Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, the duo behind St John, on butchery, baking and the importance of happy staff
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili
Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver set up the original St John restaurant in 1994. Their pared back, no-frills, nose-to-tail approach to cooking and dining revolutionised the London restaurant scene. Its influence can be seen internationally, not least through the successes of St John’s stellar alumni—several of whom can be found at Borough Market.
Did you always agree on what you wanted St John to be?
Fergus: Not entirely. I had a healthy discussion with Trevor…
Trevor: There was never a ‘no’ moment, though. It just made sense.
Fergus: It was a thing of fate. I was cooking at The French House down in Soho and Trevor had the Fire Station. We found this site, and it was one of those things—true love.
Was it a deliberate act, setting up here in Smithfield, right next to the meat market?
Trevor: No, not at all. It was derelict and run down. The market, like all markets then, was really falling by the wayside. There was tumbleweed. There was a hint of medieval, particularly at the market at two or three in the morning. Unlike the romance of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor drinking in pubs in Covent Garden, nobody came to drink in the pubs around here.
Fergus: We did.
Trevor: Excuse me. Yes, we did!
You’re famous for your nose-to-tail approach to meat, which was little seen in London restaurants at the time. How did people react?
Trevor: You have to put it into context. We opened in 1994. What the ‘food scene’ is now, whatever that might be, is nothing like it was then. The media came up with every pun possible: “You are offal, but we like you really.”
Fergus: Yes, but then they looked at the menu and it was all delicious. It was also difficult because of where we were...
Trevor: No one ever came to Smithfield, so it was an act of faith even to come here. You walked down this long corridor and hardly anything was open. Now food media is a geometric compression, but there weren’t many food writers then, and there was this misunderstanding: they assumed this was all City boys, testosterone driven and full of men—not true. Then when they eventually came, they saw what we meant. Now everyone’s opening up restaurants with meat, fire, offal and gore, whereas hopefully we’re a very balanced restaurant. We have lots of vegetarian customers and there’s a very simple reason for that: we can cook vegetables. And if you were a vegetarian then, it was very hard to find somewhere to eat. Baking bread is also a big part of what we do.
Indeed, you were baking your own bread on site way before most restaurants. What prompted that?
Fergus: We butcher the meat and do everything else ourselves, so it seemed sensible to make bread ourselves.
Trevor: It’s too grand a word, but it’s a dynamic environment here. The brigade come in in the morning, and the bakers are already baking. Our kitchen is tiny, but it’s efficient. We change our menu twice daily, lots of our ingredients have been caught or shot and sent to us directly and is being hung or dried or butchered. The butcher’s block is at the heart of the kitchen. It’s a great environment for youngsters to learn. We did all sorts of things everyone does now, but they seemed a bit crazy at the time. It took us five years, but we were stubborn. Stubborn in a nice way.
Fergus: As I said once before in an interview, the accusation was that we were luddites—we’re not luddites, but a little bit luddish.
The alumni of St John are impressive, to say the least. You must be very proud of that.
Trevor: People always ask us, “When the boys and girls that work for you go to work elsewhere, what do you say?” We’re delighted, because that means there’s somewhere else for us to go and eat. There’s a network—strings, veins. We can say, go and see this person and they’ll be waiting for you at the other end, you can go and work there. We are also delighted that they sing with their own voice—from Padella, to Lyle’s, to Hereford Road, to the Marksman, they all have their own personality, but they’re all part of our little world.
They all speak highly of their time here, too—clearly the attitudes you have instilled in them have had a lasting impact, which would perhaps suggest they’re not prevalent elsewhere.
Trevor: We have a particular way of going about our business: no shouting. Not because ‘there’s no shouting’, but because it’s not our way to shout. Lots of our friends have happy kitchens, but unfortunately, it’s quite apparent that there are still a lot of ills in kitchens. It’d be foolish to say it doesn’t exist—every ‘ism’ you shouldn’t do is still obvious and still there. I don’t really like chains as restaurants, I regard them as food retail, and there are various reasons why: how they conduct themselves and go about business, how they treat their staff, which is not conducive to developing individuals. To us, it’s important to protect and develop people’s skills.
Why is it important to you that staff are happy?
Fergus: When a chef is happy, you can feel it in the food. At St John, the whole chain is a happy one: the animal, the people who deliver it, butcher it, and do the cooking. And you can feel the happiness in the food when you eat it.
Trevor: If you don’t like people, don’t be part of this business. You think that’s a silly thing to say, but sometimes you just wonder. And it affects not just the people you work with, but the customers too. It sounds a bit trite, but a restaurant is an old friend. It’s a place you go to if something big has happened in your life. It’s where you first met your partner, or once a year when you’re in London it’s the place you always go. It’s something you can look forward to. People come to us because that day, it’s a St John day, and that’s a good day. And we’re delighted that they make that decision. When they come in smiling, we smile too.
How do you manage to stick to your guns and remain relevant?
