Notable Alumni of St. John Share Memories of Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver

by Gabe Ulla

St. John, chef Fergus Henderson and restaurateur Trevor Gulliver’s massively influential London restaurant, has just turned twenty. Last week, St. John chefs past and present and a whole bunch of friends descended on the flagship location in Smithfield to eat an endless stream of sandwiches, donuts, and urchins and dance until the dawn. To do our little part in marking the occasion, here are some notable alumni of Henderson and Gulliver’s kitchens discussing what St. John means to them. You will unsurprisingly find much talk of vision and an ethical, no-nonsense style of cooking. But perhaps most striking are the mentions of language, communication, and a relentless spirit of nurturing that run throughout all of these remarks.

A very happy birthday to Fergus, Trevor, and the whole team at St. John from your friends and admirers at MAD.

Tom Pemberton
Current chef of Hereford Road, London
Served as chef de partie at St. John and sous chef and head chef of Bread & Wine

It is difficult to put into words what a fantastic place St. John is, how inspirational it has been to me and so many other chefs, and what a truly original person Fergus is. It is easy to drift into the realm of hagiography. Fergus created a culinary language and blazed a massive trail for British cooking. This was interestingly also echoed in his use of English which, despite his erratic spelling, has always been poetic and evocative.

St. John is very special for a number of interconnecting reasons. There is the rigor of the vision; this was a representation of “place” at a time when most cooking in London was looking outside for inspiration. There is also the focus on ingredients and seasons, the true simplicity. The structure of the restaurant, the uniforms, and the food all reflected this singular vision.

Daniel Patterson’s excellent article in the Financial Times (‘Carrots are the new caviar’) a few years ago reminded me of how Fergus had been criticized for serving sweet, baby carrots raw at the peak of the season, just with aioli, when St. John opened in 1994. It was unprecedented and brave. Alongside all this focus there is also a great humanity to the place. Working there you felt part of a team, considered, taken care of, and valued.

When I first started at St. John, Fergus was shaving some white truffles to go with mashed potato for his father—a rare pause from using British ingredients. I asked to keep the muddy outer layer of the truffles so I could infuse some eggs, a trick I had recently learned. Fergus was very pleased that I was using up these offcuts—nose to tail in every sense, even if it was vegetal. Later that night as I was leaving exhausted after service, he gave me what he said were some more offcuts wrapped up in a piece of kitchen foil. When I got home and unwrapped the little parcel, inside was a huge piece of pristine white truffle.

Jon Rotheram
Currently planning restaurant in Hackney, London
Held various positions at St. John for five years and was senior sous chef at St. John Hotel

Trevor and Fergus are very much like father figures to me. They’ve been very supportive, and I always look to them for advice on anything related to the restaurant industry. They have a wonderful approach to restaurants and an understanding of how one should really eat. I love sitting down with them to have sea urchins, devilled kidneys, gulls’ eggs, and pike pie. Words like “rigor” always come to mind when thinking of them, but they also have this fun, cheeky side that I love.

One of the best memories I have from my time there is standing up on stage with Fergus doing a demonstration on the endless possibilities of bacon. Fergus had been invited by the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts to give a talk in Stockholm, and he explained to the audience that bacon was the Millennium Falcon. I kept thinking to myself, “Have they understood?” Probably not. I laughed because I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Daniel Burns
Current chef at Luksus, New York City

I worked at St John from March 2006 to November 2006, at which point I went to work at noma. I finished at the Fat Duck on a Friday and started at St. John the very next day. It was a relatively short stint, but long enough to give me a feel for the mood and feeling of Fergus’ food. Most important, it gave me a strong sense of what it means to make ethically driven cuisine.

The proteins there are incredibly well sourced, and the amount of new and interesting things to cook with (every single kind of offal, game bird, traditional English preparation) was eye opening.

For me, though, the special thing about St. John is the building and the dining room. It is a massive place that brings out the best in the people and the food. I distinctly remember how loud it would get during a busy service in the open kitchen—I loved taking it all in, watching people have to literally yell across the table at one another. It’s something Fergus and Trevor do so well: remind people what it means to really enjoy a meal.

 

Douglas McMaster
Current chef of Silo, Brighton
Chef de partie at St. John for four years

I’ve just opened a restaurant, bakery, and coffee house in Brighton called Silo. To the untrained eye, it looks nothing like St. John. But if you look close enough, it’s intrinsically defined by a no-nonsense attitude. The design at Silo is stripped back to the raw materials, the food represents the individual flavors of the ingredients without fluff, and the behavior is, well, real. This for me is St. John: a resolute adherence to conscious food. Fergus taught me that cooking with reason is better than cooking for glory.

 

Justin Gellatly
Current head baker and owner of Bread Ahead, London
Pastry chef at St. John for thirteen years

It’s always difficult to talk about Fergus and Trevor, as they both have had such a massive impact on me as a chef, pastry chef, and baker. I worked for them for thirteen incredible years. From day one working under Fergus in the kitchen at St. John, I knew it would be an amazing journey.

