First-Person Accounts

The Feast of Saint John

An offally good time at an iconic London restaurant

It all started with the tongue.

I had fancied myself a decent cook for some time, so when I fell in love with Madeleine, a Glaswegian chef who told me her restaurant hosted regular stages for trainees, I sent an email to her boss and was told to present myself outside the place at 7:30AM two weeks later. The restaurant was called St. JOHN and was famous for its gleefully tipsy owner and former head chef Fergus Henderson, a bespectacled eccentric in pinstripes who coined the term ‘nose-to-tail eating’. His approach to dining revolutionised British food in the 1990s and celebrated all the types of meat that were usually tossed to the side – lamb kidneys, ox hearts, lungs and then some. But Fergus’s first love was the pig and St. JOHN prided itself on using just about every type of offal, cartilage and collagen that the animal had to offer. At a time when legions of health fanatics were sermonising about the dangers of fat, the menu Fergus served up was something of a clarion call to gluttons everywhere. Eat the pig, they implored – all of it. Revel in its bounty and leave the vegans to their bilious slop.

St. JOHN is located just up the road from the Smithfield meat market near Farringdon tube station. The ridged concrete towers of the Barbican loom in the distance as men in white smocks flecked with blood empty lorries to supply the restaurants and butchers of London. It’s an industrial scene in Cockney and Polish that Madeleine and I wafted by on the way to work for the better part of a month. While the blood is less visible inside the restaurant, the stainless steel features set against white walls are all there and the guts are too, just behind closed doors. I figured there would be a lot of guts given its reputation. I was right.

The head chef, Stevie, a bearded bear of a Canadian in his late thirties, would talk out loud as he went about designing the day’s menu. It was as if he was playing a delicate game of Tetris with the contents of the walk-in fridge, waiting for inspiration to strike, only his materials were pigs’ blood, brains, tails and testicles, all of which would all be tossed into enormous pots or vats of boiling oil. ‘So we’re going to do ox tongue, green sauce and turnips – we got turnips?’ he would holler at one of his orderlies in the morning, flouncing his pen about like a conductor’s baton. ‘Ah – no turnips? Okay, ox tongue, green sauce, leaves and pickled walnut… Wait, no. Too much acid.’

Silence would reign for a moment, Stevie would look up quizzically, then descend to earth with the coup de grace. ‘Carrots! We got carrots? Okay, tongue, sauce, carrots – that’s it, we got it, it’s done.’ And that evening, a slab of violet flesh half-submerged in green shrapnel would sit next door to improbably knobbly root veg.

The chefs there sometimes joke they’re on janitorial duty, sweeping the halls of a storied repertoire, and that’s because the cooking at St. JOHN has its very own syntax and grammar, born of a very specific mind. Fergus Henderson began his career as a chef flogging sandwiches out of The Globe in Notting Hill before taking over the kitchen of The French House with his future wife, Margot Henderson. When St. JOHN’s opened its doors in October of 1994, it slowly gained a following amid London’s literary and arts set. Mainstream appeal came around 2000, after Anthony Bourdain visited for the first time and began proclaiming it ‘the restaurant of his dreams’ to just about anyone who would listen. In 2009, St. JOHN was awarded a Michelin star.

Today, Fergus is no longer in the kitchen, but you will find him in the dining room most days, the arrival of early-onset Parkinson’s confining him to the role of something between softly spoken oracle and bene­volent superintendent. He usually rounds off the morning hours with a caraway seed cake washed down with a generous glass of Madeira for elevenses. This is followed by a bit of shop talk, before a lunch spent getting gently rosy-cheeked on red Burgundy. The repertoire he created but can no longer cook is an ode to pared-back simplicity and the best British ingredients, all shot through with the kind of obsessive attitude towards form that could only come from an architect, the profession for which Fergus originally trained.

It follows, then, that everything at St. JOHN screams minimalism. The restaurant, formerly a smokehouse, is now an unassuming white shopfront with an effigy of a pig hanging on a banner outside. Step inside and you’ll find yourself heading down a long concrete corridor lined with tables, beside a bar with a zinc countertop over which a glass ceiling leaps up a couple of metres, bathing the space in antiseptic light. Turn from the waiters pulling pints and you’ll find a cantilevered dining room, where the concrete floor gives way to hardwood panelling and a main kitchen fully in view.

My first day there I stumbled in bleary-eyed at 7:30AM, put on my chef whites and apron with Madeleine, made my way into the kitchen and walked straight into my first encounter with the resident kitchen poltergeist. Fergus may have had proprietary rights over what was cooked at St. JOHN, but it was Marcus, a five-foot Brazilian man in his late fifties, who now ruled the kitchen. He was the head kitchen porter or ‘KP’, the place’s plongeur-en-chef, and spent his days peeling shallots and cleaning pots; in no time at all he had christened me ‘boyfriendy’. He was to be my first friend in the kitchen.

