Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver of the legendary St. JOHN restaurant invited Michael Drake and Michael Hill over for lunch, serving up guinea fowl and ox tongue pie, deep-fried tripe and lots of wine.
This is a story about delicious food, exquisite suits and world-renowned restaurateurs. It’s a story of four friends coming together to do what they do best: eat well, dressed well. But it’s also a story about patience, weathering a storm and sitting out a pandemic.
From an outsider’s point of view it might be an obvious match, but St. JOHN’s Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver and Michael Drake and Michael Hill from Drake’s - though they of course knew of each other and enjoyed each other’s businesses - had never managed to sit down for lunch, all four of them in one go.
Naturally that had to be rectified, and a conversation started between the restaurant, the brand and myself about how to best make that happen. As we all know, synching the diaries of two busy individuals is difficult at best, double that number and throw in a year-and-a-half long lockdown, especially for the restaurant industry, and you’re left with more challenges than kitchen towels.
Anyway, we’re over all of that now: life is looking up again, the sun is out (at least it was) and two years after the initial call the four of them did manage to meet up for lunch at the St. John Street restaurant, a sort of ‘who's who’ of ‘culinary offal heroes meet celebrated haberdashers and neo-Sartorialists.’
Cue the feast. It’s a joy to be at St. JOHN, even if you just have a coffee, come in a for an Elevenses (more about that later) or order everything there is on the menu. We had the added pleasure of visiting ‘backstage’ in the kitchen, taking in the beautiful chaos, to quote Rei Kawakubo, that is the steaming engine room of any Michelin-starred restaurant.
The two Michaels are long term St. JOHN customers, and Fergus and Trevor already knew the way to the Drake’s store on Savile Row by heart: this was a day out among friends. A seemingly never-ending succession of plates (the menu highlights included deep-fried tripe with chips and ketchup, guinea fowl and ox tongue pie, bread and butter pudding with custard and madeleines and Vieille Prune … and lots of wine) made for a long, delicious lunch, two years in the making.
Michael Hill: The perfect dinner party: which five people - dead or alive, real or fictional - would you invite to dinner and what would you cook for them?
Fergus: Isambard Kingdom Brunel - he built a railway just to get him to Bristol, and instead of stopping there he built ships to get him to America. That’s ambition. Audrey Hepburn, because she’s lovely. Fernand Point, who daily before lunch consumed a whole roast chicken and shared a magnum of champagne with his barber.
Trevor: Frank Zappa, to keep things off the wall. And Fergus’ late father Brian Henderson, with whom there was never a dull moment.
Michael Hill: Most memorable meal in film, literature or art?
Fergus: Le Grand Bouffe! That was the film that inspired the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. I watched it when it came out, in the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, and all the other patrons were scattered across the rows to give respectful space to their fellow food pervs. Early on in the film there’s a scene where the protagonists suck on huge ox bones with great enthusiasm which will eventually lead to their death. It was an ‘Ah-ha’ moment for me.
Michael Drake: What has been your worst kitchen disaster?
Fergus: Early on in my career my friends and I cooked a cassoulet for 600 people. I can’t now remember how it came about, or why … but we left the cooked beans unrefrigerated for longer than we should have, and when we came to use them they had fermented slightly, to a gentle fizz. I’m ashamed to say that we rinsed them off and returned them to stock. I can’t believe that no one died of ricin poisoning. The whole thing was a wild success - everyone asked ‘how did you get that crucial sour note?’. I would never risk such a thing now.
Michael Hill: What would your last meal to be, if you could choose?
Fergus: First, a dry martini - just one, to take the edge off the doom of my last supper, but not enough for numbness - I would like to experience the subtle joys of the sea urchins, which would follow. Then goat’s cheese with a good burgundy - I’ll take a 2005 Dujac, Morey-St-Denis, soothing but without too much flamboyance. When you begin to tire of the wine after the first few glasses, a good goat’s cheese restores the lustre. And when the goat’s cheese starts to cloy, the wine restores your enthusiasm. It’s a magical symbiosis. Then, to finish, the St. JOHN chocolate ice cream. The perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness. Fitting for a final meal.
Michael Drake: What's the one ingredient you can't live without?
Fergus: BUTTER. The linchpin of a sandwich. It makes dishes come alive like nothing else.
Michael Drake: What do you always avoid ordering on a menu?
Fergus: Broad beans. I adore them, and I too often find that dishes which advertise broad beans in the title just come with two or three little peeled things, rather than the pile of jewels that I’m after. I have learned to save myself the disappointment.
Michael Drake: How would you describe your style?
Fergus: Laidback but assured, haha. I like to keep things for a good long time. Forever. I like a lived-in feel, a look of ‘one happy wearer’. Or a couple of happy wearers, when I wear dad’s old stuff.
Trevor: And we like to keep things back for the bank manager. A good tie or two.
Michael Hill: Are you most comfortable dressed up or dressed down?
Fergus: Both. Both have an important function; both are vital to inhabit your persona at any given time.
Michael Hill: You had bespoke Drake’s suits made – what was the process like? Enjoyable?
Fergus: We did enjoy that. What a joy to have one’s buttons done up with such surgical precision. What skill!
Michael Drake: Do you view cooking food as expressive medium, like music, art, fashion etc?
Fergus: Of course. I have often compared my culinary journey to Glen Miller’s pursuit of the perfect sound. I have similarly always been in search of that very special musk: the musk of a good time, which I first encountered as a child emerging in the morning to find the remains of my parents’ dinner party: a paisley tablecloth littered with half-drunk glasses of Burgundy, candle wax and a half-eaten creme caramel, all swathed in an intoxicating fog of cigar smoke. It felt magical. That musk touches your soul, like good music.
Michael Hill: What was your parents’ relationship to food?
Fergus: My mother was a good cook, and my father loved to eat. But our lives really changed when Marcella Hazan’s ‘Classic Italian Cookbook’ entered our house. The book showed my mother the sophistication of simplicity. It changed our understanding of food. Dad used to take me to excellent restaurants and took great pleasure in giving me a good culinary education. He encouraged me from a young age to have free rein of the menu and the wine list. When he was alive he came to St. JOHN very often, which is interesting as my cooking is not really the style of food that he preferred. He loved fine dining, as do I of course, but I feel that my style of cooking is a more enduring and egalitarian way of nurturing the diner.
Michael Hill: You’ve worked with a microbrewery and sourdough is before St. JOHN, Trevor – do you think you unknowingly invented the hipster?
Trevor: Hopefully not! But we have been unintentionally at the forefront of something, perhaps. Think of where our restaurants are situated, in Clerkenwell and Spitalfields. When we first moved in people wondered why the hell we were there, and tumbleweed blew through our doors most nights. But eventually people came. We aren’t saying that we transformed the areas, just like we aren’t saying that we transformed eating culture in this country, but we are woven into their fabric for sure.
Michael Drake: How does it feel to have reached 25, quarter of a century? Did it ‘fly by’? What have been the highlights and low points?
Fergus: When we first opened, we were accused of being 200 years out of date. So, what’s another 25 years?
Trevor: We say that we are always, yet never, the same. We mean that we evolve subtly, gradually, perhaps imperceptibly. But we are not luddites (although as Fergus says, we are ludd-ish), and we delight in things moving forward.
Michael Hill: And finally, what feeds your creativity at St. John?
Click here for the first part of this epic two-year-in-the-making lunch session.
Creative – Document Studios
Art Director and Writer – David Hellqvist
Photographer – Tom Jamieson
Photo Assistant – Harry Mitchell