Fergus and Trevor have always been so passionate about the bread and sweet side of things, so as head baker, it was always a great place to be. But I do remember one of the biggest pains during my time there was making Fergus’ perfect chocolate ice cream. He always wanted either more bitter or more chocolate, and it never quite worked. I didn’t know what to do. I think we went though over sixty batches of ice cream until we finally cracked it. It speaks to his vision and gentle precision.

With the desserts, Fergus was always happy for me to be a bit “racy,” which was lovely. When I’d give him a taste of new desserts, he’d often say, “you dirty dog!” I remember serving him and Trevor a Queen of Puddings where I piped the meringue on top to look like a crown. It was very un-St. John, but Fergus liked it. “Another one of Justin’s cheeky moments,” he remarked to the rest of the table.

I miss them and the St. John family so much. I think about them every day, really. I’ve moved on to open my own bakery, and they have not stopped being kind with their time and wisdom. The quote Fergus gave for my book made me cry: “With Justin the force is strong and the crumb is good.”

 

James Lowe
Current chef of Lyle’s, London
Chef of St. John Bread & Wine for three years

I think one of the most important things about Fergus is his ability to inspire, and his gift for explaining things in such a way that everyone can understand them. He would have sayings like, “Are we all ready for service, chefs? Are we poised like a puma?” The simplest things, like trying to explain to a chef exactly how much stock to add to a braise, for example, he would explain as “fill the stock up to the side of the duck legs so that they sit just out of the water like a crocodile’s nostrils.” Everyone can instantly picture this and get it right.

I now always try to think of analogies I can use when explaining things to people, as it’s such a great way of getting rid of things that are unnecessary. Fergus taught me to cut to the important bit and make sure you’re understood.

 

Tom Harris
Currently planning restaurant in London with Jon Rotheram
Sous chef at St. John and later head chef at St. John Hotel

In the ten years I worked there, St. John was a place where I learned so much. It wasn’t just about skills like butchery and offal cookery that no other kitchen at that time was interested in. It was also about the language used to describe the food, which was so hugely different from everything I had known before. There was a sense of defiance to it, a big fuck you to all that was haute. Which we loved. Before St. John, no one was really talking about British food, let alone celebrating it. Fergus and Trevor changed that forever. I will always love the food, the architecture of the space, the atmosphere, and, of course, the staff. St John was and always will be family to me.

Anna Hansen
Current chef of the modern pantry, London
Worked with Henderson during first days of St. John and at French House Dining Room

St. John was my first cooking job. As you can imagine, I ended up getting my foundation there. I learned about respecting ingredients and not overcrowding the plate. Everything about the place—the cooking, the attitude, the architecture—had this remarkable simplicity. It was very functional and very British and very beautiful.

Perhaps what I most appreciate about St. John is that it managed to reintroduce British people to the cooking of their country, and that it was all about nourishment.

Fergus was a true nurturer who was invested in my career, and observing Trevor over the years I’ve just been amazed at his drive, his belief in what he does, and his ability to maintain the integrity of all the restaurants.

I went to the party last week, and everything was the same as it was on day one. To me, that is the greatest compliment I can give the place. It’s so alive.

 

Shaun Kelly
Currently working as a chef in Paris
Chef de partie at St. John for two years

In my two years at St. John, what most stood out was the management style. It wasn’t head down, ass up. It was like a family. When I landed in London, I knew I wanted to work there, but I went to just have lunch one day. I was looking pretty ragged, with a leather jacket and a sloppy beard, with no intention of asking for a job until I had settled down in town. Before I knew it, I was chatting to the waitress and the head chef, Chris, came out and offered me the chance to work with him in the kitchen.

The remarkable thing about the place is that everyone had such a respect for Fergus and the vision of the restaurant that they would never veer away from the St. John style. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen the opposite—acts of real defiance—in other kitchens. But there, you’d often hear cooks tell each other, “Fergus wouldn’t want it that way.” That is perhaps the greatest testament to him as a person and chef.

 

Anna Trattles
Current chef of Le Bal Café, Paris
Chef de partie at St. John for two years

Working at Bread & Wine with James Lowe and Lee Tiernan was the deciding moment in my career. I realized there that I was a cook.

I learned about butchery and foraging. I remember getting these puffball mushrooms in one day, and it was simply a revelation—it brought me back to my British childhood.

The most striking thing for me was the humor, philosophy, and story behind the food. Fergus created a visual landscape for the dishes, which made it so the chefs understood exactly how things should be done. As a head chef, it’s so hard to pass down your ways. He had it nailed down. I remember how he described how a skate wing with croutons had to look like shipwrecked people trying to get onto an island. That’s all he needed to say for you to understand what he wanted. And all the cooks took pride in passing down that knowledge.

 

Lee Tiernan
Currently developing his own venture
Worked for 10 years under Fergus, including three years running the kitchen of Bread & Wine

I really can’t say much beyond the fact that I learned everything from St. John. It defined my entire career. I’m very fortunate to have found that place and had the opportunity to rise up the ranks at basically all of their restaurants. For God’s sake, I got to travel the world with Fergus and Trevor!

The great thing about all the time I spent there is that I eventually was able to cook Fergus’ mind. I’ll always treasure that.

It sounds so damn corny, but when I think of St. John, I think of peace, love, and positivity.