LONDON (Reuters) - When chef Fergus Henderson tells the story of his brain surgery, he knows that it can sound a bit like one of his recipes.
“I’ve cooked a lot of brain in my time, so it was nature getting it’s own back on me. I like that. ‘It’s YOUR brain’s turn to get it’,” says Henderson, whose landmark London restaurant St John is famed for serving hearts, livers, intestines and, yes, brains.
It is not yet noon and the restaurant staff are preparing for lunch, but Henderson begins an interview with wine, offering a glass of Madeira -- “lovely for elevenses”.
He relates with gusto how surgeons drilled holes in his brain and implanted electrodes to fight the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He was awake for the four hour operation.
“The whole process starts: they bolt this metal frame to your head. Sort of Darth Vaderish. So you can’t move your head at all,” he gestures, as if performing the operation on himself.
“The worst is when they sort of had to make that hole a bit bigger, so you get a sort of eek eek eek,” he says. “And there’s the moment when the surgeon says, ‘I just want to cut into the membrane on the brain. You may feel some tugging.'”
It is precisely that enthusiastic matter-of-factness with body parts that has made Henderson one of the most influential chefs of his generation.
A decade ago Henderson, now 44, revolutionised British cuisine by opening St John in a disused former smokehouse with whitewashed brick walls around the corner from London’s Smithfield meat market. He calls his philosophy “nose to tail eating”: serving parts that butchers normally throw away.
“It always just seemed sort of common sense to me to use the whole beast. Once you’ve knocked it on the head it’s only common courtesy to eat it all,” he says. “But it’s not just thrift. Innards and extremities are delicious. The gastronomic possibilities of a pig go way beyond the pork chop.”
At a time when British chefs were importing flavours and techniques from around the world, Henderson found his at home, using seasonal ingredients grown locally.
“Nature writes the menu for you, really. It’s the middle of the game season, which is the most fantastic. It starts with grouse, goes into partridge and pheasant and woodcock. That’s your autumn sorted. Falling from the sky. Delicious things.”
The cooking is deceptively simple. His signature dish is marrow bones. The recipe: ask your butcher for good lamb marrow bones. Stick them in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Serve with a chopped parsley salad. Spoon out the gooey marrow and spread it on sourdough toast.
St John was an overnight sensation. Reviewers relished describing dishes like “pig’s cap with dandelion” and “blood cakes with fried eggs” almost as much as they loved eating them.
It remains an institution, worshipped by East London’s artsy crowd -- and by other chefs. Anthony Bourdain, the U.S. chef and bestselling author, picked Henderson’s marrow bones as his “death row meal” -- the food he wants to eat before he dies.
But just when it seemed that he was at the top of his game, Henderson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The degenerative neurological condition causes uncontrolled movements which drove him out of the kitchen.
Last year he underwent surgery to receive Deep Brain Stimulation, a treatment for Parkinson’s and other brain disorders involving implanting electrodes in his head. Batteries send electrical pulses to the brain, reducing symptoms.
The operation “stopped me being the human windmill,” he says, although he is not yet ready to return to cooking full time. “I‘m 100 times, 200 times better than I was. But I still slightly feel nervous with pans and sharp knives and flame.”
He was told by the doctors that having a cheerful state of mind would actually make the surgery more effective: “It helps if you’re chirpy, apparently.”
For joy, he had food. When he was wheeled into intensive care his wife brought sushi. Later, an Italian chef friend sent white truffle risotto to his hospital ward.
“Yes, through a morphine haze, one can still feel that musk of white truffle very easily. I highly recommend it to anyone who is lying on a hospital bed. It quite lifts the spirits.”
Editing by Paul Casciato