Marcus’s life revolved around St. JOHN, caring for his sickly wife and attending three-hour long Pentecostal church services on the other side of London. Every Sunday, he would shimmy into the restaurant, glowing in a state of serene abandon that seemed almost post-coital. He worked harder than anyone else, would sing wherever he went, harangue whomever he wanted and wore a black plastic bin bag over his chef whites as a kind of tunic, so you could always see him coming from afar. He was usually chanting ‘I WANTY WANTY WANTY,’ his very own rendition of the Foreigner song I Want to Know What Love Is. Upon chucking down my coffee that first day, he grabbed me by the wrist, flung open the door of the walk-in-fridge and emptied the contents of a soapy bucket on the bloodstained floor. ‘I’m head cheffy here. You clean!’ he cackled, before pointing at the bins and slinking off.

‘The vacuum cleaner. What he’s saying is to get the vacuum cleaner,’ I heard in an Australian accent, and turned around to see a stolid-looking, moustachioed man in his mid-twenties. This was Fin, a sous chef, one of the kitchen’s sergeants-at-arms who works the pass, making sure the food gets out on time. I peered around by the bins, saw the thing nestled in a corner, gave the floor a quick sponging and then hoovered up all the moisture while looking at what lay before me. Beneath the sputtering lights were enormous tubs of fish piled high like Rembrandt paintings, some venison cloven in half hanging by the side of the door and about 50 wild ducks waiting their turn to get carved up. This was all sat across tufts of vegetables and herbs peering over their containers and, below them, a bunch of plastic sacks filled with quivering burgundy flesh, which I was told to grab and pop down on the butcher’s block.

What I stood before must have been 100 or so lamb kidneys, vacuum-packed and teeming with liquid. ‘If you don’t want pissy hands, I’d get some gloves,’ Fin told me, before dumping the sack into two separate containers and showing me how to excavate the kidneys’ white tendrils, which looked like sinewy clothing labels. ‘It’s chewy, tastes like urine: we don’t want it,’ he explained, expertly flicking away the barnacles of connective tissue with a small knife. Fin left me for the next two hours as I hacked my way through the kidneys; some were mangled, others were pretty, but in the end they would all meet the same fate – devilled in Worcestershire sauce, mustard powder and a bit of cayenne pepper, then blistered in a pan and whacked on toast; a Victorian breakfast served for dinner.

The next few days were a blur of flesh, fat and oil spent by the butcher’s block making terrines, blood cakes and whatever else Fergus had dreamed up as appropriate food for that time of year. Things started with kidneys and quickly moved onto gutting woodcock and pigeon, then sifting through pigs’ trotters slowly cooked in a mixture of stock and white wine. They called it ‘Trotter Gear’ at St. JOHN and loved adding it to any unsuspecting veg that needed a bit of sprucing up. It was delicious, if disconcerting, because while sifting through the ligaments you had to keep an eye out for nail fragments which, although invisible to the naked eye, were easy to find by hand because they felt exactly the same as those on the end of your fingers. But I hadn’t got around to thinking that way just yet. One second I would be coaxing 50 lambs’ testicles out of their two different casings to reveal a ball of spongy flesh that resembled an amoeba under a microscope; the next, I was hacking chunks of tripe apart, dredging, then breading them for the fryer to be served with homemade ketchup.

And then, of course, there were the confits, the real kicker. In France, it’s usually only ducks and geese merit this preparation but St. JOHN, unconstrained by such orthodoxy, has no problem confiting pork, the fattiest item on its menu, and they do so every day. Each morning I would drown a series of pigs’ skins and cheeks in oil and then whack the 20-litre containers in the pastry ovens on the other side of the restaurant, all weighed down by charcoal-black frying pans. I’d lug them across the restaurant floor, forget about them and then dash back during lunchtime to make sure they hadn’t overcooked, hoping some unsuspecting diner wouldn’t back into me and upend the gallons of sloshing liquid with which I was encumbered. I would submit them for inspection with Goose, another mous­tachioed sous chef, this time a sinewy man from Newfoundland who looked like a ginger version of Horst from Ratatouille. He’d poke pigs’ cheeks with a metal skewer to wake them from their sleep and place them on thick slices of bread to dehydrate in the oven. They were then chopped up into wedges and tossed with capers, purple radishes, dandelion leaves and a creamy mustard dressing to create the world’s naughtiest salad. It tasted sinful – a buxom, slow-moving orgy of rendered fat coaxed into something resembling acceptability by the fibrous bite of its companions on the plate.

Amid all of this, I had hardly exchanged a word at the restaurant with Madeleine. A kitchen is a galley, for better and for worse, and in a galley people make jokes to add a bit of colour to the drabness of it all. Confined to the same space chopping, slicing, then dicing and frying chunks of marginally different but largely similar slabs of meat can wear on you, so you’ll take whatever is at hand for conversational fodder. And there’s no better fodder than sex. Madeleine was well aware of this and so kept her distance while I contented myself with the odd furtive glance thrown my way, scrutinising my chopping technique.

