The last time we spoke to Margot Henderson, we had to postpone our meeting because she was ‘doing a party for Mrs Prada!’ - a line Margot can honestly drop without a hint of airs or graces.
If you are unaware of the cult of Margot, a very brief summary; Margot is undeniably one of London’s most influential chefs and restauranteurs. She and her business partner Melanie Arnold run the London institution Rochelle Canteen, which they established in the early 2000s in a converted Victorian school house opposite Arnold Circus in Shoreditch. They serve seasonal British food and the space also acts as a base for their catering company, Arnold & Henderson. It’s a fabulous dining experience, especially in the Springtime when you can eat outside surrounded by bulb flowers and bumble bees. Margot has also published a successful cookbook (You’re All Invited: Margot’s Recipes for Entertaining), and recently - excitedly - opened a second Rochelle Canteen at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), just off Trafalgar Square. Somehow, in-between all this, she and her husband Fergus (also a celebrated chef & restauranteur) have managed to raise a brood of three children together.
We met Margot one late morning at the new Rochelle Canteen at the ICA. Perched on a mezzanine level, the Rochelle spirit brings warmth to the large historic building - unpretentious simple seating, jugs of fresh cut dahlias, shelves lined with hand labelled jars of her famous jams. Margot is funny, warm, witty, magnetic and has a tenacious sensibility. She tells us they were out the night before celebrating; Rochelle Canteen has just won the prestigious 2017 Tatler Restaurant Award for ‘Test of Time’, and it’s an accolade we couldn’t agree with more.
Can you tell us a little about your upbringing in New Zealand and how it has informed you as a chef and a mother?
Growing up barefoot, riding bareback, swimming in rivers and generally having a quite free and carefree childhood taught me independence, a certain amount of fearlessness, strength and how to work hard. I think when it comes to parenting I tried to teach them to be brave and strong and was not too overbearing and just let them be. But who knows whether that worked or not, being a parent is always tough and I am still learning. My mother was very good at letting go, I am trying.
I read that you were originally lured to London through the pages of The Face. Is this true? And if so, what was it about the magazine and that period in London subculture that enthralled you?
The Face would arrive in Wellington and all us punks or wannabes would race to the shop and buy this incredibly expensive mag and droll over the pages. London was where we wanted to be, everything happened in London - the fashion, art, music. It was all sooo cool. I loved London from the start. The Face talked about The ICA (The Institute of Contemporary Arts) and we all headed down there and hung out at the bar and now here I am again hanging at the bar at the beautiful ICA (the location of Rochelle Canteen’s new restaurant).
How would you describe your relationship with fashion and clothes?
Loving, tricky, particular, upsetting, wonderful, obsessive, expensive, constant, I could go on.
You are involved in the contemporary art world in London. Do you collect art? What do you love about that community?
Brilliant people, who love to eat, drink and party who generally take their lives and make the most of them - often in original and different ways. They are generally just fantastic people to be around. The room is always more exciting when there are artists about. Yes I am lucky enough to have some great art that I treasure very dearly.
How would you describe your approach to cooking?
Hands on. I am in it, it surrounds me - cooking, food, eating, restaurants, it is my life.
What are some ingredients you are currently enamoured by?
Pumpkins, red rice, beetroot, ox tail, quails, spices from The Vinegar Shed.
What’s your go-to meal / snack when cooking at home?
Cheese on toast.
Who and what influences your cooking?
The seasons, genis loci, - where I am in place and time. Restaurants, chefs - loads influence me. Elizabeth David, Stephanie Alexander, Simon Hopkinson, Fergus Henderson and at the moment I am reading Ferment by Holly Davis, brilliant. Also, I almost forgot my mother-in-law is a major influence.
We love that your kitchen at Rochelle Canteen is very warm and female-centric. Was this an environment you consciously created? How would you describe the dynamic?
‘Build A Field and they will Come' said Kevin Costner.. It just evolved through necessity and so happily and gradually, which has been a very lovely way to build a business.
You spent time working with the brilliant Stephanie Alexander in Australia. What did you learn from her?
No sadly I didn’t, I just read her books and loved her recipes, I just love her and her food. I met her once and couldn’t speak. Totally tongue tied.
What words of encouragement would you give to women wanting to work in food?
Kia kaha, which in Māori translates to 'stay strong’.
Where are some of your favourite London spots to eat, drink and hang out?
The ICA ! But apart from this, St John of course.
Quo Vadis - for glamour and great food
Barra Fino - always delicious
French house - Ahh the first place I worked at
Canton Arms - generally the best food for any day of the week but a family lunch on Sunday is the best
Xu - brilliant, beautiful,
Royal China - On Sundays it is a great scene for dumplings
Chiltern Firehouse - if you’re feeling loaded or you just don’t care
You have said that the discovery of punk rock derailed your athletic career! What were some of the early bands and records that had an influence on you, and is music still important to you today? What do you listen to now?
David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Clash, Susie & The Banshees, The Wire, The Fall, Janis Joplin, Nina Simon, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac. And then of course a great D.J rocking the floor, I love to dance - I love that feeling when the music is just so great you cant get off the dance floor.
You and your husband, Fergus, are great pioneers of nose-to-tail eating. What advice would you give to someone wanting to consume meat sustainably?
Know your source and buy locally, from good farmers who rare happy beasts. Make friends with your butcher and they can be a great fountain of knowledge and don’t be afraid of the more unusual cuts of meat.
What made you fall in love with Fergus and how would you describe your partnership?
When he turned of Zorba the Greek and started dancing I knew I could love him forever, I think it was day 3 or 4. God so simple almost embarrassing. Also of course being a great cook - the first dish he cooked for me was Spaghetti, Cabbage and Truffle Oil, so straight forward and perfect. He is great at cooking pasta.
Do you cook together often at home?
We cook loads together, for family and friends - a lot of roast chicken, sometimes we think our kids are mainly made up of tomato pasta.
Which country’s / culture’s food would you love to explore?
Georgia, dying to go there. And Turkey and Sri Lanka - I’m desperate to go to them all.
London restaurants and British food in general have really dialled it up a notch in the past few years. Why is it an exciting time to be a British chef?
Inspiring, exciting times, with so many great restaurants old and new, it’s a great city to be eating out in. Different cultures that are really pushing the boundaries and celebrating different foods like never before. One of the best that has just opened is IKoyi, incredible West African flavours like you have never tasted. Its the real deal!
Is hospitality as important as the food to you?
I always think a great waiter can change everything, you don’t even mind a bit of ordinary food if it's been served well. Waiters can lift and room and make it feel more exciting, so they bring a lot.
What are you working on next? Can we expect another cookbook from you?
Melanie and I working on Rochelle Canteen at The ICA, which is very much a work in progress, and yes I should write another cook book - no time right now!
Margot wears the Claire Cotton Shirtdress with Ties in Navy.