An offally big adventure
Fergus Henderson and Anthony Bourdain are famous for relishing the bloody bits that other chefs ignore. But can they persuade America to share their enthusiasm for entrails? Charles Campion reports
Saturday 05 June 2004
It'll kick off at midnight on Sunday, we'll have some dinner and then all the chefs will get together in the back room." The venue is Les Halles, the New York brasserie made famous by its chef Anthony Bourdain, who is throwing a party for his soul mate Fergus Henderson. Henderson is on a promotional tour of the States organised by HarperCollins which has just published an American edition of his cookery book. He would not be there if it weren't for Bourdain's tireless efforts. Bourdain nagged Daniel Halpern, his own publisher, for three years before he would agree to reprint Henderson's book. On the face of it Halpern's reticence seems understandable - a book from a relatively unknown English chef that is largely about offal doesn't sound like an instant bestseller - "variety meats" as they are known, are neither fashionable nor PC in the US. But Bourdain is a stalwart champion, and he likes nothing better than to slip into hyperbolic mode. His introduction to the new American edition starts, "The book
It'll kick off at midnight on Sunday, we'll have some dinner and then all the chefs will get together in the back room." The venue is Les Halles, the New York brasserie made famous by its chef Anthony Bourdain, who is throwing a party for his soul mate Fergus Henderson. Henderson is on a promotional tour of the States organised by HarperCollins which has just published an American edition of his cookery book. He would not be there if it weren't for Bourdain's tireless efforts. Bourdain nagged Daniel Halpern, his own publisher, for three years before he would agree to reprint Henderson's book. On the face of it Halpern's reticence seems understandable - a book from a relatively unknown English chef that is largely about offal doesn't sound like an instant bestseller - "variety meats" as they are known, are neither fashionable nor PC in the US. But Bourdain is a stalwart champion, and he likes nothing better than to slip into hyperbolic mode. His introduction to the new American edition starts, "The book you hold in your hand has been considered, for too many years, to be a cult masterpiece, an obscure object of desire for chefs, food writers, cookbook collectors, and international foodies, yearned for, sought for, searched out by those who didn't own a copy, cherished and protected by those lucky few who did." So complete with a brand new title - the British edition's Nose to Tail Eating gives way to the less explicit The Whole Beast - for his book, Henderson sets out to take America by storm. And the ringmaster of the circus is Anthony Bourdain.
When Bourdain published his first bestseller Kitchen Confidential in Britain, journalists rubbed their hands with glee. Here at last was someone who could put the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll into the kitchen, where it belongs: a former heroin addict; a serious drinker; someone with a fondness for Lucky Strike cigarettes and expletives - 60 a day of each; a chap with suitably outrageous views - "Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food." It is small wonder that his kitchen memoir has sold half a million copies. What is rather more surprising is that this very bright, very media-savvy, very driven author-chef should end up heading a crusade for Henderson. At the dinner at Les Halles it is Bourdain who roars like a lion from the head of the table directing the photographer from the New York Times, cajoling the journalists, insisting that customers begging for his autograph buy a copy of Henderson's book instead. Off the pair of them go to the pavement for a smoke (Henderson favours Camels) and they are joined by all the other chefs in an admiring and exclusive circle as all present grumble about New York's "no smoking in restaurants" edict.
Henderson remembers his first meeting with Bourdain very clearly. Bourdain was dining alone at St John - Henderson's restaurant in Clerkenwell - during a trip to London for the launch of Kitchen Confidential. "The kitchen was pretty gloomy that night, Anthony was eating by himself at table 24, which is the table right next to the kitchen. After eating he came to the kitchen and said, 'You guys rock,' and we all chirped up no end. I was thankful for that because there are nights when there's little spark, and he brought a smile to all of us." It was the beginning of a strange friendship between the slightly professorial architect-turned-chef and the lanky jeans-clad American wildman. After such demonstrable love at first sight it was only natural that Bourdain's next venture (a book and television series called A Cook's Tour, in which he travelled the world searching for the "perfect meal" - rejecting along the way the still-beating heart of a cobra, soft-boiled duck embryo and soft-shell turtle in egg pudding) would bring him back to St John. Early one morning Henderson took him down the road to nearby Smithfield meat market and after some happy hours spent among the offal they adjourned to the famous Cock Tavern for a serious breakfast consisting of devilled kidneys and Guinness. That night the chefs at St John cooked Bourdain a Nose to Tail feast of gargantuan proportions. As Henderson remarked with a twinge of awe for his appetite, "There were a great many innards and extremities, and for a lean, tall chap he did incredibly well." Well enough to champion St John as his all-time favourite restaurant. "If I'm ever sentenced to death, I want Fergus Henderson to cook my last meal."
The meal at Les Halles is testament to Bourdain's abilities as a trencher - nearly 30 of us are crowded round the long corner table. Henderson and Bourdain take the head and chefs line the sides - there's Brad Farmerie from Public, Gabrielle Hamilton from Prune, and many more, all eager to meet Henderson, buoyed up by Bourdain's infectious enthusiasm. The meal starts with rillettes, charcuterie and French bread plonked down in the middle of the table on a help-yourself basis. Then there's a pork terrine with cornichons. Then, by way of homage, Henderson's roasted marrow bones with parsley salad. Then there's a monster pot full of cassoulet, about as heavy as it can get, with a modesty screen of pork skin sealing in the flavours. Then there's another huge casserole filled with tripes à l'ancienne, delicate and tender. Then just when things seem to be easing up and the sounds of buttons popping becomes less intrusive, platters of côte de boeuf and bowls of frîtes are arranged down the table. Then we're on the home straight and a serious cheese board (which includes the first sighting of anything green - an apple is served with the cheese). This is the kind of eating that fits the broad classification of "rustic French", it may seem old-fashioned and hearty, but a f similarly rose-tinted view of the unpretentious side of French cooking is what unites these two characters. They worship at the same altar.
