British nose-to-tail cooking pioneer Fergus Henderson's Hong Kong message

British chef serves up signature dishes on brief visit to spread the message about nose-to-tail dining, writesMischa Moselle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 6:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 6:53am

British chef Fergus Henderson was in Hong Kong earlier this week promoting the concept of nose-to-tail eating.

On his second visit to the city, Henderson hosted two dinners at the Blue Butcher on Hollywood Road, serving signature dishes such as roast veal bone marrow with parsley salad, grilled ox heart, beetroot and horseradish, foie gras, trotter, prunes and mash and Welsh rarebit.

The self-taught chef and his restaurants are closely associated with two of the major trends of the past two decades or so - nose-to-tail eating and the food revolution that is supposed to have transformed Britain's culinary landscape.

Henderson acknowledges the practice of eating virtually the whole of a slaughtered animal is not especially new.

The Chinese have always used the whole animal. The French use tripe. They know it’s good eating. That’s why I was hooked
Fergus Henderson

"The Chinese have always used the whole animal. The French use tripe, for example. They know it's good eating. That's why I was hooked."

His style of cooking focuses on outer extremities and innards but better known primary cuts are not ignored. A feasting menu for a group at one of Henderson's London restaurants might have a starter of ox heart or pig's cheek, but will include a whole suckling pig or traditional roast beef for the main course.

Henderson says the food revolution hasn't spread too evenly beyond the capital, as far as good restaurants go. "Leave London and it gets trickier to find a place to eat. Some ambitious country pubs find they have bitten off more than they can chew."

Despite his association with them, Henderson is not much of a fan of culinary trends, saying: "Trends and food don't always go hand-in-hand. I just cook appropriately for now."

That doesn't mean a conservative menu - in fact, it changes twice a day, with classics staying on as the restaurant "works its way through the animal".

"British food used to use a lot more offal and extremities but that's dwindled out. I've been rekindling interest. I've no idea why it got so much attention," he says.

Henderson maintains he is trying to be modern and doesn't possess a rose-tinted view of the past. "I'm not quite olde worlde."

Despite the fascination with internal organs, there are parts that Henderson won't touch. He's very forthright that, "Penis doesn't grab me." He's no fan of lung either. "It's not bad, we use it in faggots but it has a sponginess about it that doesn't work."

Henderson's early career was in London's Soho district, where he and wife Margot worked at the then celebrated French House. His reputation took off when, in 1995, he and business partners Trevor Gulliver and Jon Spiteri swapped the figurative meat market of the red light district for the actual meat market at Smithfield in the financial district and opened the first St John.

Henderson's original St John restaurant in London has since been joined by St John Bread and Wine and most recently by a retail bakery and the bakery/restaurant St John Bakery Room in the south of the city.

Perhaps, not surprisingly for the trained architect son of two architects, it was the site that attracted him to Smithfield.

"It's a wonderful building with five old smokehouses with chimneys, with a high roof and courtyard," he says.

Life in the new district was not without what Henderson calls a "rich texture". The meat market in Smithfield has pubs that open at 6am, attracting "meat workers, porters working all night, policemen, nurses and doctors and then city people arriving for work. An extraordinary cross-section of folk."

In the intervening years, Soho has changed and become more like other British commercial districts. "It lost a bit of naughtiness, which is sort of sad. Rents have gone high sky, forcing ordinary businesses out and opening the space up for big chains," says Henderson.

Although the market was the source of the meat in the dishes that made his name, it wasn't the only source of inspiration. In fact, his most famous dish is stuck in Soho's naughty past. Realising he would need a signature dish, Henderson turned to the film for inspiration.

One synopsis for the 1973 French-Italian production reads: "A group of men hire some prostitutes and go to a villa in the countryside. There, they engage in group sex and resolve to eat themselves to death."

At one point the cast are seen sucking on roasted bones and Henderson found that idea appealing, which is how the veal bone marrow element of the dish came into being. The accompanying parsley salad is an invention born of necessity. One night when Henderson was working in a "dodgy" nightclub, chef Rowley Leigh walked in. Leigh, who now runs the eminently respectable The Continental in Pacific Place, asked for a salad. As the only possible salad ingredient Henderson had was parsley, he dressed it and served it.

The recipe for that salad contains perhaps one of the most famous instructions in English food writing - "lightly chop your parsley, just enough to discipline it".

Parkinson's disease has meant that Henderson has been unable to join the flood of other British celebrity chefs hogging television screens, but he wouldn't have wanted to anyway. "They're not my thing," he says.

He doesn't do much food writing either, bar a couple of recipe books, what he calls "ramblings" in the Australian magazine and "a strange novel with lots of graphics".