It was on day nine, while I was preparing a particular dish called ‘Noses and Tails’, that she finally made her way next to the butcher’s block. I was standing over a steaming platter of noses, tails and tongues, all submerged in one of those disconsolately brown liquids that looks like tea left to stew too long. The tails and snouts were to be placed to one side then breaded and fried, but the tongues were another matter. First you have to tear the vocal cords off and then you encounter the real problem: a layer of skin containing those minuscule cones of flesh we call taste buds. They needed removing, so Mads shifted next to me without saying a word and proceeded to get to work.

Marcus was busy chanting ‘Bolsonaro! Bolsonaro!’ as he made his way through a sack of onions and the other chefs, enraged by his politics, thought they would try to teach him a lesson about right-wing populism in Brazil. During the commotion, Madeleine must have spotted an opening and put it to me softly…

‘How you getting on?’

‘All good,’ I replied, grabbing another tongue and tossing the excess filaments of flesh to the side, before trying my hand at removing the taste buds. She did the same.

‘You have to press down with your thumb – see, and the skin will show itself to you. Then peel, peel peel,’ she continued, showing me how to identify where tastebuds began and the edible flesh ended. We spent the next 20 minutes in silence exchanging smiles and making our way through the tongues. It was as if the furore going on around us had slowed down for a moment and we had found ourselves in an aquarium, with the torrents of movement and noise behind us lapsing into a silent, if giddily chaotic, dance. As the task came to an end so did our little reverie.

I was about to leave to set about my next job and my first instinct was to give Madeleine a goodbye kiss. Right before doing so, I turned and glanced at the heap of 20 or so tongues, peeled, steaming and justa bit too familiar – and just like that, the compulsion to do so evaporated.

It was written on my face and I found myself feeling very sheepish.

‘No, no – I understand,’ she said to me, seeing what had happened. ‘It’s a lot.’

Turning from the tongues, she blew me a kiss and went over to man the grill.

There are times when you are preparing, then eating meat, when you see something you weren’t supposed to. When I had shied away from Madeleine with those pigs’ tongues so clearly in sight, it was because they looked just like mine and I was preparing them for dinner later. There were just a couple of words between me and the prospect of eating myself. Pig. Meat. Pork. Language can transform things that are in plain sight, where one thing becomes another and the world is changed.

As I became more of a fixture in the kitchen, I overheard more and more resolute opinions about who should be prepared which way and with what accompaniments. Dexter, a gangly communist with a mop of straw-coloured hair who was always setting things on fire, would be stripped for his bones, whacked in the oven then boiled with mirepoix and made into a broth. Goose – no one talked about him. Everyone knew Stevie would be best slow-cooked, he’d have some fantastic marbling. And to my horror, I heard that Madeleine would be best brined, then roasted and served with green sauce.

After three weeks at St. JOHN, I spent my final shift preparing a suckling pig, a lengthy matter of removing unsightly hairs, cleaning ears as you would your own, glueing the victim’s eyes shut and then crooking its head in the most attractive position possible. When Madeleine and I finally sat down for dinner after a couple of Guinnesses, we didn’t even think to order because the kitchen just rattled off what Stevie thought was best that evening: oysters, venison fillet and pickled walnut salad, bone marrow on toast, grilled ox heart, pike and broad beans with trotter, and dry-aged mutton chops, all followed by a ginger loaf in salted caramel sauce and, of course, madeleines.

The other diners slowly filed out of the restaurant during our post-meal stupor, and before I knew it, it was 2AM, I was in a clandestine lock-in and had been drinking for the past eight hours.

The array of corks in front of me seemed the colour of mallard lung; the contents of my glass, hare’s blood. I was sat opposite an extremely drunk Fin, who, at 26, was about to become head chef of the new St. JOHN location in Marylebone. I congratulated him on the fact and he replied thank you, before asking about me what I made of it all.

I told him it was great and that it was bloodier than I expected – that was how it should be if we were going to eat meat in the first place, that Fergus was absolutely right to say nose-to-tail eating was about respect, but that being respectful was a bloody affair all the same. Fin agreed, then started reminiscing about his first job working in a slaughterhouse outside Melbourne at the age of 17, where he was first introduced to blood and guts. He talked casually about pallets of calf’s blood prepared for export to China and of his colleagues getting crushed under heavy machinery. I then asked him about the pigs.

‘It is true,’ he said, his eyes slightly glazing over. ‘They scream like they’re children. They’re incredibly intelligent. You stun them, but it still feels like they know exactly what’s going on. It almost put me off meat for life. But hey, here I am. I’m a chef. I guess with this sort of stuff you go one way or you go the other.’


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