Evening Standard - ES Magazine
JOHN’S THE WORD
As their new Marylebone spot flings open its doors, Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver tell Joanna Taylor about the past, present and future of their London institution
Believe it or not, St John co-founder Trevor Gulliver wasn’t initially convinced by Fergus Henderson’s idea to paint their first restaurant entirely white. ‘I said to him, “I’ll have to go away and have a think about it.” It made me think of the brutalism of the Hayward Gallery in those days.’ Obviously, he came around to the idea, and the bright walls adorned with continuous rows of coat hooks have become one of the pioneering nose-to-tail restaurant group’s many highly recognisable trademarks. ‘It speaks for itself. Fresh,’ he says. Twentyeight years on, the pair are used to coming across copycats all over the world. ‘There are lots of white spaces with black painted doors. It’s very flattering and sometimes very confusing,’ says Gulliver.
Today, we’re sat at a table in the corner of the Smithfield restaurant that inspired a thousand minimalist interiors to chat about the duo’s first opening in more than a decade on Marylebone Lane, a marbletable clad, two-storey spot which quietly opened its doors earlier this week. Henderson is dressed in a bold striped suit which he calls ‘my armour’, while Gulliver sports a cosy-looking, eclectic three piece. ‘We were supposed to have matching, but once I saw Fergus in his I thought we
couldn’t both wear that.’ Normally Monday lunchtimes are many restaurants’ quietest part of the week, but the space is fizzing with energy. It’s easy to see why budding restaurateurs would want a slice of the same success, conjured by Henderson’s distinctive style of hearty, sustainable cooking coupled with Trevor’s penchant for wine and business-minded brain. These days the duo humbly carry the weight of national treasure status among food fanatics worldwide, which is only further affirmed during this interview, when two people edge over to the table to have their cookbooks signed, multiple selfies are snapped and a man in Miami calls to have a menu autographed and posted his way.
As of this week the brand has a grand total of three London restaurants — the original we’re sat in, Bread and Wine, opened 19 years ago in Spitalfields, plus the new one in the centre of town — as well as (deep breath, please) two bakeries, a petite
London Bridge bottle and bread emporium, a winery in south-west France, a broad range of St John wines, an ongoing collaboration with at-home meal kit distributor Dishpatch, a booming wholesale business, and, for a flash in 2019, a sell-out collaboration with fashion house Comme des Garçons.
Although it was never quite as simple as choosing a paint colour for these two, who dreamt up their plans to hatch the restaurant over lunch in The French House after an introduction by a mutual olive oil supplier. ‘There was pork fat everywhere,’ muses Henderson, pointing at the insides of their flagship Smithfield restaurant, which was in a sorry state when they took it on. ‘It was once a smokehouse,’ says Gulliver. ‘I had this lad and his entire job was to scrape the vitrified stuff off the walls. Years and years and years worth of pig fat.’ And despite the fact it had last smoked in 1967, according to Henderson ‘you could still smell it’ while undertaking renovations in 1994.
After months of scraping and several hair-raising incidents with the licensing bureau of the magistrates court involving photographs of flushing toilets and dodgy, un-fixed tiles, ‘It was a sense of palpable relief when we opened,’ says Gulliver. Though it wasn’t plain sailing right away. ‘[The restaurant] didn’t make any sense in terms of context, place, location. Those first five years were quite tough. We steadfastly said we’d never use PR. Obviously friends and family come but they can’t sustain you.’
“I had this lad and his entire job was to scrape the stuff off the walls. Years and years worth of pig fat”
Eventually, something shifted. Around the same time Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1998, ‘it suddenly changed,’ says Gulliver. ‘What was that trigger? I’m not sure. We certainly had recognition, and awards, or whatever. We travelled quite a lot and when Fergus’s book [Nose to Tail Eating] came out in ’99, people became curious. But there was no zeitgeist. No, people were genuinely curious. And then people discovered you can actually have fish here. Those from the local school would come in and out for bread, and then we started supplying bread to other restaurants.’
And despite the fact Gulliver and Henderson refused to engage the services of a public relations team, the restaurant captured the attention of the press nonetheless. ‘Someone sent us some squirrel from an estate. Squirrels live in trees and they’re very healthy, they’ve got great diets, but grey squirrels are also a problem, so they put traps everywhere and it seemed only reasonable to see what they’re like to eat,’ says Gulliver. ‘The phone just rang and rang, people from all over the world,’ Henderson reminisces. Gulliver can still see the newspaper coverage clearly. ‘In those days, the Express and the Mail had cartoons as big as the paper, and that was the cartoon. It was in Brazil, [headlines such as] “What they’re eating in England.” “Pommies eat squirrel” was another headline, and within two or three years, pubs and some of the Conran restaurants were serving squirrel. It was extraordinary. I don’t know if it helped us or anything.’
In 2009, the Michelin stars aligned and St John Smithfield was awarded its first, which they’ve retained since. Although the pair don’t seem particularly fazed by the recognition. ‘We did find two of our Michelin stars the other day… you get a plaque, and we had a load of those AA ones, and Fergus was moving house…’ Gulliver chuckles, while Henderson mimes carrying a tower before Gulliver admits, ‘There was a big pile of them under his sink… and eventually I’m sure they no longer existed. Chez Henderson, eh?’
The pair squirm at any mention of them having cult status. Okay, well there is a sanctity about St John? I ask. ‘Yeah, that’s better. The good ship St John,’ replies Gulliver. However it’s worded, the question remains the same: how have they managed to retain a committed customer base over the course of four decades? ‘For us, a good restaurant is one you want to go back to,’ says Gulliver. ‘It’s a question of integrity. It would be foolish to say that [our success is] because of us at this moment in time — it’s all of the people you see around you doing that. But we’ve had our ups and downs, we’ve done things that haven’t worked. And things like the chocolate doughnuts that we thought wouldn’t make sense have stayed.’ Plus, he adds, ‘We want a sense of permanence here. It’s a restaurant, we want people to come back to enjoy themselves and feel like it’s theirs when they come.’
So why now, with a recession looming, have Gulliver and Henderson decided to
“Someone sent us some squirrel and it seemed only reasonable to see what they’re like to eat”
open Marylebone, their first restaurant in more than a decade? ‘Good question,’ Henderson replies with a smile. In essence, the pair concocted the plan for a multitude of reasons, from giving their team the opportunity ‘to spread their wings’, to maximising their bakery output and giving the business the ‘wherewithal’ to weather another storm post-Brexit and Covid. ‘Businesses are weakened by what’s happened, and will continue to be weakened. Unemployment will come back at the end of next year, because there is effectively going to be another recession, so we need to have the ability and be in robust health to survive, and we won’t survive if we just keep paying money back to the bank.’
And if those Henderson affectionately calls his ‘flock’ do fly the nest? ‘If someone goes and opens up [a new restaurant], we’re delighted because it means there’s somewhere else to eat. We feel a very positive way about it. If you see all these other St John [inspired] places, we think it’s great,’ Gulliver beams. ‘I’m immensely proud,’ says Henderson, with a hand to his chest. And on that note, it’s time for a Fernet and photographs.