A summer London morning of cool sunshine; it should have felt wonderful to be alive but there were minor delays on the Hammersmith and City line and the Tube was packed with shuffling commuters. We hung our heads, dropsy daisies, to our mobile phone screens. I got out at Liverpool Street among the stream of human ants mapping their way to work. I was hungry, I needed a cup of early grey tea please. Not the yellow and red Formica inside McDonalds, not the easy convenience of Pret, not another cardboard Costa Coffee. I walked past all of these, jagging northeast, to where the steel and glass skyscraper City meets older Georgian brick at Spitalfields.
Walked past the Breakfast Club which had an American diner interior, loud rock and roll music and was packed with people eating pancakes. Walked past Ottolenghi offering scrambled tofu with rose harissa and braised eggs, whatever that means, with leek, spinach, preserved lemon and zaa’tar. Walked into St John’s Bread and Wine, almost empty of customers at nine in the morning, white washed, clean and calm; a good morning mood.
I sat down at a table against the wall. ‘Do you mind if I work?’ I asked the waitress, a little sheepish, opening my computer. ‘Of course not!’ she said. St John has long been my favourite restaurant in London. Its Bread and Wine outpost, east of its original flagship, has the added attraction of breakfast.
I asked for a pot of Earl Grey tea and boiled eggs with anchovy toast and I began to write. I looked up between paragraphs and musing, caught the eye of a waiter, and he started towards me before he realised I was only daydreaming. Then we both laughed about it. I smiled and wrote in my notebook, ‘a certain like-mindedness.’
Since I first ate there twenty years ago I have loved St John for the food, the original modern British, back to basics and stripped down to delicious. I have also loved the way St John seemed to pioneer a new friendly service that has become a new standard, not French formal distant or nugatory snoot or casual ignore, but friendly and engaged and refreshingly unservile.
Fergus Henderson, the chef and creator of St John, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s almost twenty years ago. He doesn’t cook any more, but he’s always around, and this morning he was in the kitchen at Bread and Wine, where his son now works, keeping an eye on things. He looks a little like a tweedledee cartoon, beaming cheerily, red faced and rotund with Harry Potter glasses. He wore butter coloured corduroys and a blue canvas French workman’s jacket. We had arranged to meet and when I had finished my eggs I introduced myself.
‘How were they?’ he asked solicitously. My eggs were perfectly soft boiled, a teaspoon arrived seconds after I asked for it, the toast was thick sourdough and grilled so that the edges were charred and the interior still soft, and the anchovy butter was just the right non-marmite salty umami.
Fergus told me that he used to begin the day with a cigarette and an espresso, but he’s given up smoking now so he replaced the cigarette with a shot of Fernet Branca. ‘It helps,’ he added, gesticulating circles with his hands to illustrate his body as series of moving gears that needed to be lubricated. Then when he came into the restaurant, he said, he would eat a proper breakfast. Which one, I asked? Usually a bacon sandwich, he said. ‘Breakfast is the start of the process,’ he added.
‘What about all day breakfast American style? Breakfast in the middle of the day ‘ I asked. Fergus shook his head with a mild shudder. ‘I’m so obsessed with lunch,’ he replied, ‘and what I’m going to have for lunch, it would get in the way to think about breakfast all day.’
‘Brunch?’ He shuddered again. ‘Brunch is the terrible work of the — ‘ he did not quite say devil. ‘It’s neither one thing nor another thing.’ ‘But elevenses?’ I replied. ‘Ah yes, elevenses,’ he grinned. ‘That’s what keeps you going until lunch.’ Mid morning, he usually partakes of a slice of seed cake and Madeira. He ordered some for us now. The caraway seed cake was pound cake, not too dry, with a crunchy crust. ‘A little dour,’ said Fergus, ‘but good.’ A sip of the amber Madeira, sweet and thick, wetted the tongue and warmed the palate.
I nibbled one and sipped the other and began to understand a little of the to-and-fro of the Fergus Henderson culinary sensibility. The ampersand that connects two ingredients. His classic bone marrow, unctuous rich and fatty, with a parsley salad, bright green, stinging with shallot and cut with briny capers. His food is not about the balance of everything merging in a mouthful, but about the conversation between ingredients. Softly dripping egg yolk, salty fish, charred edge of toast. Eccles cake, Christmassy, spicy sweet, with a wedge of mildly funky Lancashire cheese.
We started to trade favourite meals. ‘Tripe and onions.’ said Fergus. ‘Or the time many years ago I ate mince and tatties at your restaurant,’ I said. I had already admitted I was a fan. ‘I couldn’t figure out what made it so good.’ Fergus chuckled. ‘A little oatmeal,’ he said, ‘helps to keep the fat in.’
Old fashioned offal married modern minimalism and arrived as a revelation to us all, in 1994, when he first opened St John. In the years since he has been awarded a Michelin star and is regularly in the top 50 restaurant in the world list, but his vision remains an unchanged standard. Clean good cooking with integrity. Most of all delicious.
I asked him where he found his style. ‘My Mum’ said Fergus without much hesitation, ‘Lancashire. I grew up with straightforward cooking, ham and parsley sauce. And my father who was an eater, and took us to fancier white table cloth places. When I was a kid I read cook books like spy novels.’
Fergus is an original. A little eccentric, a little whimsical, a sense of fun, of indulgence. He takes a pleasure in creating pleasure, and St John has long outlasted the trends it started for offal or gastro pub copy cats. I told him about a dish of half a pig’s head that I had eaten more than a decade ago at St John and still remembered and hoped to find again on the menu (although in subsequent visits have never had; the menu changes daily.) ‘It’s a very romantic dish,’ said Fergus, ‘one person can offer a cheek to their loved one.’
I went out into the pre-lunch sunshine much cheered, buoyed on a wave of Madeira infused well-being. The Tube was empty on the way back to Paddington. I read a whole book about human beings. Must get up tomorrow and do this all over again, I thought.