CHEFS

What Happens When Nuno Mendes Takes on Fergus Henderson

We joined Portugal-born Chiltern Firehouse chef Nuno Mendes as he prepared a dinner inspired by Fergus Henderson’s iconic Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking book.

by Daisy Meager
29 July 2016, 4:51pm

Despite service starting in half an hour, when I walk into the basement kitchen of East London pub and restaurant The Marksman, I find most of the kitchen staff playing on their phones.

"They're always like this when there's a new dish. They all have to gather round and take pictures," one of the chefs explains to me.

And these dishes in particular, among them hearty pot roast with carrots and a spectacular chocolate baked Alaska, will be on today's menu for one night only.

They form part of the latest in a series of cookbook dinners held at the pub, where head chefs and owners Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram give a guest chef free rein to choose a book that has inspired their cooking, and build a menu around it.

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Squid ink roti. All photos by Jamie Drew.

Tonight is the turn of Nuno Mendes, head chef at Chiltern Firehouse in London's Mayfair, and formerly owner of Viajante in East London, where he was known for showcasing his Portuguese roots with a fusion twist.

And the inspiration for the feast? The iconic cookbook by St. John chef and owner Fergus Henderson: Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking.

READ MORE: These Chefs Are Making Naughty Curries In an Old-School Pub

I ask Mendes what made him choose a tome filled with recipes using pig's heads, trotters, and all the offally bits in between. He is midway through taking a huge bite out of an ice cream sandwich when I pose the question.

Brain freeze and awkward chewing out of the way, Mendes tells me that was simply down to the fact that Nose to Tail Eating makes him excited about cooking: "It's one of the books that chefs adore. We read it and then we want to get in the kitchen."

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Nuno Mendes and The Marksman chefs.

After checking that all is running smoothly in The Marksman's kitchen, he continues: "I wanted to pay tribute because of all the personal memories I have of eating at St. John and how that influenced my cooking."

Tonight's cookbook choice is personal one for Rotheram and Harris, too. Both chefs worked under Henderson at St. John and have attested to the enduring influence of the restaurant's "use every part" approach to cooking, as well as Henderson's famously calm demeanour.

But Nose to Tail Eating is not the book Rotheram thought Mendes would choose.

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Pig skins.

"It's such an iconic book. Even before I worked there, it was the book that I'd pick up when I was travelling," says Rotheram. "We didn't expect Nuno to pick this book but glad that he did."

Defying expectations still is what Mendes did with the menu.

"If you know Nuno, you know to expect him not to go by the book," say Rotheram with a smile. "But I think people enjoy and expect that."

He continues: "We've got to give the chefs freedom but we've definitely kept along the St. John lines."

Although Rotherham admits that one of the dishes isn't actually in the cookbook: "We did the braised cuttlefish so much at the St. John restaurant so it was just one of those I always assumed was in the book!"

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Mendes and Jon Rotheram (far right).

Harris agrees, though, that it's the interpretation of the dishes that keeps their cookbook dinners interesting.

"The dinners are all about how the books have influenced the chefs," he says, pointing to the small black discs he is currently tossing on the grill.

"Taking the famous St. John dish of bone marrow on toast and turning it into squid ink roti with bone marrow and shallots heaped on top," says Harris. "That's what's fun."

As the roti start to puff up on the grill, Harris turns to another chef and laughs: "Did you know I went down to St. John Bread and Wine [the restaurant group's outpost in Spitalfields] this morning and stole some of their madeleine trays for tonight?"

It seems like some classics are remaining unchanged.

But as tables at The Marksman begin to be seated, focus is brought back to the first few courses.

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Mendes blowtorches a dishes.

Mendes takes a bite into the crispy pig skins to check their crunch and reflects again on why he chose Henderson's book.

"The book, as it says in the beginning, is there to inspire people and that's why we wanted to use it," he says. "It's a book of ideas."

READ MORE: This Menu Is Inspired by the Food Writer Who Rescued Britain from Spam

Harris, agrees, and adds it was his and Rotheram's existing relationship with Mendes that played a part in the formation of the Nose to Tail menu.

"There's always a dialogue and this one was really interesting because of mine and Jon's relationship with St. John as well as the fact that we've been friends with Nuno for a long time," says Harris. "Take the pig skins. We first met over chicharrón [a Spanish dish of fried pork rinds] 20 years ago at a place on Redchurch Street, just down the road from here in Shoreditch. And I've done pig skins at St. John."

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The first course plated up.

At tonight's dinner, the skins will be served with cured back fat and walnuts.

Back in The Marksman dining room, the first few dishes are starting to land on tables and diners look intrigued at the reimagined bone marrow on toast.

I'm reminded of something Harris said earlier: "You can't do a cop-and-paste job with St. John because they're just down the road and everyone is familiar with it. It's all about seeing how the ideas in the book are turned into something else and how it will eventually end up on the menu."

All photos by Jamie Drew.