The St JOHN Family Tree: Part II
To celebrate the launch of the inaugural Drake's for St. JOHN collaboration — the latest extension of a friendship that’s been ongoing for years, we thought that it would be a good idea to highlight some of the people who make, and have made, St. JOHN what it is. A Family Tree, as it were.
Wearing select pieces from the collection (available soon), in Part II of the Family Tree we visit a customer who has been enjoying a pint and a Welsh rarebit in Smithfield for two decades, a couple who met at Bread and Wine and have gone on to open one of London's most-lauded restaurants, and the photographer behind some of St. JOHN's signature, beautiful imagery.
Creative Director / Founder of Paperboy Magazine / Long-Time Customer
I first found the restaurant back in 2001. Some old colleagues of mine brought me to ‘the place where they cooked brains,’ as I’m Glaswegian. Anyway, I think that was the idea. And there was the Welsh rarebit, which is the closest thing you can get to cheese and toast, or that’s how it was sold to me. It was one of the first places I came to in London. I thought I was being brought to an old school, or a prison, but I was immediately taken by the experience and the setting.
Twenty-odd years later and it’s just not changed... in the best way possible. You know when you’re in need of reassurance; to go somewhere for a little cuddle? St. JOHN, for me, is that little cuddle. That reassurance for 20 years. A pint and a Welsh rarebit was the same then as it is now.
It’s like a Drake’s shirt. Great ingredients and a solid philosophy. Also, it’s generally always been wanker-free. It’s not trying to do anything else or more than what it is. If you’re trying to be cool, you’re automatically not cool. It’s about being consistent and confident and believing in what you’re doing. That's St. JOHN."
Lee and Kate Tiernan
Chef and Restaurateur — F.K.A.B.A.M. (Formerly Known As Black Axe Mangal)
Lee: We met at St. JOHN Bread and Wine. It’s been a very important part of my life and career. I became sous chef, then head chef, and I met my wife.
Kate: I started in 2005, and then Lee came onboard in 2007. After years of working in hospitality, it was quite different working at St. JOHN. It was the first place where, as an employee, you’re encouraged to come and eat there. You had to learn a lot about food and seasonality. It’s an education.
Lee: Back then, putting things like pig head and spleen on a menu wasn’t the done thing. It can be hard to convince people that it’s going to taste nice. There’s an element of trust that needs to be earned from a a restaurant like that. There’s a very clear style, which wasn’t common in the Noughties.
Kate: I went there as a vegetarian! I was converted over the course of 6 months. It came from seeing suppliers and the ingredients coming into the restaurant. Learning about British produce, and how the chefs would know how to treat an animal — using every little bit of it. To quote Fergus: “If you’re going to kill an animal, it’s only polite to eat the whole thing.” But that sums it up for me. Fergus is brilliant at encapsulating a big concept in a few words.
Lee: We use a lot of offal in our food, and that’s definitely a direct link to St. JOHN. Offal is delicious, you just need to know what to do with it. Working there for 10 years, you learn how to manipulate it. Whether that’s braising, or frying for the exact amount of time it needs.
For example, with kidneys, I remember John, who’s been working there for more than 20 years, Big John. I remember asking him, "when do you know when to turn them?" And he said, "They’ll tell you when they’re ready. Wait for the blood to just start showing up in the pan, and flip them over." And he was right!
Kate: I learnt to not let all of the other ‘stuff’ over-influence what you’re doing. St. JOHN isn’t swayed by fashion. It’s rooted in a really deep understanding and sense of conviction.
Lee: There’s no better education for a young chef than to do a stint at St. JOHN. They look after you, and they teach you.
Kate: Oh, and they throw the best staff parties!
"My first proper St. JOHN dinner with a good friend at Smithfield is a treasured memory. One of those four hour affairs with every drink (and dessert) under the sun. Time really stood still in that dining room, it was a fully immersive experience. There’s something miraculous about the sounds of that room too. No music, you almost feel like you’re in a little bubble with your dining companion; the background hum tuned to a perfect fuzz.
The next thing you know you’re the last guests, and the staff are sweeping around you, trying to go home. (Sorry!)
It’s sometimes tricky to come up with new ways to photograph things. I’m a huge fan of the pared back minimalism that St. JOHN calls for at times, but we also try to inject some tongue in cheek humour, especially when people are involved. Many times we’ve wracked our brains trying to come up with another way to shoot a bottle of wine.
For me, the restaurant is a consistency and comfort thing, people know they can count on them. It’s like seeing an old friend. Sitting in the bar with a quick Guinness and rarebit, dropping into Bread and Wine for dessert because you had a disappointing meal elsewhere, or the full four hour affair at Smithfield – these are all so comforting for me. The food and the vibe is just a big hug.
The bone marrow is a particularly beautiful thing to look at, and photograph. Beside that, something with custard, chocolate sauce or anything pourable… embrace the mess."