Britain’s best-kept secret
Fergus Henderson’s talented wife steps out from the shadows
IT’S important to note that the Rochelle Canteen in London’s Shoreditch is open to anyone who fancies a good lunch. But eating there does make you feel like you’re in on a secret. To get there, you turn off Shoreditch High Street and stroll past Leila’s Shop, purveyors of good coffee and excellent cheese, until you reach Arnold Circus, home of the magnificent Boundary Estate.
At this point, if you are a first-timer, you will feel a little anxious, there being no hint of a sign, much less of a table. Do not despair. Walk confidently towards the Victorian school at the Circus’s far side. In a brick wall is set a door. ‘‘Boys’’, it says above it. You have arrived. Ring the bell, and the door will swing open. The restaurant is in the old bike shed.
The Rochelle Canteen began its life, as the name suggests, as a cafeteria: a dining room for the artists and other creative types who rent space in the converted Rochelle School. It’s a white rectangle, in essence, kitchen at one end, dining room — wipe-clean tables, vintage Ercol chairs, shaker pegs on which dangle three battered sunhats — at the other.
As a legacy of this, it has no licence, and is open only at lunchtime on weekdays. But in every other way it has evolved into a serious restaurant. ‘‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’’ co-owner Margot Henderson says with a slightly startled air. ‘‘It’s a proper place. I mean . . . [the] kitchen is really strong.’’ A pause for contemplation, and then: ‘‘Are you going to have pudding? I think you should. James [Ferguson, the canteen’s chef] is fantastic at tarts.’’
Henderson came here eight years ago with her business partner Melanie Arnold; mostly, they needed a base, not to mention a kitchen, for their catering company, Arnold & Henderson. So it still surprises her when she sees it as it is today, brisk and noisy, customers continuing to arrive as late as 3pm.
Do not, though, mistake mild amazement for a lack of ambition. Henderson is warm, funny, clever, enthusiastic and slightly eccentric. But she is also, I think, highly competitive and quite tough. Ask her how she felt when her husband, the celebrated British chef Fergus Henderson, left the French House Dining Room, the small Soho restaurant where they cooked together, to set up his renowned St John and she will tell you.
‘‘Was I envious? Yeah! I was really envious. I went kind of mental. I thought: Something’s gone wrong here. I was rolling along and then suddenly, it was: There’s no room for you, you’re having a baby.’’ Her voice rises at the continuing outrage of a crime committed more than 15 years ago. Has she forgiven him? Yes. But her magnanimity must have been made easier by her own victories in the years since: the acclaim for the Rochelle Canteen; the swanky client list she and Arnold have built.
Even better, she has now written a cookbook so brilliant it already feels like a classic to rival her husband’s Nose to Tail Eating. Apparently, it was agony to write. ‘‘I tried to give [the publisher’s advance] back at one point. I shouldn’t have worried. I should have just done it. But I just kept putting it off, and then I would lose the thread.’’
Unlike most new cookbooks, You’re All Invited isn’t desperately trying to take up a position. There are no earnest lectures about seasonality, no dreary outbreaks of solidarity with hard-pressed working women. Her introductions to each recipe are witty but minimalist. You could say it’s a life’s work in 300 pages: a load of things that are easy to make and delicious to eat, from salt cod and potato bake (the first dish she made for Fergus) to cabbage and truffle spaghetti (the first dish he made for her) to a Turkish coffee cake that is unlike anything I’ve come across (cinnamon, coriander, wholemeal flour). Plus the odd cocktail — because she and Fergus do love a drink.
Henderson’s mother was a journalist who wrote a series of books about eating out in their native New Zealand, so Henderson went to posh French restaurants — the kind, she points out, that had carpets — from an early age. Her mother, though, had also fallen in love with the teachings of Gayelord Hauser, the American nutritionist, with the result that she threw out anything refined and white; her children endured cider vinegar and honey in place of cordial. ‘‘So, when I was 10, I started catering for my younger brothers. I said: They just can’t have bran biscuits for their birthdays.’’
