Drake's and St. JOHN: The Two-Year Lunch (Part I)
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 Drake: Where, when and how did you two meet?
Trevor: There are two answers to this question, we’ll let you decide which is the right one. One story goes that we met at the Catford dog track. It was notoriously dodgy: people with air rifles popping shots at the dogs from the flats overlooking the track, that kind of thing. I rather had my eye in at the time, and there was a chap at the tote about to put a bet on a particularly rangy looking dog. I said - “You don’t want to do that”. An hour or so later I was about to get a hot dog, and I heard a voice at my shoulder say: “You don’t want to do that”. It was Fergus.
Fergus: Or, we met via the ‘olive oil man’. I had the restaurant above the French House with my wife Margot and Trevor had the Fire Station in Waterloo. We shared an olive oil distributor, who thought we should meet. Our relationship started with a long lunch, as all the best things do.
Michael Drake: What was the catalyst that made you two start St. JOHN?
Fergus: It was the building. The building was love at first sight. It was originally an old bacon smokehouse, with soaring smoking chimneys and slats for the bacon joints to hang. But since those days it had been used for raves, and for growing beansprouts (or at least they claimed it was beansprouts). The Georgian house which now serves as the restaurant office was the headquarters of The Socialist Review. The whole place is incredibly wonky and getting more so by the day. All we did was put on a lick of white paint, really, to respect the spirit of place, which was so strong. It spoke to us.
Michael Hill: There seems to be a focus on British food, yet all the wine is French. Why’s that?
Trevor: It’s all about genius loci: things that are grown together taste best together. When we started St. JOHN, English wine was in its infancy so we bought from our nearest neighbour. I used to take my little rental car across France knocking on doors and avoiding being bitten by winemakers’ dogs (the small ones are the worst). Now we have a network of relationships with growers and vignerons, going back three generations, sometimes more - I remember some of them from when they were children. Some of them go off and set up their own domaines, with wines in a style that their parents disapprove of. Some of them stay and continue the traditions of their family business. We go to Chateau Revelette every year, where the family pig, Kiki, snuffles under the table while we have lunch, and we always have to admire Olivier Pithon’s beloved Jersey cow, Laïs, who he names his wines after. Those connections that we maintain are really important to what we do. And now we have our own vineyard and winery too … a natural progression.
Michael Drake: Do you have a favourite animal to cook?
Fergus: The pig, of course. The head, trotters and tail - all have that lip-smacking quality, that unctuous stickiness. If food is love, half a pig’s head is the perfect romantic meal for two. Imagine gazing into the eyes of your lover as you dive into the giving cheek, or nibble on a soft and sticky snout.
Michael Hill: Why do you think we moved away from eating seasonally and utilising all of the animal?
Fergus: People blame wartime rationing, but I blame the Chicken Kiev. Filleted, filled, deep fried - glamour, straight from the freezer. The effect was a national culinary numbing which has been with us ever since. Food that requires no work or thought.
Michael Drake: I’ve read that when it comes to meals, you’re a much bigger fan of lunch than dinner – why is that?
Fergus: Ah, the power of lunch! Lunch spells possibility. It is a hook on which to hang your day, whereas dinner is merely a full stop. A day without lunch lacks structure. A day without dinner is an early bedtime.
Michael Drake: What country in the world has the best food?
Fergus: Italy. If I had to choose a single cuisine to stick with for the rest of my life, it would be Italian, and it might surprise you to learn that St. JOHN owes a lot to Italian cooking. I remember a night on the town in Rome; the glamorous youths I was with spent the entire night discussing the finer points of puntarelle. It would be a good thing if the bright young things in our country spent their nights out talking excitedly about cabbage.
Michael Hill: What is your favourite British dish?
Fergus: Devonshire Pie. UCL approached us with Jeremy Bentham’s notebooks, newly transcribed. He designed the panopticon prison, a configuration still in use to this day, and they found that he had amazingly forward-thinking ideas on how to feed prisoners, too. Another highly modern concern. This Devonshire Pie was among the recipes that he wrote - a gooseberry and tripe pie with a potato top. What a wise man. If prisoners today were fed Devonshire Pie, what a humane society we would be.
Easiest meal to impress someone with?
Fergus: The first meal I ever cooked for Margot, my wife, in my little garret in Clerkenwell, was cabbage and truffle pasta. What can I say? It works.
Michael Hill: Do you have any dining rituals that you are particularly fond of?
Fergus: Elevenses. I am at St. JOHN most days having seed cake and madeira. My grandfather would have a bottle of Guinness every day at 11, he made a great show of hating it. Elevenses should have a certain dour quality, to root the occasion in daily ritual, but it should still be a joy. Frivolity needs a counterbalance to regulate excess.
Michael Hill: What role do clothes play to you?
Fergus: A good suit is my armour. When I put my suit on I inhabit a persona, I’m ready for anything. It can totally change your outlook. My dad was very well-dressed, and I think I inherited a love of it from him - although he would look at me and say ‘what the fuck are you doing, wearing that’. We have different styles, as it should be. I have inherited a lot of his shirts and trousers, though, and wearing them is a connection.
Michael Drake: Is the workplace any different from leisure time, in terms of getting dressed?
Trevor: If you own a restaurant, or even if you work in a restaurant, the lines between work and leisure can be somewhat blurred.
Michael Hill: You were quite famous for your French workwear jackets, Fergus – what did you like about them? Have you gone off them?
Fergus: I will never go off them. Trends are an awful thing, they express impermanence, and good, practical function is a permanent need. They have deep pockets, positioned exactly where they should be, and they are forgiving. They evolve along with you, they express history.
Come back next week for the second 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