How We Met: Anna Hansen & Fergus Henderson

'We were partial to the odd glass while working, but we've still got all our fingers'

Anna Hansen, 41

Raised in New Zealand, Hansen came to the UK in 1992 and got a job at The French House Dining Room in Soho as a dishwasher, before rising to head chef. She opened her own restaurant, The Modern Pantry, in London's Clerkenwell in 2008. She lives in Holloway, north London

I arrived at The French House almost straight off the plane in 1992. I was sharing a flat with the brother of Fergus's wife, Margot, and he told me they were looking for a washer-upper. I got the job and one of the first things I remember is Fergus torturing me by insisting we listen to [Radio 4's] The Archers on a daily basis.

Back then Fergus spoke in a strange coded language that you had to learn to decipher – if he wanted a piece of kitchen equipment, he'd ask where the jumfner was and by his body language you'd have to work out what he was looking for.

When one of the chefs left, Fergus and Margot began training me. They were so trusting, caring and nurturing. But when it came to recipes, Fergus was really unspecific. In fact, there weren't any. So in the end I got my own little book and took my own notes and tried to learn that way. He taught me all kinds of stuff to do with meat – how to pluck a bird, bone an animal, what to do with tripe, how to boil a pig's head; it's all been invaluable to me.

Fergus is really polite and caring. He invited me to his parents' in Wiltshire for Christmas the first year I was here. I'd never experienced the bread sauce and flaming pudding thing before; it was amazing. Fergus and Margot also held parties at their home in Covent Garden. They would be amazing affairs because of their philosophy on food. I went to one during asparagus season and there were huge piles of asparagus everywhere along with crusty bread and aioli. I admire that sort of commitment to celebrating amazing produce when it's at its best.

I seem to recall doing a lot of drinking in those days. We'd carry on [after service] in The French House or go to The Groucho in the afternoon. We were also partial to the odd glass of wine while working, which is probably illegal but we've still got all our fingers. Fergus believed that a glass of Fernet Branca, a foul liqueur, was a cure-all – whether you'd cut yourself or if someone had died. I think I've got a bottle stashed away at The Modern Pantry somewhere.

Fergus Henderson, 48

The chef behind St John Bar and Restaurant, which he opened in London's Clerkenwell in 1994, Henderson is noted for his use of offal and concept of "nose to tail" eating. He opened a second restaurant, St John Bread and Wine, in Spitalfields in 2003 and won his first Michelin star in 2009. His first hotel, The St John Hotel, has just opened on Leicester Square in central London

I can't remember how Anna came to us at The French House, but come to us she did. She started out washing dishes. She was a bright, lovely thing and she washed up beautifully. We knew all along that she was clever, so we heaped responsibility on her. Before we knew it, she was in charge.

Back then I hadn't even thought about writing any recipes down, so I'm sure it couldn't have been easy for Anna. I wasn't exactly an experienced chef either. It was probably my wife who knocked me into shape and probably knocked Anna into shape in the process.

After Anna left The French House she went to work with her fellow New Zealander Peter Gordon at Green Street. I often used to go there to get drunk with her and a few others. My memories of that time are a bit hazy, but that tends to be the way with jolly places. I like to think of it as educational, a good, healthy place to exchange ideas – not that we could remember any of them the next day.

Anna's grandmother is from Denmark and there is Danish fairy-tale quality to her. It was a bit of a fairy tale her rising from washer-upper to head chef as she did at The French House and there's something very whimsical about The Modern Pantry, too. It's very Anna in a strange, Pippi Longstocking way.

I now see her as the ambassadoress of New Zealand cooking. Her [fusion] food is very lively, the sort of cooking that either really works or really doesn't. But in her case it does; it's a mystery to me how she does it. I think she has a happy flair for it.

Our restaurants are just around the corner from each other. I pop over there and she pops over here. She's very keen on my Eccles cakes, so she's in quite often for one of those. And we often find ourselves together at award ceremonies and other cheffy things. I look out for her because she is a friendly beacon of joy in a room full of chefs and PR people. I seek out her smiley face. You need one of those at things like that.

She recently did a pop-up restaurant at Meza in Wardour Street. I'd have been in tears in half an hour, but there she was, incredibly chirpy. She is a very spirited girl. A good egg, as they say. Full of beans. A good thing; a very good thing.

'The Modern Pantry Cookbook' by Anna Hansen, published by Ebury, priced £25, is out on 2 June ; k

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