Waste nothing. Think creatively...And always be polite to the beast that you've slaughtered.
LONDON — In one of the first scenes of the Franco-Italian film classic La Grande Bouffe (1973) actors Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognazzi gather at a long wooden kitchen table in a country house. The four friends intend to commit suicide with an orgy of eating, and this is the table where they are going to prepare the dishes on which they will binge to death.
When they arrive at the country house, they enjoy a first snack: roasted pork bones. “I’ve been eating these since I was a kid,” says Tognazzi’s character, grabbing one of the bones and noisily sucking out the marrow. Mastroianni does the same, only more elegantly: He scrapes the marrow out with a knife.
For Fergus Henderson, this is the key scene in the movie. Had it landed on the cutting room floor, he probably wouldn’t be the creator of “Nose to Tail” cuisine, a culinary movement that has spread from London to New York and Los Angeles and now here to Germany.
During a visit to the British chef on a cold wet London morning, Henderson explained that the film scene helped shape his culinary philosophy — which is not terribly new, though it has fallen out of fashion in our affluent society. He has embraced and is advancing traditional methods of cooking that use every edible bit of an animal.
Many years after seeing the movie, the now 50-year-old Henderson turned oven-roasted bone marrow into a signature dish around the world with the publication of his 2004 cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Henderson, a large, strong man, invited us to interview him at his minimalist restaurant St. John in the London neighborhood of Smithfield.
It is only 11 a.m., but the chef is already sipping Madeira and eating warm pound cake from his bakery. He says he doesn’t use pork bones for his signature dish, preferring veal bones instead. “Roasted bone marrow is the only dish that’s been on the menu daily for 20 years,” he says. It is served with toasted bread, parsley salad and grey sea salt.
With the exception of this, the menu at St. John changes every day: Nature, Henderson is fond of saying, determines his menus — pheasant, hare, rabbit, whatever’s available. Lamb offal (internal organs and entrails) may be on the menu, or whole quail, crispy pork skin, pig’s ears, and pig’s feet.
“When you kill an animal,” Henderson says, “it’s only polite to use every bit of it.” Pork, however, remains the specialty and Henderson’s favorite to cook with. A pig adorns the logo of his brand that now includes a second restaurant and a hotel. “I don’t think there’s a single photograph of me where there isn’t also a pig in it,” he says grinning.
At least one good cook in the UK
In Great Britain, Fergus Henderson is a star, a poster child for good British cooking (yes, it does exist). Cooks around the world, albeit mainly in New York but also Los Angeles and Germany, are now copying his St. John concept. The restaurant has had a Michelin star since 2009.
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Henderson doesn't mind the hype (Jake Tilson)
Like the designer who sees his whole collection copied by Zara, Henderson — who never completed classical culinary training — is accustomed to being imitated. His girlfriend April Bloomfield exported his cooking approach to Manhattan, serving dishes such as salad with crispy pork ears in her Spotted Pig eatery. She managed to achieve what celebrated male colleagues like British chef Gordon Ramsay never did: New York standing in line for a table at her gastro pub. Henderson and Bloomfield (also the author of the cookbook, A Girl and Her Pig) work together a lot, and launched the annual “FergusStock” event.
Henderson takes a relaxed attitude when he sees restaurants like Prune in New York also serving roasted bone marrow with parsley salad, toasted bread and sea salt, or when the restaurant Animal in Los Angeles hypes dishes such as veal brains and carrots.
What he doesn’t like is poor imitation — like the half raw, inedible sheep’s head he was once served in a New York restaurant. “What we’re doing is delicate and feminine, not raw and hard,” he says.
Henderson believes that the West’s meat industry is responsible for old cooking customs fading. Consumers no longer have connections to the animals, he says. He calls the saran-wrapped cuts available in supermarkets “pink in plastic.” Except for the genitalia, which he personally doesn’t like, he doesn’t believe any parts of an animal are inedible, and points out that it used to be normal to eat kidneys, tripe and fat.
But Henderson doesn’t see educating people as part of his mission. He’s less interested in conversion, and more concerned that food tastes good. He says he got his taste for offal from his mother, who used to make dishes from it. He doesn’t like to hear his work described as a trend: “Trend is a bad word. I see it more as an approach.”
The movement’s German version
In Germany, the approach is most often focused on offal — at Hartmanns in Berlin or Otto Koch’s Restaurant 181 in Munich, for example. But for the real deal, seek out Cyriacus Schultze, who runs the Heitlinger restaurant in Kraichgau, Baden-Württemberg, and who calls it “The Whole Beast” principle.
“Whoever eats meat,” Schultze is quoted as saying on his web page, “should not only do so in moderation but with their eyes open — and they should prepare the entire animal.” At his eatery, an animal is bought, slaughtered, butchered and prepared. The meat and innards are served to guests in several courses. Beaks, claws and tendons are cooked and used to make broths or sauces.
More respect for animals is something that Dennis Buchmann, the German who created the My Little Farm website and who wants to “give pigs a face,” has long supported. Buchmann’s organically raised pigs are photographed and presented by name on the site so that customers know what — or rather, who — they are eating. The ultimate goal is to reduce consumption by making consumers more conscious.