Fergus Henderson on Modernist Cuisine: Dazzling, Futuristic, Technical … Dangerous?

by Nicholas Rummell and Antoinette Bruno
March 2012

British Chef Fergus Henderson is no stranger to trendsetting. Take a time machine back about 20 years and witness Henderson as chef-Archimedes, having his “Eureka” moment with snout-to-tail cooking, creating a new culinary movement that’s still flourishing to this day.

But rocket two decades forward, and you’ll find a chef who’s actually wary of trends, or at least some of them. On our recent trip to London, we chatted with Henderson about one of the current à la modes—modernist techniques—and we found him respectfully skeptical. “Chefs nowadays are becoming like chemists, but a restaurant should be about having a good lunch,” he told us in the basement of his titular, white-walled, bare-bones shrine (or is it benevolent abattoir?), St. John. “Heston [Blumenthal] and [Ferran] Adrià are all wonderful, lovely, great fun, fantastic, and dangerous. Every chef these days has worked at El Bulli.”

What’s the danger? According to Henderson, some chefs have become a bit preoccupied by both the science of cooking and the theater of it. Food should be a joyous celebration, not as confounding and whimsical as many modernist techniques sometimes make it. “That shouldn’t be its main cause or mission,” he says.

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Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad Tripe with Butter Beans and Old Spot Smoked Bacon
St. John - London, England

This no-nonsense, utilitarian view of cooking was a breath of fresh air 18 years ago when Henderson opened St. John. So maybe it’s no surprise he should feel this way now. Henderson’s not a “chemist” like Blumenthal or Adrià. But he’s not a Luddite either. He’s an engineer, an architect (he actually studied architecture before turning to food), and this background is fully evident in his obsession with using every last bit of an animal. “When I started, the inspiration was not to do offal, exactly, but it was what should have been done,” he says. “It was common sense. It was not a concept or a fad or a trend.” (Nose-to-tail may have become “trendy,” but to Henderson, that just betrays a lack of common culinary sense.)

Trend or no, it’s one concept that he thinks has not gone far enough. “It puzzled me why a lot of chefs were not working with innards when I began.” Case in point: liver, which has had its share of good press at the expense of other “low cuts.” If eating offal is off-putting, liver—toxin filter extraordinaire—should the top the list, right up there with tripe. But it’s a British legacy and pâtés are the norm. “People have an easier time with liver than they do with trotter or brains, which is strange to me,” Henderson says.

Although he may prefer the visceral over the cerebral, Henderson is not necessarily opposed to all things molecular, or to culinary trends on the whole. He’s “a big fan” of Author Harold McGee, who has dined at St. John, and is thrilled with the current push for foraging (“I’m all for it”). He’s spied the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks “from afar” and is impressed with what he’s heard of them, though he has yet to curl up with one of the giant tomes. But, for Henderson, these so-called trends must ultimately serve the utilitarian objective of dining: having a sodding good time with a satiating meal.

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