Food by VICE

Fergus Henderson Has Perfected the Art of All-Day Drinking

St. John founder and cheffing legend Fergus Henderson has a carefully honed drinking regime, starting with a morning Fernet Branca and ending with an “uplifting” gin and tonic.

by Josh Barrie
Dec 29 2015, 1:00pm

It starts with a Fernet Branca: an agreeably bitter awakening. That slow-sipping Italian liqueur marks the start of something. A Ricard Pastis follows. We take in its anise aroma with a few ice cubes and a splash of cool water.

Countless things have been written about Fergus Henderson—his "nose to tail" approach, his eccentricity, and sadly, his Parkinson's. More still has been said of the iconic St. John group of restaurants, the first of which Henderson opened in an old smokehouse near London's Smithfield Markets in the mid 90s, feeding esteemed chefs' stomachs ever since.

And then there's the bone marrow. Well, obviously.

I'm only a few years older than the restaurants Henderson has built, and have grown up marvelling at how indebted the world of British food is to them. The chance to accompany Henderson on his daily dining ritual seems ridiculous to not take. (Plus, indulgence is great).

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We meet at the French House, whose Soho dining room Henderson ran with wife Margot before opening St. John. He mentions his time there, as well as his beginnings at The Globe in Notting Hill. One dish, "Ham in a Duvet of Hay," no better defines the gentlemanly way he cooks. It's the moment the "pig in blanket" is elevated to poetry.

We have our herbal drinks ("They're pick-ups, little joys to start the day," I'm told) before wandering over to Camisa, an Italian deli, to fetch foodstuffs for his family meal that evening.

"This is the best pasta," Henderson tells me, holding Cipriani assuredly. "Expensive, but I love the way it slips off the tongue." He adds some olive and truffle oil to his load, and we sample some cheese (creamy, nutty, and very delicious). Next, we taxi to Bread and Wine.

En route, James Bond is the primary subject.

"I love it," Henderson says. "Especially the books. Bond loves a good spaghetti Bolognese, a rough Chianti. He eats well. I enjoy it. In the films he has caviar with a dry martini. A dry martini is best before lunch, one or two is enough. In the books he has caviar with vodka or Champagne; more refined."

Champagne is for filling the gaps. It's good for the afternoon to keep things going. White wine, I think, is the best way to remind yourself how good red is.

Whatever the topic of conversation with Henderson, food centres—more so than you might expect. A little known fact, he reveals, is that the "whole crab" on the menu at St. John Bread and Wine is inspired by pure fabrication.

"Well, it's a fictional crab. It's a figment of my imagination," he explains. "In one film, Scaramanga [a Bond villain] sits down to pink Champagne and lobster with Bond. But they didn't even eat lobster. It's a take on that, and how the crab is on the menu." Lobster, incidentally, is not.

We arrive at the restaurant and Fergus continues his education in nourishment, telling me that it's a methodical tradition of his to move from one moment to the next with a rousing beverage and perhaps a few olives.

"Lunch is much more important, it's more a celebration and it holds such promise," he adds.

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Fergus Henderson outside St. John Bread and Wine. Photo by the author.

We're given fizz. "Champagne is for filling the gaps," Henderson notes. "It's good for the afternoon to keep things going. White wine, I think, is the best way to remind yourself how good red is."

If the circumstances are fitting—"in Italy, having fish," he muses—a cold white is pleasant.

But the red we drink is above anything a white could be. It's the Meursault Rouge 2010, Domaine Matrot, a Burgundy. Henderson also enjoys a Bordeaux, which is what he and Margot had at their wedding.

"It was a wedding-y wedding," he recalls. "We had New Zealand white, a Bordeaux, lots of champagne. We flew off to our honeymoon immediately after and at dinner, Margot fell asleep in her steak tartare. She had a nice soft landing and I was happily left tucking into my pig's trotter."

It's a known fact that Henderson can continue where others fail. There was a time in France when he had "double cassoulet," one for lunch and one for dinner. "It was too much. For dinner, you need something lighter, like tripe," he remembers.

Perhaps something similar to the deep-fried tripe currently on the menu in front of us at St. John? With a chirpy smile, Fergus describes the dish as "delightfully pooey."

Soon, all manner of St. John joys appear before us. Among the dishes are fresh pea pods.

"I'm very much a pea person," Fergus chimes, before looking to the duck egg and cod roe, the bone marrow, buttery asparagus, and a rich rabbit pie.

It was a wedding-y wedding. We flew off to our honeymoon immediately after and at dinner, Margot fell asleep in her steak tartare. She had a nice soft landing and I was happily left tucking into my pig's trotter.

Even with such a spread set before us, it's the little details sing at Henderson's restaurants. The butter isn't salted, "because people can add however much they choose" and food isn't art, it's texture and flavour.

"Look at the pie. There's little better than a pie," he says. "I see food as ingredients and something to satisfy. It looks as good as it is."

These inclinations seem to be reflected in the way Henderson moves through the day, each tipple complementing the next. When sticking to his regimen, drinking is not overboard but follow from the "medicinal nature" of the liqueurs, the robust, timely wine that follows, and the warm hit of the digestif. His day is a culinary onion and the layers work.

READ MORE: Chef Fergus Henderson Made Positivity Cool in the Kitchen

Soon, the ginger cake sets in and only a small block of cheesecake resides as a delicate corner of a white plate. Henderson eyes his restaurant.

"It's so great, so great to see," he says. "There's nothing better than people eating, being happy."

It's much later now and Henderson is off to Greece the next morning to smash plates at a wedding, so has to head home. He'll likely enjoy a G&T ("uplifting" cogs in the journey) while he prepares purple sprouting broccoli and boils pasta for the evening meal. To accompany, there'll be Parmesan—"grated, never shaved"—and red wine.

It's the final minutia to Henderson's considered dining and drinking approach.

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.