….so says Fergus Henderson - who as a chef has won international praise for his warm pig’s heads and squirrel skewers, being profiled lately in the New Yorker and the Observer, not to mention last month’s GQ. He’s been in town for the last few days to judge a game competition, but managed to spare a moment for a “fag” or three and a Guinness yesterday to tell the Mercury all about death threats and skinning eels, why he’s not a fan of cannibalism, the little alcoholic rituals (such as a glass first thing in the morning, then one for elevenses, and another before lunch) that get him through the day, and of course, how best to choose a pig’s head, down at the butcher’s.
Fergus’s head chef from London, Chris Gillard, is cooking a $60, four-course meal involving the lesser-used parts of rabbit, duck and elk tonight at Paley’s place on NW 21st. I’m going, and next week, I’ll be cooking pig’s head round at my gaff. Any takers? So far everyone I’ve invited has turned me down….
Fergus’s conversation with the Merc’ follows, after the jump.
What are you doing in Portland, and what do you think of the place?
Portland seems to me charming-charming. Everyone's very friendly and welcoming, which is always nice. And what I'm doing here is part of this game promotion and hopefully spreading the nose-to-tail word.
How did you hear about Portland?
I did a thing in Seattle and Vitaly Paley said would I be interested in coming to Portland to cook and taste game, and it would have been churlish not to say yes.
So your book, and it's called The Whole Beast here, I assume it's selling well?
Well I don't really know. They never really tell me. I don't know if it's reached the masses.
And why did you change the title, because it's Nose to Tail Eating in England, isn't it?
Well that was the publisher's choice. I think it's a shame because Nose to Tail Eating is a more appropriate title.
The book contains lots of things you wouldn't expect to find in Delia Smith, or Betty Crocker over here-pig's hearts, pig's ears, even a pig's head. Is there some element of provocation?
Erm, no. It doesn't seem weird to me to braise a pig's head. There's nothing finer than sharing a pig's head with your loved one. Pig's ears are fantastic. None of it's meant to be weird or shock factor. It's there because it's delicious and, erm, it seems polite once you've knocked an animal on the head to eat it all.
So it's politeness, more than provocation?
Politeness and common sense. But anything on the menu at the restaurant is there because it's delicious and I enjoy it. I mean of course you get the City boys who say, 'who can eat the most gorey thing on the menu?', but that's their problem not mine.
Even the squirrel skewers?
Well squirrel, when the game season comes to an end, game keepers cull the vermin, and in February there's all this squirrel around. It's delicious, like an oily, wild rabbit. But I did get a few death threats.
Yes, in fact one that was so vehement we actually called the police. And I got this chap on the phone from CID [British detectives] going, "Excuse me, Mr.Henderson, but why is it you've got this?” and I said, "I've been cooking squirrel,” and he went, "squirrel, sir?”, and I thought they'd send the policeman round to come and beat me up aswell. But again, I didn't mean to shock anyone, and since then it's been on the menu every year in February, and no problems.
In your recipe for snails and oak leaf salad, you write that a few years ago one of your friends decided to set all the snails free midway through the purging process to get rid all their poo. Have you ever been squeamish in preparing your food?
Er, it's quite a long time since I've felt squeamish.
Could you remind me, or remind yourself of the last time you were squeamish?
Er. Eels. Killing eels, you usually need a large brandy afterwards.
I've never done it. I killed a couple of fish last week and it was a pretty traumatic experience but Eel...
Eel you have to grab and it's incredibly strong in your hand. My method is to chop the head off as quickly as possible, but then it keeps wriggling, in your hand. It's amazing how strong they are, and there's something quite strange about chopping something's head off and it keeps wriggling.
How long do they keep wriggling, do you know?
A long time.
Like, a minute?
Oh, half an hour.
Half an hour?
You can chop them into segments and the bits still wriggle, and then skinning them is a real sod. I remember some book about the Norfolk Broads and the guy said it's like taking a stocking off a lady, but I thought, I don't know what stockings you've been taking off which ladies, but skinning an eel would be a pretty aggressive lady and sturdy stockings.
Now, I tried a few recipes from the book out on some friends. Last week I served a boiled chicken with leeks and aioli. Now that aioli is very garlicky, and you describe it in the book as a strong and emotional experience, but I served it to a pair of bomb disposal experts, and their description was like "an unexpected explosion”.
Well, it's obviously achieved its emotional status!
But in terms of cooking an emotional dish, what does that mean for you about someone's engagement with the food on the plate?
I think, hopefully, there's a sort of immediacy to food so that it's very clear what it is. And it's sort of about having respect for the person who's eating it, like the bone salad, you construct it yourself at the table, it's not a fait-accompli when it comes out of the kitchen, this is a swirling tower of something, the only involvement is making a mess of it with your knife and fork. Hopefully the magic of the kitchen carries on at the table, giving people a certain amount of respect that they can put an amount of the ingredients together themselves.
