When I walk into St. John Bread and Wine, one of the London restaurants owned by legendary nose-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver, I find the kitchen staff assembled for a team briefing.
It's all over a cold pint, of course—not just because it's the hottest day of the year, but because the open-armed generosity for which the restaurant is known goes in tandem with making sure that no one is ever empty-handed.
"OK, so are we going to send the different canapés out one by one, or send out a few at a time? And how much space is everyone going to need to prep? Have we got enough of those big platters to serve the pasta family-style?"
For anyone who knows St. John's British-centric way of cooking, ears will prick immediately at the word "pasta." Tonight will be the first time the Italian dish has ever been served at St. John—an indicator that this won't be a regular dinner service.
There are three guest chefs in the kitchen tonight, each bringing a different style of cooking to the dinner, which raises funds for Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. The restaurant and chef apprenticeship scheme gives work experience opportunities to disadvantaged young people.
The chefs are all familiar faces, both to the kitchens of St. John and Fifteen. Tim Siadatan, now the head chef at Trullo in North London and Padella in Borough Market, was one of the first of Oliver's Fifteen apprentices, before going on to cook at St. John. Jon Rotheram worked at St. John before heading up the Fifteen kitchen and then opening Hackney pub the Marksman with fellow ex-St. John chef Tom Harris. Completing the trio is Robbin Holmgren, current head chef at Fifteen and another St. John alumni.
"Normally, when you do these sort of gigs, it's a bit of a pain because there are a lot of egos in the kitchen," Rotheram tells me. "But we're all friends here."
Siadatan echoes his sentiments: "Thing is, what St. John has done is create a family and so we're like an extended family."
The positive atmosphere for which Henderson and St. John are known—almost as much as their food—is credited by all the chefs as having a lasting effect on their careers.
"The six or seven years I spent at St. John and with Fergus gave me a good base," says Holmgren. "Now I've had the chance to take that with me as I've gone on to Fifteen,"
Talking of Henderson and his zen master effect, he has just wandered into the kitchen to see how things are going. Everyone falls quiet. Henderson imparts a few words of wisdom to the team and does a round of the kitchen before leaving, and the volume rises ever so slightly once more.
Chatting to Henderson out of the kitchen, I ask him what it's like to have the guys back at St. John.
"I'm like mother hen—cluck, cluck, cluck," he says, miming chicken wings. "They've all escaped my clutches but they're back for one night. You can hear that there are no raised voices in there."
Gulliver chips in: "Everyone's just a bunch of chums, really. There's no construct at St. John—this is just the way we conduct ourselves about how a restaurant should be and if the youngsters take that on, it's fantastic. They all now cook with their own voice which is a special thing for us."
Scanning the menu, which also includes dishes from Henderson and current St. John Bread and Wine head chef Arnold Hoeksma, reveals the differing directions each of tonight's ex-chefs have taken their cooking in. But when you read between the lines, there are still traces of St. John to be found.
"We all met up to brainstorm what we were doing but there's not really a rhyme or reason to the menu," explains Siadatan. "We haven't designed it in the sense that it matches but more to represent what we're doing in our own fields and at the same time, a homage to how things are done here."
Talking to Holmgren about his dishes, he describes the food at St. John as "laid back and stripped back" but admits, "I'm a bit more picky and like to make things look pretty" (evident in the painstaking placement of flower petals on his Montgomery Cheddar tart). But his lobster dish kicking off tonight's meal is a nod to nose-to-tail cooking, as well as being a staple dish on the menu at Fifteen.
Holmgren gives me the run down: "I've using every part of a lobster. We're doing claws in a brioche bun with tartar sauce and lettuce, then serving the lobster tail with beetroot and making a super sweet stock from the bones."
Siadatan is also taking inspiration from the use-everything approach Henderson pioneered by showcasing chopped chicken liver with marsala and sage on toast.
"I learned a lot about offal and how to utilise animals at St. John. When I was a student at Fifteen, everyone was talking about this bone marrow and because I couldn't afford to eat at St. John, I sat at the bar and just had this one dish," remembers Siadatan. "It changed how I thought about food—it was ballsy, courageous, and anti-establishment. I got some work experience in the kitchen and eventually went back and worked there."
Tonight, Siadatan is himself bringing some anti-establishment to St. John by being the first to cook pasta—in the shape of crab tagliolini—in the kitchen.
"It's obviously what we do at Padella and also looks to my time at Fifteen," he explains. "When I was working with Jamie, it was back when he was still known as The Naked Chef so that introduced me to what Italian cooking could be."
And to pudding, when Rotheram will be serving up Dr. Henderson ice cream sandwiches. It might be the heat, but I'm swooning at the thought of them.
Things weren't so happy, however, when Rotheram was told he was on dessert.
"I got stitched up, didn't I? I was late to the meeting so I was told that I had to do pudding," he says, although still with a cheeky smile.
Rotheram goes on to tell me that, as the name might suggest, his dish is rooted in the time spent in the St. John hotel kitchens.
"I always remember how beautiful our ice creams were," he says. "So, it's not strictly mine but something I reflect upon from my experience."
But the beef and barley bun canapé (I mean, a couple could really be a hefty starter, but I'm not complaining), is something that Rotheram has been trying to sneak onto the St. John menu for years.
"When I worked for Fergus and we were located just off Chinatown, I thought it would be lovely to do a little nod to that by having steamed buns. But he [Henderson] called me a racy devil and wouldn't let me do it," he laughs. "When I went to Fifteen, I put it on the bar menu and it was my signature dish there. I thought it would perfect to do it here as a nod to both places."
Biting into the glazed bun to reveal the steaming meat within, juices running down my wrist, I'm unbelievably glad in the knowledge that they're also on offer at the Marksman.
But it's also the aforementioned culture of St. John that Holmgren, Siadatan, and Rotheram praise—not just the food—when I chat to them individually.
Siadatan waxes lyrical about the unique investment Henderson makes in his staff: "You've got to have the right food for sure but when Fergus, Trevor, and the whole team treat staff the way they were treating us, which was that they genuinely wanted everyone there to evolve and learn something from being there, a restaurant can be a special place."
Holmgren agrees: "Through working with other people, I've made my approach to kitchen by own but St. John gave me the foundation."
And Rotheram says affectionately: "They're [Henderson and Gulliver] like my parents in the restaurant world. They guide us through, looked after us, and cared about us."
Rotheram continues: "They taught me how to care for people at Fifteen. And all of the things I was taught at St. John—baking your own bread, making your own ice cream—needed to be passed on. And Fifteen is one of those places where you're welcomed with open arms, no matter what your background, to learn those things."
Bubbly in hand as dinner is about to be served, I'll raise my glass to that.
All photos by Elliot Sheppard.