The first recipe she tried was the ginger crunch from the Edmonds Cookery Book, the New Zealand household bible. And then there were the snails. ‘‘I was about eight or nine. We were studying France at school. So we took all the snails from the garden. Then we fried them up with breadcrumbs. I thought they were delicious. After that, I was always rustling up snails for my parents’ dinner parties, which was quite funny in Wellington.’’
She went to university to study literature, but lasted ‘‘about two seconds’’. She left, and worked in a Mexican cantina to save up and move to London. There followed stints in bedsit London and then Australia — and that was when she got really serious about cooking, following Stephanie Alexander and working in a Sydney brasserie.
‘‘Then I came back to England . . . I had this rice ball business. I cooked 50 kilos of rice every day in my flat and made them into balls with carrots and stuff, and then I deep-fried them. ‘‘Basically, it was bad food for macrobiotics.’’ But then, in a single afternoon, everything changed. ‘‘I’d bought this new dress and I was feeling quite good. When I walked past 192 [the Notting Hill restaurant namechecked in Bridget Jones’s Diary], I thought: I want to work there. So I went in. They said I could start Monday.’’
It was the beginning of a career that left Henderson with a CV that tells the story of all that was hip and delicious in 90s London. Her stint at 192 was followed by the First Floor Restaurant nearby (Peter Gordon, soon to open his Sugar Club, was a colleague), the Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road and the Eagle in Clerkenwell. It was at the Eagle that she met Fergus. He came to one of their sprawling Sunday lunches. ‘‘I thought he was an incredibly sweet man. I wasn’t used to that.’’
Soon afterwards, they met to discuss the idea of opening a restaurant together (Fergus was working in the Globe, a Notting Hill nightclub frequented by Lucian Freud). ‘‘He was so lovely. He let me talk about coriander, and everything. It went really well, and by the end of the weekend we were a couple. Within a fortnight, he was telling me what we were going to eat at our wedding — a salt cod feast — and within a month, he’d asked me to marry him.’’ Did they go with the salt cod in the end? ‘‘No, we made cassoulet for 300 people.’’
In 1992, they opened the French House Dining Room above the French House pub in Soho. She pulls a face. ‘‘But, of course, Fergus left quite quickly to open his big restaurant, so leading to years of bitterness, which I might just be coming out of.’’ She stayed on; the French House, being so small, was a good restaurant for a woman who wanted to have children (they have three teenagers), and the team was close enough to tolerate the odd toddler.
But it was hard watching Fergus build his reputation, and she was so tired. ‘‘I was exhausted. If I could get through a night without crying, it was a miracle. It was a difficult situation. Half of me wanted to work, the other half wanted to be with the children.’’
Despite this, she didn’t choose to leave the French House; she and Arnold — who replaced Fergus as her business partner — were eventually given their marching orders by the landlord.
Henderson and her famous husband have had their troubles. He has Parkinson’s disease, though things have improved since, six years ago, he underwent deep brain stimulation (wires were implanted in his brain, enabling certain electrical signals from it to be blocked, thus helping to control his tremors). ‘‘He never complains,’’ says Henderson. ‘‘I envy that. I’m really moany. I have never heard him say: ‘I’m sick of this.’ I’ve never even heard him mention Parkinson’s. He’s incredible.’’
But you feel, too, that they are truly partners; her book is dedicated to Fergus and he is one of the threads that run through it (the others being her mother and her mother-in-law, both excellent cooks). And now her children are growing up, the search is on for a site for a new restaurant.
Does this mean the Rochelle Canteen will close? ‘‘Oh, no,’’ Henderson says. ‘‘We love it here. But it would be nice to have a place that was open for dinner and weekends. I mean, that is what normal restaurants do, isn’t it?’’ Margot Henderson’s You’re All Invited is out now (Penguin, $45).
above The Rochelle Canteen started out as a cafeteria for artists and other creative types right Margot Henderson has written a cookbook to rival her husband’s