Food by VICE

What Happens When You Make Dinner with Fergus Henderson and a 47-Year-Old French Cookbook

London boozer-cum-restaurant The Marksman recently hosted a dinner with iconic St. John founder Fergus Henderson, using his favourite French cookbook—Ma Gastronomie—as inspiration.

by Gareth May
Feb 26 2016, 11:00am

Chefs Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram haven't had much sleep.

Last night, the pair were up until 3 AM doing "these fucking eggs" or oeufs à la gelée (eggs in jelly) to be precise, a recipe drawn from the pages of Ma Gastronomie, a seminal cookbook published in 1969 by one of the maestros of French cuisine, Fernand Point.

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The seminal Ma Gastronomie cookbook, published in 1969 by Fernand Point. All photos by Liz Seabrook.

The dish is part of a dinner served at Harris and Rotheram's East London boozer-cum-restaurant The Marksman—the first of their "cookbook series" that sees the pair ask a guest chef to choose a cookbook from which they devise a menu.

"The idea is to get chefs we love and we know to present what influenced them; what books they loved growing up," explains Harris.

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London pub-cum-restaurant The Marksman.

Kicking off the series is Fergus Henderson, the British godfather of nose to tail eating and mentor to both Harris and Rotheram when the pair worked together at St. John.

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"There's a great anecdote in the book about Point drinking a magnum of Champagne every morning with his barber," Harris says, with a smile. "Which I think is why Fergus loves it so much."

There's certainly a similarity between Henderson and Point—and not just for their mutual love of "quite childish and quite grown up" jelly, as Henderson puts it. On the inlay of Ma Gastronomie, the portly Frenchman has a similarly striking nature, although Henderson, by his own admission, is rather on the slimmer side.

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The Marksman kitchen prepares for its first "cookbook series" dinner with Fergus Henderson.

When I ask what led him to choose Ma Gastronomie, Henderson says it's one of those books that's "hard not to love." I can see what he means. Compiled from notes and sketches, the book is a witty and enjoyable celebration of food decked out with all kinds of anecdotes and sound bites ("Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!" is a particular favourite of mine). In essence, it's a similar affair to Henderson's own books—the first, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking published nearly half a decade later but in no way less seminal or, indeed, witty.

Yet to get lost in the words is to miss the Point, if you forgive the atrocious pun. Ma Gastronomie to many was a rather old fashioned book but to Henderson, it's a great "modernist source."

"Point was really thinking ahead," he says. "But it's one of those things you have to put down for a while because you'll be salivating."

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A glance at tonight's menu has a similar effect: Oeufs à la gelée, crème de volaille truffé, choucroute d'Ammerschwihr, crêpes Suzette, and marjolaine all paired with wine by St. John's other partner Trevor Gulliver.

The egg dish is up first.

The original recipe is almost as brief as a doctor's prescription: "Poach two eggs for each person to be served, and prepare a jelly with pigs' feet and some veal and chicken bones. In the bottom of the mold [sic], arrange a little foie gras and the poached eggs. Add a julienne of truffles, ham, and tongue. Pour in the jelly, allow it to set, and served chilled."

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That said, it relies on a series of intricate techniques and Harris and Rotheram have resisted the temptation to cut corners. Even though recipes such as this would typically be produced by a 20-strong team of chefs—hence why the late nights.

"We wanted to embrace the old and not use modern techniques," Rotheram says. "For instance, with the boiled eggs we could have done a 63 degree water bath and every one would've come out perfect. For clarification [of the soup] we could have done it with ice filtration. We did it old school using eggs whites and chicken mince. We've stuck to the recipes. That's why I've been sitting in the fridge at two in the morning."

It's a patience that's paid off.

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The oeufs à la gelée dish could be served on a canvas, it's such a visual treat. When I cut into the jelly, an ocean of sunshine yolk pours forth consuming all in its wake. The flavour is equally astounding, with that rare submersion-of-the-taste-buds sensation that only comes from aspic seducing the tongue to its watery grave. The earthy foie gras—the rarest of defibrillators—kicks the mouth back into life and after the palate-cleansing crunch of the radish, the whole cycle starts again.

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The dish is served alongside bread and butter and when I smear a knifeful of gelatinous rubble on to the bread and wolf it down, I'm instantly reminded of Henderson's world-famous roasted marrow number. The eggs might not have the meaty punch of the latter but you can clearly trace Point's influence in the modern man's work—and later, Henderson would indeed agree that the "principles are damn similar."

The whole evening is a nod to Fernand Point but it's also a celebration of Henderson and his culinary roots.

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"A lot of us look up to Fergus," Rotheram says. "I didn't think he would chose this book but when he did I was like, 'Brilliant' because there's so much of a connection to Fergus and how he looks at food."

He's also been in and out of the kitchen, giving the boys guidance.

"He was there with us when we opened up the first jellied egg," Rotheram says. "We were all chuckling like little boys down there."

The dishes soon arrive thick and fast. The cream of chicken soup with truffles is Henderson's favourite of the evening, and one he describes as "soothing and musky" and "nurtured and cared for."

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Choucroute d'Ammerschwihr, a pork belly dish served with sauerkraut, is named after Point "disciple" Pierre Gaertner's restaurant in Alsace and tonight is booted up the jacksy with an accompanying glass of Champagne yeast-fermented beer. The duo of desserts—crêpes Suzette and Marjolaine—render me immobile and craving a footman with a wheelbarrow to roll me home.

In The Marksman dining room, it's clear that the menu has been a hit. Henderson's eyes, typically so curious and accommodating, have been subdued by a boyish gleam.

"We probably should've trialed the egg dish two weeks ago," Harris says to me before I leave. "But part of the thrill and the fun is to get yourself in the shit and to work out how to get out of it. How to get it right."

Judging by the look on Henderson's face, they've certainly done that.

All photos by Liz Seabrook.