INTERVIEW: MARGOT HENDERSON
Rochelle Canteen’s Margot Henderson on lockdown, her recent OBE and why she loves a yeast extract.
Katto (K): Firstly thank you so much for doing this. We’ve been huge fans of yours for years, so it’s really cool to be chatting. How are you, and how has the last year been?
Margot Henderson (MH): Obviously it’s been an extremely unusual time for everyone in our industry. Some people have enjoyed having a rest; but for the people who own restaurants it’s been so hard. We’ve already lost one business though a voluntary liquidation; and for now we’re not doing any event catering either. But on the other hand, it’s forced us to focus on what we’re good at. Plus when we have been allowed to open we’ve had some of our biggest takings. Our big worry had been, will people want to come back to eat in restaurants after lockdown? And would they have any money? Thankfully the answer to both was ‘yes’.
K: And are you optimistic about this year?
MH: I don’t have any inside scoop; but I don't expect big events to be happening this year. We’re aiming to reopen in May. But aside from that, we really don’t know what will happen.
K: I guess 2020 wasn’t all doom and gloom because you did get your OBE!?
MH: Yes! Fergus and I both got one which was crazy. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was incredible. I have no idea how these things work. How did they even notice us? We haven’t had the party yet - we’ll do that when we get our medals - but we did get a letter from Camilla Parker Bowles which was cool. We’re pen pals now.
K: Across the course of your career - whether its The French House or Rochelle Canteen - you’ve been involved with restaurants that have become woven into the fabric of London dining. What’s your secret?
MH: I think it helps that we’ve been around for quite a long time. And we’re really focussed on just doing what we know we’re good at. Our food is always quite classic and we continue to believe in nose to tail eating, and all the other things that Fergus [her husband and founder of St. John] built upon through his books. Our clientele is important, too. Many of them have been eating with us for years and they give the restaurants a sense of permanence. Above all, though, you have to have great teams.
K: Have you ever been tempted to abandon the classic approach, or to be more responsive to food trends?
MH: Not really, although of course we want our customers to be happy. So if you come to the restaurant and you’re vegan or you have another requirement, then of course we’re going to have something for you. But certainly I don’t see us giving-up meat entirely. Afterall, what would happen to all our lovely farmers?
K: Have you noticed a change in the amount of customers ordering meat?
MH: Well there are definitely many more vegetarians and vegans around. It doesn’t change how we cook, though. We always, for example, try to have offal on the menu and it always sells really well. Not quite as well as it does at St. John; but we love having sweetbreads on, or having brains on when we can get them. We’re passionate about the whole animal and we often buy whole carcasses. Although I once put my back out dealing with a quarter of this massive cow, so we don’t do that anymore.
K: It strikes me that your clientele has always been quite bohemian and artistic. Do you have a theory about why artistic types are drawn to certain restaurants?
MH: I’m not sure. They definitely love good restaurants and they love good food. Certainly there’s a merriment and conviviality about creative types. They want to eat; and drink; and dance. I always say architects make the best guests.
K: Why’s that?
MH: They just love their food. They eat tremendous amounts and love it.
K: How important do you think architecture and design are to restaurants?
MH: Well I married Fergus! And I’m heavily influenced by his approach to architecture and design. If you look at St. John the design is all about what they haven’t done, rather than what they have. Less is more, let a building speak for itself and all that. The real decoration in a restaurant is the people - the conversation is the music, the guests are the paintings. At the Canteen we wanted a feeling of communality, and I’ve always been passionate about Alvar Aalto, so it made sense to get Aalto tables. And then our friend Leila introduced us to a man who was selling forty Ercol chairs from the local language school. Ercol is one of the great British furniture makers and they’re durable and stackable, so we bought the lot.
K: Obviously the approach in the restaurant is quite British. Which countries or food traditions are inspiring you at the moment?
MH: Japan, definitely. I’ve been making lots of rice dishes in lockdown and I do think my dashi is pretty good. Japanese food is just the best and it’s a real challenge for us Westerners to cook that simply.
K: Is Japan at the top of your post-lockdown travel list?
MH: Absolutely. And not just Tokyo, I’d love to spend some time in the countryside and do some proper exploring.
K: What about other restaurants? What are your favourites in the UK?
MH: James Fergusson’s place in Fife, The Kinneuchar Inn, is wonderful. I also love Trullo in North London and Black Axe Mangal is / was also a favourite. They’re closed for now; but I’m sure he [Chef Lee Tiernan] will do something again. And then all the wonderful Asian restaurants - Bao, Dumplings Legend, The Royal China.
K: I’m conscious that many people will be reading this over a weekend. What kind of food do you go for on days off?
MH: At the weekend we might make a simple, flavoursome broth to have with noodles. Or maybe toast with marmite and eggs. I’m a big marmite girl. Being a Kiwi I should really like Vegemite; but I find it too intense. The crucial thing with marmite, though, is to make sure you use a lot of butter. Bread from St. John is also perfect because it isn’t that very hole-y sourdough which doesn’t absorb the butter!
K: And, finally, the theme for this issue is ‘nourish’. What’s the one dish you’d cook for someone who was going through a tough time?
MH: Poached chicken with leeks and aioli. Or I’d take them out somewhere fun and glamorous. Noble Rot, maybe. They do everything so well there even down to the glassware which is so elegant.