Megan Abbott

Old Friend: How Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver Created London’s Most Beloved Eating Companion.

Megan Abbott
Old Friend: How Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver Created London’s Most Beloved Eating Companion.

Originally published in Life and Thyme, Issue Three 2015

It would be easy to devote this entire article to singing the praises of St. John’s food. The decadent bone marrow, the peppery ribbons of Kohlrabi, the plump, perfect Madeleines carved into seashells. It would be easy to go on about the bitter, porous, bouncy loaves made fresh in the open bakery and stacked on the bar like flour-dusted terracotta pots. Just as easy still to wax lyrical about the glut of hand-selected wines, from heady Burgundy’s to floral, curt whites dripping with condensation. But I would not be the first. In its 20 years in London’s Smithfield, St. John’s daily-changing menu has broken grounds that weren’t even there to break in the first place. It has quieted the long belief that England has bad food. It has shone a light on the delights of sweetbreads, tongue and pig trotters. It set off a domino of whitewashed and simplistic restaurants in England’s capital, where the focus must be on the food and the atmosphere around it. And all the while, the two men behind London’s high Church of British cooking had no interest in being cutting edge at all. So take it as a given, the food in St. John is just as you’ve heard; simple, decadent, ceremonial, impossibly British.

However, there is something more to St. John than its celebrated cooking, something that raises it above the map and turns it into a realm of its own. While it is the food that entices new clientele to their restaurants, it is the atmosphere of St. John that keeps them coming back. If St. John was a person, it would be plump, jovial, with a grin on its face and a glass of red in its hand. In fact, it would look a lot like its founders, Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson. “When you walk into a restaurant that knows what it’s doing, you can feel it.” Fergus tells us, topping up our glasses, “We just wanted to get that.” “What a restaurant is is often forgotten these days.” Trevor agrees, “It’s always a delight to see happy people, in the kitchen and in the guests.” The dedicated team that work beside (not behind) Fergus and Trevor are loving, abiding and openly adoring. “There’s more team spirit in this kitchen than in any other I’ve ever been in.” Chef de Partie John Wigley tells us, “We don’t have any of that old French style of calling each other ‘Chef’ or anything like that. We call each other by our first names. There’s no strict hierarchy in here. We’re just working together.”

We visited St. John’s Smithfield restaurant, which Trevor and Fergus call ‘The Mothership’, on a Thursday. It took a while to meet them, as Trevor was tasting wine with Jackson Boxer of Brunswick House and Fergus was off on a lunchtime jaunt with friends. For a while, we sat in the bar area, with its high ceilings and white pillars, while waiters in white jackets milled around gently tending to the last lunch guests. And then all at once, Fergus Henderson entered the front door in yellow braces and tartan trousers, and completed the St. John picture. Naturally, we were invited to join them at a table with a few bottles of red, and a few bottles of white. Talk ran from the early days of St. John (“There were moments of fear initially. And then suddenly it was all ok.” Fergus) to the revival of British cooking in London (“What revival?! Nothing’s changed in here.” Trevor) and Fergus’ wardrobe (“He puts his jacket on backwards!” Trevor) The two overlap each other, their voices clashing in the air. If ever Trevor edged towards cynicism, Fergus would mutter “Be positive”, to which he would reply “I am being positive.”

Talk turned to fashion in food, something I suspect neither of them have ever thought to consider. “Trend means impermanence to me.” Fergus says. “We’re comfortable in our own skin. Food is rollout retail now. But we have a restaurant, and we care about how we source things, how we cook things, and how we serve them. Fashion is dangerous. Trend is even more dangerous. It’s get rich quick.” Trevor agrees.

But make no mistake, St. John’s jolly façade is driven by a firm focus. After all, there is a reason why they are one of the world’s most admired restaurants. “This is not a game. We’re serious about what we do.” Trevor says suddenly, “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. The better you do it, the more fun you can have.” “If we’re lucky, we can make the difficult look easy.” Head Chef Jonathan agrees “We’re very serious about what we do, but we do it with a smile on our faces. And at the end of the day, you’ve got to remember that it’s not life and death, it’s food. It’s one of life’s great pleasures and it’s to be enjoyed.”

As we shared a bottle of wine, I asked Trevor and Fergus how they met. And they launched into a tale about robbing a London jewellers. “Our drills met in the middle of the wall, and we said ‘We can have a fight about this, or we can discuss it over lunch.’” I’d imagine this was a way to avoid a question they’ve answered a million times over. But it was good enough for me. In actual fact, Fergus met Trevor over dinner. Trevor had just converted The Fire Station restaurant in Waterloo, and Fergus had taken over Soho’s French House pub along with his wife, Margot. Soon after, they discovered the abandoned smokehouse in Smithfield that was to become St. John’s flagship location. Since then, ‘Nose to Tail’ eating has become synonymous with the place, and it has become one of the most consistently praised restaurants in the world. It is also a prized wine wholesaler, a bakery and a London legend. On top of the Smithfield landmark, St. John has also expanded to Shoreditch, Maltby and Druid Street branches, as well as a bakery counter at Selfridges. Visitors come from far and wide to be part of “The Cult of St. John”, to try ‘The Whole Beast”. Sitting across from the pair, glugging wine and trying to keep up with their musical chatterings, it all made sense. The two work upstairs in the St. John office, and infuse the entire place with their combined energy. I ask if they are similar people. “We’re quite different, actually.” Trevor says, “He’s taller than me.” “Some things we agree on, some things we don’t.” Fergus agrees, “But we agree on the fundamentally important things.” “We are badly behaved, but strict on ourselves.”

