Bri­tain’s best-kept se­cret

Fer­gus Hen­der­son’s tal­ented wife steps out from the shad­ows

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Global Gourmet Issue - RACHEL COOKE GUARDIAN NEWS AND ME­DIA LIM­ITED

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

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