Trevor: It’s important to understand that our next new menu is happening right now, and the next menu after that will happen this afternoon. We’re not fixed in what we do. We are as bright and forward-looking today as when we started, and that culture is there among all our people. Every day, different things occur. A recipe will never stay the same, because ingredients change. As Fergus says, nature writes the menu. We don’t want to be seen just as the ‘offal palace’.
Fergus: We don’t follow the latest trends. We’re not trendy at all. Trends and food don’t go together; trends have nothing to do with a real restaurant.
Trevor: We do things we like to do. Sometimes they don’t work, sometimes they do. There was a seven-year quest for the right chocolate. It’s the same with wine: we spent two years on a project making a new St John Mâcon. It came on Tuesday and it’s great. And it’s immensely reasonable. Then a few years later we’ll move on again. There are always different things going on.
Speaking of wine, all the ingredients on the menu are British, yet all the wine is French. Why’s that?
Fergus: They’re our nearest neighbours who make good wine.
Trevor: If you see a menu and it’s got pasta, curry, something with chips, fish, steak, spaghetti, you think, I’m not going there. Why would you look at a wine list from all over the place and think, that’s exciting? One, we want to work directly with the vineyard, and two, if you’re drinking Burgundy it’s quite nice to stay with that when you move to a second bottle. It makes absolute sense. Once you start mucking around with wine menus, it usually means you’re either chasing profit or trends. Legend has it we are still the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the world that does bag-in-a-box wine.
Is it important to you that your cooking is accessible?
Trevor: Some people can come every day and some people come once a year, it doesn’t really matter—we’re always here. You can have a nice dish here and a glass of wine for less than 10 quid. And it will hopefully be well cooked, well made, well reared. I feel there’s a misnomer to say it’s expensive, when you know where it comes from: the price is just a function of what we have to pay for our produce. We get all kinds of people here, the great and the good, and no one’s famous at St John. Sometimes people just come in to buy their bread, and never eat here. I don’t think we’ve ever been accused of being elitist.
You have a lot of fun with food, but you’re clearly very serious about it, too.
Trevor: Yes, we’re mightily serious. There’s no room for error. You can hopefully sense that. There is an air of confidence. When you walk into a restaurant that knows what it’s doing, you can feel it.
Fergus: We’ve become an institution, in the good sense.
Trevor: It’s an institution that’s about to fall down, the building is so cracked. It’s characterful—you can put your hand through some of the holes in the wall.
Do you have a defined set of ethics?
Trevor: It’s just common sense. We care about everything we do, and the provenance. Also, if you’ve got a whole animal and you’ve killed it, it only seems respectful to eat it all. We do sprout tops, because when you look at a sprout stick, there are also leaves. It’s just common sense. And it’s just dull, eating processed meat that’s come over as cargo from Brazil: crap meat from farms and cows that are taking out rainforests and crapping everywhere…
Fergus: Don’t say ‘crapping’—say ‘producing methane’.
Trevor: Producing methane. It isn’t a ‘movement’ or ‘back to nature’ or any of that kind of stuff, it’s just about working with the farmer directly and learning how to butcher, which makes for a much better chef. And the quality of the meat is better. Using a whole animal allowed us in the old days to save some money. But if you aspire to be good people of the planet, as much as you can, it all rolls together. We can only hope that people are coming in here not because we’re cheerleaders, but because we can cook and they’re confident in how we source.
Why do you think we ever moved away from eating seasonally and utilising all of the animal?
Trevor: It’s a big question. People have been shipping in food to eat in London for hundreds of years, so ending up with supermarkets was perhaps a natural progression. I think supermarkets are fully responsible.
Fergus: Everybody wants everything cheaper. They want an orange in summer and they want it to be the perfect orange; milk to be homogenised. People don’t sit at the table. It’s very sad. The problem is people don’t see the animal. The butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers—all of those single distribution shops have all gone.
Trevor: I asked a genuine question at the fish counter in the supermarket recently, and he said, “I haven’t done the course yet.” Having a dialogue with the butcher or fishmonger, it no longer happens in most places.
The trouble is, people won’t support their local butcher, eat better meat but maybe eat less of it—instead, they’ll be straight into the supermarket. And they’ll lose the butcher, and the farmer will then find it difficult to make a living. It’s a worrying time. Those farmers matter. Maybe we’re luddites after all.
Are people still surprised by what you do?
Trevor: Occasionally we see an old couple come in and open one of our ‘sensibles’, a bottle of white, at the bar, then ask each other, “Shall we eat in here?” They look at the menu and say, “Ooh, actually I’m not sure about this.” And you can see them getting flustered, because there isn’t a lot of narrative. The reason we keep it simple is because the first hors d’oeuvre, if you will, is the server—the conversation you have with them.
Fergus: You see the change in their face when they start to eat… and then they say, “This is really good.” Then they relax.
Trevor: It’s been nearly 25 years and we’re lucky to do what we do, but sometimes it still feels everything is against you. It’s a tough business. A good restaurant takes time. It takes patience. A good restaurant has a lot of regulars, which we have—a regular can be every week or once a year, it doesn’t matter. When they want to come, we will be here.