Fergus no longer works in the kitchen, but his imprint has been left untouched. Fergus Henderson defies the brutal, firey vision of a legendary chef. His kitchen at St. John is a happy place, conducted with efficiency and humour. You can just imagine him looking down at a plate of food cooked by a new chef and exclaiming, ‘Ah, a vision!”. “Fergus’ level of energy is almost child-like. His enthusiasm and passion for the food was just always there.” Says Group Executive Head Chef, Chris Gillard. “I think by nature most chefs are adrenaline junkies. But urgency is not to be confused with bullying and aggression.” In St. John’s kitchen there is no shouting, shaking or skillet throwing. Fergus was one of the first notable chefs to instill kindness in the kitchen, with teamwork as the order of the day. Aggression, he says, can be tasted. “The thought of eating food cooked by someone that’s been yelled at just seems to strange.” He says gently, “I’ve worked in a restaurant where the head chef was such a thug. The rest of the kitchen was so frightened of him. It didn’t make sense to me.” “Food is affected by the spirit of its chef.” He adds, “It’s not some kind of group massage, but we encourage each other. A chirpy kitchen makes chirpy food.” Meeting the chefs behind St. John’s fabled food, I felt myself sink in. How rare to come upon a place run by such legends, who are part of the furniture. How wonderful to find a place where the food is serious, yet the service is jolly.

With a menu that changes twice a day, two owners ready to ply you with wine at any time of the day, and a clientele that ranges from rock stars to butchers, why would you go anywhere else? Whatever ‘it’ is, St. John has it. “The happy kitchen here is because of Fergus. That’s just the type of guy he is; encouraging and positive. The atmosphere here is something very special and needs to be protected.” Head Chef Jonathan Woolway explains, “It’s a pleasure to work here. Even after 8 years I never feel like I’m at work. Every time I walk through the front door it’s a pleasure. It always has been.”

It is a rare thing, to walk into a restaurant and see people enjoying food alone, without the safety net of a screen. Yet walk into St. John on any given lunchtime, and it is alive with visitors, old and new, quietly indulging. With nothing but the odd newspaper or bottle of wine, these solitary diners feast on a bowl of mussels with hunks of crusty bread, or a plump little quail with cranberry jelly, or a rabbit saddle with turnips and trotter. Food like this, and an atmosphere like this, is company enough. Indeed, phones aren’t even an option. A small sign on the wall commands ‘Please turn off your portable phone whilst in the dining room.’ “I think it’s rather rude to be on your phone during lunch or dinner.” Trevor remarks, “It’s about the food, isn’t it?” “It’s important for us to have people come in on their own.” Fergus follows, “Humans are creatures of habit. They go where they are most comfortable. So we feel we’ve achieved something when someone comes in and are happy to just sit and enjoy eating.”

For first time visitors and veterans alike, St. John is a space to eat, drink and be merry. It is a product of the men that created it. Trevor and Fergus are a package. Over the years, they have become two of the most recognisable faces in food; Trevor for that knowing, often satirical grin, and Fergus for those raised eyebrows, pin striped suits and trademark round spectacles, embracing a pig’s head like a newborn child.

Over the years, Fergus and Trevor have welcomed in staff from near and far, embracing them in ‘The Cult of St John’, nurturing their talents and sending them on their way to form a wealth of success stories. The list is endless. From rising star of Lyle’s James Lowe to The Real Greek’s Theodore Kyriakou and Bread Ahead’s star baker Justin Gellatly. In here, it seems the individual is cherished. You can feel it in the air. “Everyone always says it, and it’s true. This is the St. John family.” Head Chef Jonathan Woolway tells us. It’s a language that has been used a lot around St. John-‘The Cathedral’ of the restaurant, and Fergus and Trevor’s ‘disciples’, but it’s easy to see why.

At one moment in our inebriating afternoon at the restaurant, Fergus’ PA Kitty Cooper lent down to straighten Fergus’ cuff, dusting off his arm like some adoring daughter. Fergus thought nothing of it. This warmth is part of the architecture of St. John. There is something about Fergus and Trevor’s constant presence in the room, whether it be chatting intimately with a member of staff, or quaffing red wine at a table of friends. Or maybe they’re customers; in here, that is one and the same.

As the afternoon drew to a close, more and more of the St. John staff piled on to the table. As more (and more) wine was poured, we didn’t for a second think that this excitable gaggle had formed because of us. All eyes were turned to Trevor and Fergus, all glasses filled by them. At that serene hour between the end of lunch service and the start of dinner, we were able to see the St. John family gathering around to swim in each other’s company for a moment. “People could argue that there are better restaurants in the country, but I can’t think of a restaurant within the industry as universally loved and cherished as St. John.” Jonathan tells me, looking around at the place he has called home for 8 years, “And I mean genuinely loved.”