Bourdain has turned his talents to cranking up the publicity machine. The latest big thing in business speak is viral marketing. In essence this is what British marketeers would have called "word of mouth" until the Americans invented a sexy term for it. Bourdain's strategy for Henderson's book is to start by making it a cult favourite among chefs, and for that buzz to trickle down to foodies, then just maybe to the wider public. It's what happened to Kitchen Confidential so there's no obvious reason to suspect that it will not work a second time. In order for this viral approach to work, some pretty widespread infection must take place, and by the time Henderson reaches New York he is a tired man. He's been signing books and doing interviews in Fort Worth. He's been fêted at a party given at Cuidad restaurant in LA by Mary Susan Milliken and Susan Feniger (who apparently are better know by their television sobriquet "Too Hot Tamales"). At the legendary Chez Panisse, Alice Waters cooked a special dinner using his recipes, while he signed copies of his book for a hundred happy diners. In Chicago, superstar chef Charlie Trotter halted service and sent all his chefs into the dining room to clap Henderson to his table. Henderson has done more schmoozing in a fortnight than he has done in the rest of his career. All the while he is the quintessential Englishman abroad, unfailingly polite, reserved and gently bemused by all the attention.
"Honestly," he says. "It's a bit hard to remember oneself in all this. I'll be doing a radio interview and they'll start reading quotes from the book, and I'll wonder if they've got the right person." This kind of book-signing, ego-pumping, media-bewitching stuff is meat and drink to Bourdain and he is eager to give Henderson the pointers he needs. The day after the dinner at Les Halles there's another book-launch lunch at the trendy new members' club Soho House New York; long tables of American journalists and publicists cannot get enough of the Fergus and Tony show. Unfortunately they are a bit less keen on the big plates of roasted bones from which they are expected to extract the molten marrow. There's a good deal of foot shuffling and conversation changing. Bourdain will have none of it: he eats his share and loudly proclaims how delicious they are (he's right, the kitchen at Soho House has done a great job). It's as if he wants to overwhelm the squeamishness of his fellow countrymen by sheer force of personality. And maybe he can.
After lunch Bourdain and Henderson climb into their limousine and set off to talk to the CIA - not the spooks at Langley, but the Culinary Institute of America at their base in the Hudson Valley. This trip is another shock for Henderson. "When we arrive the first thing I see is a queue of 300 eager students all waiting for our talk. I know that they have really come to see Tony as he is their ultimate hero, but it is daunting nevertheless. It's even more nerve-wracking when he stands up and explains that in the same way he is their idol, I am his - and that they should all pay particular attention to what I say. The talk goes well and then we get on with the book signing. Tony is really good at book signing. Present the book, sign, smile, have photo taken with adoring student, on to the next. I was nowhere near so slick. One of the girl students got Tony to sign her breast, which he did with real panache. I was so glad that she didn't ask me. When it comes to breast-signing I think you need a proud sort of signature and I don't think mine is up to the job."
That same evening, the usual suspects are back at another book-launch dinner, this time at the Spotted Pig, a new venture co-owned by Mario Batali who has a stable of six famous New York restaurants. (His quote for Henderson's book cover almost out-Bourdains Bourdain: "Reading and dreaming of all these recipes makes me want to torch my own Babbo restaurant and move to London to heed the master's call.") Once again the dinner features recipes from St John and they are duly credited on the menu boards - "crispy pigs tails with mustard and cabbage $15; goat's cheese with grappa $6", and once again every second person seems to be a chef. Both Henderson and Bourdain show amazing stamina, they drink and smoke, and smoke and drink, meals and signings are merely there to break up the day and the pace is relentless. After two meals with press, one lecture and a radio interview, the twosome are still keen to repair to the bar and talk about food, life, food, the universe and food. They are completely at ease in each other's company. Henderson shows characteristic insight. "We do make quite an unlikely pair, but the odd thing is that it's not really that strange. Underneath, Tony is really a very gentle, lovely, calm chap, though I know he wouldn't want me to say that."
Henderson's next book is in production. It is to be published by Bloomsbury and harks back to his early training as an architect. Even the author has a hard time explaining the concept. "It's quite odd I think. There are many topics, from 'deodorants on tube trains' to 'taking a glass of Madeira with seed cake at 11 o'clock in the morning' or 'how your trousers meet the ground'. I have downloaded a lot of baggage, but it has a happy end." Not a pig's nose or roast spleen to be seen ... who knows how it will play in New York?
The meal at Les Halles finally comes to an end and the night is full of adrenaline and cigarette smoke. As always seems to be the case with chefs, the restaurant closes just as our dinner companions are waking up. The talk changes to a debate over which nightclub to move on to. Bourdain and Henderson grab a cab and set off. Not for the first time, the rest of us can only try to keep up.
A new edition of 'Nose to Tail Eating' will be published by Bloomsbury in September, price £16.99. Copies may be pre-ordered online at www.fergushenderson.co.uk
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