Jonathan Jones St John instilled a love for nuanced, yet unfussy food that the Anchor & Hope chef cleaves to still
Everything was delicious, generous and homely. Exactly what I aim for 20 years later
My first encounter with St John was in 1994. I had a startling dinner there: skate, chicory and anchovy, followed by smoked eel, bacon and mash. I left desperate to work there: Fergus Henderson was cooking original, delicious food and was someone I felt good being around.
So in 1995 I arrived, a relatively seasoned chef. I loved it from the start and soon found myself opening native oysters – clumsily – while Fergus stood alongside, smiling reassuringly. He would always give gentle instruction and corrective guidance to his “flock” of cooks.
St John was civilised. As staff we felt appreciated, reflected in a team that was dedicated, happy and proud to work there. We’d be given a sitdown meal both in the morning and afternoon, which was unusual at the time. Fergus might even furnish us with the odd “steadying glass” if he felt it might benefit.
He wasn’t so relaxed that things went awry, though. He ate at St John most days and if something was amiss, you would be quietly told. It certainly beat being berated by an overheating thug. Fergus is not only a massive influence how I cook, but on how I treat my team at the Anchor and Hope.
To think Fergus’s cooking is just about simplicity is deceptive. It has nuance, thought and understanding, and the produce was beautiful: Hebridean lambs, Aylesbury dry-plucked ducks, live Dorset langoustines and crabs. Seasonal treats that I’d only read about – wild sea kale or gulls’ eggs – all a pleasure to prepare and cook, famously using, with equal reverence, each part of the animal.
Fergus’s food is deemed British by some people, and the produce almost exclusively is. But, actually, the cooking has a continental European sensibility: artichoke and vinaigrette, pork chop and prunes, roast pigeon and peas, or kohlrabi salad.
I always loved how un-restauranty his fare was – no dull fillet-and-pureeplus-reduction, so prevalent at the time. It was real cooking. Boiled belly and lentils; roast grouse; whole brill served on green and white vegetables for five or six; pheasant pies that served four, not one – because that way you get the best ratio of filling to pastry. Everything was delicious, generous and homely. Exactly what I aim for now, 20 years later.
To show it’s not all meat and offal at St John, here is something that we still serve that I learned from Fergus. It opened my eyes to what a restaurant could do.
Raw and cooked vegetables with anchovy dressing (anchoiade)
As much an assembly as a recipe – and only worth making to eat with really fresh vegetables. This makes a good summer lunch with some bread and wine, even better with a 7-hour lamb shoulder to follow. The anchoiade recipe is a St John one that I have embellished a little.
For the dressing
7 garlic cloves, peeled A pinch of black pepper 1 tin of anchovies in oil 285ml extra virgin olive oil A splash of red wine vinegar 1 diced long red chilli
1 tsp thyme leaves
A handful of basil leaves
For the vegetables
Whatever veg looks lovely – radishes, peas in their pods, carrots, little gem lettuce, spring onions, fennel, chicory, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, broad beans, cucumber ...
1 First make the dressing. Put the garlic and pepper into a food processor or mortar and crush to a fine puree, then add the anchovies and allow them to break down. Start to add the oil, then the vinegar to taste – check the flavour for seasoning. You will be left with a thick emulsion. Then fold in the chilli and herbs.
2 Perhaps with the exception of the beetroot, you can choose to cook or serve your veg raw as you like. If you are cooking, say, your carrots or broccoli, do so in boiling salted water until only just tender. Trim, wash well and dry your veg.
3 Assemble in a pleasing way. Dip and crunch.