Recalling moments that shaped his career, Fergus Henderson pays tribute to his late food-loving father.
My training as a chef took place on the eaters' side of the pass, more often than not with my father, who sadly passed away last week. I feel very fortunate to have formed so many culinary memories with him, many of which stem from Paris: Restaurant Allard and its splendid mustardy cucumber salad, followed by roast guinea fowl and delicious lentils in a fantastic, very chipped bowl, digestion aided by a very young marc de Bourgogne, almost green with youth. The first brush with steak tartare, the combination of raw meat and the crunch of well-cooked pommes allumettes washed down by chilled Brouilly (ah! cold red wine!). There was no turning back.
I'm not sure what my dad was doing giving me the wine list and directing me to choose at the pudding moment at Le Grand Véfour. He never made that mistake again: I picked Château d'Yquem and, as the wine waiter poured the wine, he said, "Messieurs, this is liquid gold." I was ruined for life.
Still in Paris, on a Sunday night with a huge heaping of choucroute garnie before us, we were accosted by Peter Langan (the late proprietor of Langan's Brasserie in London) who shared his Sancerre-fuelled wisdom with us: that the word "amateur" has been misused in our language for ages. Instead of meaning someone not very good at something, it actually refers to a lover of a subject. I took this to heart; I would like to think of myself as an amateur.
Then there was lunch in the Four Seasons New York, a Bloody Mary at the bar beneath that spiky sculpture hanging overhead (the chance of a spike falling and running you through adds a certain piquancy to your pre-lunch cocktail). You also realise where vintage clothing shops get their clothing from, especially of the American variety: those peculiar shapes all come from barmen at the Four Seasons. Elaine's in NYC was the hotspot at one point.
Dad was taking me and Ken, a chubby chum who was obsessed by restaurants, to supper there. When we were shown our table Ken almost wet himself with excitement, exclaiming that this was the best table in the house - probably in the whole city! The power of restaurants is extraordinary.
Then came the incident in Sweetings (Sweetings being a good place for incidents). It was a busy lunch and I had made eye contact with Angelo, hoping that he would find me a table in the back. Enjoying a few Black Velvets in the bar at Sweetings is like standing in a lunchtime mosh-pit; Angelo expertly manoeuvred his way through to announce, "Your table is ready, Mr Henderson! Your table is ready." Out of the fug came my dad, and this was when the incident occurred. Angelo told him, "Not you, but this Mr Henderson," referring to me instead. Dad did not take this well.
The feeling of taking my father out for the first time was fantastic, he having been so generous to me. A friend of mine suggested we should take our fathers on a culinary adventure because they were not getting any younger. San Sebastián seemed an appropriate eating destination. My chum asked me to book some restaurants, so I did, but I should have taken into account what grumpy old curmudgeons they had aged into. Being shown around the kitchen at Arzak by Elena herself, the two grumpy gits started complaining that they were hungry. Their behaviour did not improve much over lunch.
It struck me as very strange that two gents who have eaten more than most had aged into the two old men from The Muppets who sit in a box complaining, especially as the first words I learnt in French were: La Vieille Prune, s'il vous plaît . Life is going to be okay armed with a sentence like that under your belt.
I hope the great chef in the sky looks after you as well as the chefs have here, Dad.
Illustration Lara Porter