Can you give me some advice about procuring a pig's head? I want to do the warm pig's head and have a party and have some people round. I don't know what to look for.
It's quite clear, a happy head. I don't know what butchers are like in Portland but if you trust your butcher, it'll be a good head.
I'm not sure it's something that's commonly served here. I might have to convince them to give me one.
Well, where there's pork, there must be head.
Yes, absolutely. If cannibalism were acceptable, which part of me would you go about cooking, and then how would you go about preparing it?
Well I'm sorry to disappoint you but human doesn't appeal to me! It's that sort of shock factor, braising a pig's head is one thing, but braising a human head has no appeal to me. I know what I put inside myself, I wouldn't want to eat me...actually there was a Chilean rugby team that ended up in the Andes, and they cut strips of human flesh and then dried it, which seemed like if you were desperate, then it's quite a good solution to the whole thing, but I'm not recommending it.
What are most of your readers like, and why do you appeal to them, do you think?
It's hard to tell. They seem to be a fairly foodie bunch, it's quite strange, people come to the restaurant and they say, oh my dad or granddad loved this, and it's nice of them to say so, but I see it as contemporary and appropriate to now, but that's not to say old recipes aren't as valid now as they were in the past, I mean food is a permanent thing. So age-wise, I don't know what age the book appeals to, it wasn't really aimed at any particularly strata.
But it seems to have been taken on by a foodie crowd?
I was quite excited just recently being in Australia, I was doing some slow food stuff there, and I was doing a book-signing, and the chap who owned the book shop said, "this book once was a cult, but now it's mainstream,” so that was very exciting.
If you could choose between a 15-year old punk kid and a 50-year old foodie, which would you prefer to have reading your book?
Hopefully both of them.
Reading the book there are some nice bits of language in there. What's your favorite piece of language used in the field of cooking?
Actually I think some of the words didn't even make it into the American edition. The word gna. G N A, you can spell it whatever way you like really, but a caper brings gna to a dish. It's a certain cue as you're eating, it's the skull in the desert theory, you're walking along thinking you're in a desert, and suddenly you find a skull, and it gives you a glimmer of hope, that gna, that spurs you on to finish on the dish. It has an onamatepieac quality to it.
Well I shall start using it, if you don't mind. Now at the end of your book, there's a hangover cure, the Dr.Henderson, but it's two parts Fernet Branca and one part Crème de Menthe. What role does alcohol play in your life as a chef?
A large part. Before my operation [brain surgery, to stop shaking associated with Parkinson's disease] I had to stop drinking for a month, and I was rather shocked how empty the day seemed. I've got kind of, rituals, like first thing in the morning a Fernet Branca, then 11 o'clock glass of Madeira with seed cake, then the first aperitif before lunch. I mean they're all special moments, and I was quite shocked at how the day seemed to lack structure when I couldn't drink. A life without wine would be very dull. In fact, I lose my appetite when I can't have a glass of wine because of the enzymes. So I fear that alcohol certainly features.
I've noticed a different attitude towards drinking since coming to America.
It's sort of a strange American thing that people will have three dry martinis before lunch, but if you offer them a glass of wine they'll say, "Oh no, I'll be drunk”. It's quite weird.
Cheers. If you could choose a person from history, who you'd like to have had dinner with, who would it be?
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). He was an extraordinary chap because he built the Great Western Railway to Bristol, and then he stopped, and built a boat to get to America. Also he had a coach to check on the railway buildings which had a humidor full of cigars, he was a chap who enjoyed the good things in life and he probably would have been good company, you would have shared a good lunch with him.
Your restaurant, St.John, has been around 12/13 years. In 1929 Al Capone was asked how he felt to be living beyond the odds for an average gangster. Given that the average restaurant life in London is about three hours, how does it feel now that St.John is living beyond its odds?
I think a restaurant should have a sense of permanence. It should become part of the make-up of a city. In a way that's always in the back of my mind. So it's very nice that that's happened.
I know that you've been asked this before, but are there plans to open up in New York, or Brighton, or anywhere else?
Not really. There are moments of flirtations with things, and if anything, we were actually thinking of opening a restaurant in Beirut. We were offered a palace, and Beirut is a fantastic city, sadly dented by recent bombing, but it was a giddy moment. And fantastic understanding of food and eating, amazing ingredients.
Is there an aspect of your food that's quintessentially London?
Hopefully there is something, going back to that idea of an institution. I'm London born and bred, so London's something I understand and that makes sense, so I'll stick to it. The New York thing is a really different way of running restaurants. The vibration's different. There's a great sense of genus loci running restaurants, and the whole thing of tonight and tomorrow, cooking our food somewhere else, the vibrations aren't quite the same, so the fuck-up possibilities are fairly rife.
Well, good luck, anyway. I hope the vibrations are with you!
Well, Vitaly's kitchen's great, I think the vibrations bode well.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
No, it seems a fairly comprehensive, er, I think you've got to most nubs of the wotsits.
Well, thanks for your time.
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