Q&A: British chef Fergus Henderson talks about nose-to-tail cooking, plus a recipe for deviled kidneys

British chef Fergus Henderson holds a plate of deviled kidneys and a glass of Black Velvet.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps no one in modern culinary history has popularized the use of the whole animal as much as British chef Fergus Henderson. Henderson, the legendary chef of the St. John restaurant group, pioneered the modern culinary “nose-to-tail” movement, in which every part of the animal is appreciated and used. Henderson is an icon of the food world — he’s idolized by chefs including David Chang and Mario Batali — and Anthony Bourdain has proclaimed Henderson’s roast bone marrow and parsley salad his “death row meal.”

Henderson will be in Los Angeles for the next few days as part of the Los Angeles Times month-long Food Bowl festival. He recently visited The Times’ Test Kitchen with St. John head chef Jonathan Woolway to demonstrate Ferguson’s classic deviled kidney dish. I chatted with Ferguson about his favorite meal of the day, his culinary inspirations, and how to properly pour a Black Velvet cocktail. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the nose-to-tail movement is and why is it so important?

It’s common sense. That may sound rather dull, but it makes more sense to eat the whole animal. And it’s polite. We think that this is an evolved idea — that it’s new — but we’ve done it in the past. The idea kind of got lost with the evolution of the way we get our food, and supermarkets and such. But it really seems an obvious thing to do.

Los Angeles Times Food Bowl: A new kind of food festival »

You’re known for featuring a lot of the lesser known parts of the animal on the menu at St. John. Are people more comfortable ordering those kinds of dishes now?

There’s still an element of “who can have the scariest thing on the menu” to it. But that’s a bad way of looking at it. We love animals, but we also love eating. Take kidneys. The texture of kidneys when you bite into them is they sort of squeak and give when you eat them. Or tripe. It strokes you on the inside as it goes down, and uplifts you at the same time. Nothing does that quite like tripe.

Do you have a favorite part of the animal?

Pig’s trotters. Pig’s head. I love pig’s extremities. Pig’s tails — they have this sort of lip-sticking loveliness.

Anything that you’re not big on?

Penis. And lung. Lung is strange and sort of spongy.

21 pig dishes featured in Henderson’s “The Complete Nose to Tail” cookbook:

  • Confit pig’s cheek and dandelion
  • Pig’s cheek and tongue
  • Roast pork loin, turnips, garlic and anchovies
  • Beans and bacon
  • Sorrel, chicory and crispy ear salad
  • Boiled ham and parsley sauce
  • Pig’s head and potato pie
  • Pork scratchings, a version of
  • Pot-roast half pig’s head
  • Pig’s trotter stuffed with potato
  • Salted back fat and wet walnuts
  • Dried salted pig’s liver, radishes and boiled eggs
  • Rolled pig’s spleen
  • Pig’s head and brains
  • Bacon knuckle and pickled cabbage
  • Brined pork belly, roasted
  • Ham in hay
  • Pressed pig’s ear
  • Crispy pig’s tails
  • Blood cake and fried eggs
  • Roast whole suckling pig
Deviled kidneys (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Recipe: Deviled kidneys »

The kidney dish you’re making today is a favorite of yours, to have as a birthday breakfast.

It is. And it goes so well with the Black Velvet [a cocktail that combines Champagne and stout]. The trick to making the drink is to pour the Champagne in a separate jug before you pour it into the glass — that way you don’t have to worry about the bubbles. Same with the stout. [Note: We tested this in the Test Kitchen. It works beautifully.]

It’s very impolite to the animal to not use everything.

— Chef Fergus Henderson

I’ve read that when it comes to meals, you’re a much bigger fan of lunch than dinner.

I’m a big fan of lunch. Dinner is sort of the punctuation to the end of the day. But lunch has potential. You still have the whole day ahead of you.

You’re largely self-taught. Are there any cookbooks or chefs that you take inspiration from?

Paula Wolfert. And Marcella Hazan — eventually I got to meet her. I went to Hazan’s house in Florida, and she cooked for me. She was so friendly. It’s not often you get to meet a real hero. It was a lovely moment.

Fergus Henderson will be featured at three Los Angeles Food Bowl events: “Fergus Henderson X Redbird” at Redbird Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, May 20 at 7:00 p.m.; “Beast Feast - A Celebration of Meat Presented by Resy” at Coral Tree Plaza in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, May 21 at 5:30 p.m.; and “Fergus Henderson X Animal” at Animal Restaurant in Los Angeles on Monday, May 22.

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