Fernet Branca, a coffee and a glass of water. Although on the occasions when life calls for something a little more substantial I have been known to eat buttered toast with both marmalade and marmite, together. Now how seriously can you take a chef who does that?

What’s in your fridge?

A chunk of parmesan, yesterday’s tomato pasta, and capers – everyone’s fridge has a caper in it, somewhere. You may swear blind that it is not the case, but look again! There it is. Also kamikaze little gems, which always end up at the back of the fridge.

Your inheritance recipes – the one you inherited [and from whom] and the one you’d like to pass on to your children

Fish pie, from my mother. Its powers to soothe are unsurpassed, especially when paired with frozen peas.


For recipes from Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver’s new book The Book of St John visit


The Book of St John by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver (Ebury Press, £30)

Photography by Jason Lowe