A Modern British Cuisine Pioneer: Margot Henderson (OBE)

Emma Reeves talks with the newly-OBE anointed New Zealander.

interview emma reeves photography patricia niven Margot wears MOLLY GODDARD THROUGHOUT
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New Zealand-born, London-based chef Margot Henderson is a legend. Her vitality, wit, and mischievous sensibility are so captivating that you feel a genuine sense of excitement and warmth in her presence. It really doesn’t matter what her actual age is or that she is a mother of three grown up kids, her spirit is so young. Her laughter is infectious and her eccentricity genuine. Her irreverence and self-deprecating humour belie the radical contribution she has made to the British food scene.

Here is a timeline of her career for those who do not know: in 1992, after a few years working in the kitchens of other London chefs, she and her husband Fergus Henderson took over the modest kitchen at The French House in Soho, London, where she continued to work after Fergus left in 1994. In 1995, she and Melanie Arnold founded Arnold & Henderson, a catering company which has been the go-to catering company for the creative industries since launch. In 2004, the catering company relocated to the campus of a converted Victorian school in the middle of Arnold Circus, one of London’s oldest Council Estates.

It is in this East London location that Rochelle Canteen was founded. In order to get access to this magical enclosed world, you are required to request entry via a buzzer system. Immediately through the door you find yourself in a secret garden. Actually it really isn’t ‘secret’ at all but the experience is instantly so special and the feeling that this is a haven of some sort is undeniable. It is here that Margot spends her days. Her regular collaborator, Australian photographer Patricia Niven, took the following photos and the interview with me was conducted via email.

margot henderson

“Galleries like Jay Jopling’s The White Cube, Sadie Coles, Jane Hamlyn and others started having their gallery meals at The French House dining room, they were giddy times.” — Margot Henderson.

At the time of this interview the UK has just entered into a second ‘lockdown’ period (5 November – 3 December 2020) in an attempt to control the rise in infections due to the global pandemic Covid-19. That means that Rochelle Canteen is now closed. How have the lockdowns and Covid restrictions challenged you and pushed you towards solutions? 

It’s all been very difficult. Our restaurants have closed, we have lost one restaurant at the ICA London and now the second lockdown is depressing. Our catering business is completely over for the moment. We had a tent built at the Rochelle Canteen to comply with Covid rules and then we were busy with a constant group of happy diners, now that biz is over for a month. We hope. Now we are trying to figure out the next layers of government grants, furloughs and now a takeaway business?

Though downsizing and really working out what’s best for the business and ourselves is a good exercise as well. I am back in the kitchen full-time and enjoying the hard work, cooking up a storm for the takeaway business and slowly getting my cooking arm better. It all takes practice.

Can you tell me more about your ‘Resy at Home’ Specials — a takeaway initiative? I was excited to see that for this you are inspired by other women chefs from around the world — Jody Williams and Rita Sodi of Sodi and Via Carota in New York, Rose Chalalai Singh of Ya Lamai in Paris, Margarita Forés of Lusso in Manila and Mia Christiansen of Barr in Copenhagen. You have created special takeaway dinner kits with food, cocktails, wine, dinner settings and even a bespoke playlist.

It came up with Resy, I thought about the women chefs as it’s always fun to think a little out of the box, though the women chefs I have chosen are all stars and we are very, very excited to be taking ideas and cooking their food with a Rochelle twist. I have admired them all and eaten their food, which is magic, superstars.

You are constantly referred to as a pioneer of Modern British cuisine. Do you like being categorised like that or do you perhaps find it limits peoples understanding of the breadth of your influences and ingredients?

Yes definitely I come into the bracket of Modern British. I am Fergus Henderson’s biggest fan, he taught me so much and then Modern British is so much, it’s so many cultures and so much deliciousness, though we do try and keep our produce local, sometimes we do dart down to Southern Italy and I am influenced by all the great home cooks. All the women who have cooked a chicken better than any chef with such flare and effortlessness. Britain is made up of so many of these women.

Earlier this year I saw the brilliant episodes of a short film series called Margot Eats Rose which you posted on Instagram. Was this something that came about because of the restrictions of living during Covid?

Yes my friend Martin Cohen of the North Six wanted to get all the people they usually work with in production and do a little something. When asked I try to say yes. Rose and I had met late last year and then cooked together on Paul Smith’s 50th anniversary celebration in Paris. It was an incredible event and North Six produced the whole brilliant day, films, models, catwalks and food. A big dinner in the evening, it was brilliant working with Rose as she is an effortless, beautiful chef, her food is delicious and she has a spirit and joy so it was a good job. The film Margot Eats Rose was a long day filming, me in my kitchen, Rose in Mallorca on her farm, crazy juxtaposition. We had a lot of fun, maybe drunk a bit much, but it did help with the nerves.

I was so surprised that actually you have really not done that much filming even though you are so good at it. Have you been approached to host a TV series in the past? Is this something you plan to do more of?

I did a Nordic Netflix episode, a few bits here and there. I tried out for some programmes here but I think I swore and that was the one thing they kept saying. I’m not really planing much at the moment, but Martin is talking about the Margot Eats Rose maybe turning into a programme or something, God scary, scary.

When you first moved to Rochelle School you were essentially a canteen for the creative community who rented offices in the converted building. Can you let me know about that sense of community and how that relates to how you operate both your restaurant and your catering company Arnold & Henderson?

We were also catering for all sorts of events, Melanie and I had been at The French House for the past seven years, then cooking in my flat. Before our dear friend James Moores said we could move into Rochelle School which was not a school anymore.

Yes it was brilliant to have Giles Deacon working there along with Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier. All sorts of great artists started popping in, friends would ring the doorbell and come in for lunch so we quickly realised we needed a KP, a card machine etc etc.

We have always been part of our communities with children and restaurants in Soho so it was a pleasure to be part of our village, helping the school. We started Soho Food Fair which has been raising about 60 to 80 grand a year for the little primary school. That came from a drunken moment and lots of good hard work from many people. Shoreditch is another brilliant area, a real mix again where the locals have supported us and we them — it’s a good fit.

Since the early days at the The French House in the 90s, I have always associated you with the art world. Can you tell me more about your relationship to certain galleries and artists? 

Galleries like Jay Jopling’s The White Cube, Sadie Coles, Jane Hamlyn and others started having their gallery meals at The French House Dining Room, they were giddy times. I think they liked the simplicity of the food, but we really built our friendship with the art world when St John, (the restaurant in Clerkenwell Fergus Henderson opened in 1994), Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst, all the YBAs were hanging out in St John they loved the white walls, no art, they fell in love with Fergus and all he stood for. We then made great and long friendships with all those gorgeous folks who have continued to support, even now through Covid, Sadie Coles HQ have always been there for us. We love a grand feast and celebrating an artist’s hard work and beautiful ideas is always a great excuse for celebration, eating great food and drinking delicious wine. The art world love to eat and enjoy.

You published your first cook book You’re All Invited in 2012. I read interviews from this time and you referred to the process of writing the book as ‘agony’. What made it so difficult? Any plans for another?

It was a hard slog for me as I lack confidence, once the book came together I saw it all but I struggled with seeing the whole picture. Yes I would like to write another book and now I’m back in the kitchen full-time I can see it might happen.

“We love a grand feast and celebrating an artist’s hard work and beautiful ideas is always a great excuse for celebration, eating great food and drinking delicious wine. The art world love to eat and enjoy.” — Margot Henderson.

Margot in the kitchen
with sous chefs
Hector Henderson (left) and
Ben Coombs (right).

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