Chef’s Table: Margot Henderson

Margot Henderson

Have you ever wondered what a chef cooks at home or if their kids behave any better than yours in a fine dining restaurant? We grill some of Britain’s best chefs for the lowdown. This week, Margot Henderson.

Family Cooking

Who does the cooking at home?

We both do, Fergus loves to cook at home: I cook more Asian he cooks Italian – he’s a great Italian cook, I think he is Italian really. The teenagers are a bit slack about cooking, it’s hard to cook around us. They do all the online shopping – they’re organised – but when we’re around, they let us get on with it. Fergus is a better cook than me though, definitely.

Were any of your children picky eaters when they were younger? 

No, they were extremely good eaters, they grew up in restaurants and slept under tables when they were babies. They would fall asleep and we’d make little nests out of coats… When they got older we’d take clip-on chairs and attach them to tables – they learned to eat langoustine at a very young age, they’d sit and suck the tails. I always said Ox heart was just beef and they’d eat it. Sometimes they would be funny about green vegetables, like most children. They loved tomato pasta, to be honest they’re built on that. It’s probably not great but, hey.

Do you think attitudes towards how we feed our children have changed since your children were young?

I think parents are becoming more and more obsessed and feel like they have to prove something. If they just relaxed then they would be better parents all round. We just fed our children food that we thought they’d enjoy. It was pretty healthy. They were breastfed for a year, I didn’t give them meat for the first two years – I didn’t want to deal with meat poo – but after that they ate normally. You can be the healthiest eater in the world but, if you’re an uptight nutcase, that’s not going to work is it?

Is being a chef at odds with family life?

When my children were young I thought I was calm, but I wasn’t really. Having children is a struggle – I wanted to work, go out, be a mother. I wanted to do everything and felt like I was failing at all of it. It’s really tricky. Now in retrospect I would say work and relax: children don’t mind if you go to work. It’s about being happy and giving them love. That’s what they want, security. Fergus has never kicked a ball in the park for the kids in his life, he’s the weirdest dad in the world but they’re sure of his love – beyond anything. That’s what people need. But it doesn’t get any easier: they need more love, more attention as they get older. When the children were young I had a lot of male nannies. I’d say to them “When I’m not here, you are me, but if I come home and I have to clear up after you, you’re out.”

What do you remember most about family food from your own childhood in NZ?

I grew up really healthily myself: when I was two my mother chucked out everything that was white and I had a really brown diet: molasses, cider vinegar, all salads and kelp instead of salt. Now I’m a chef and I understand white flour and its benefits. In my soul I love brown rice and I’ve worked in macrobiotic restuarants – I believe in healthy eating but it has to be balanced. I love a bowl of pasta – brown pasta is just not the same!

A bit like gluten-free cakes made with buckwheat?

You can make great cakes like that, but it’s about the not knowing. My mother bought me fish and chips to school once because all the kids were having it. She had made the batter with brown flour and she wrapped it in paper but when I opened it all the batter was falling off and it wasn’t crispy…  She used to make ‘crusties’ with brown bread crusts in the oven covered in marmite and peanut butter – but I’d swap them for chocolate biscuits at school.

Do your children enjoy cooking? 

My son Hector (21) is learning to be a chef. He’s training at Quo Vadis under Jeremy Lee – he’s a wonderulful teacher. He’s moved from cold starters to hot starters… He brings food home and cooks for his sisters. The other day I came home and they had put a meal on the table for us – I did say they could have cooked the potatoes a bit more… They’re very good at toasted sandwiches and great at pancakes, and they know how to clear up. Our daughter Owen (19) works in Rochelle Canteen though she’s hopefully off to Uni to study maths. Frances (16) is all about the environment but for now she washes dishes in a restaurant in Vauxhall.

Your husband is renowned for ‘nose to tail’ eating – were your children eating offal as 5 year olds?

Yes. They all ate pigs tails. Frances loves offal. Fergus took her to the Fat Duck when she was 12 and she noticed that they cooked foie gras in a pan and said, “Dad, I think I want my foie gras roasted rather than pan fried”. It went down in history, it was a proud moment. Frances like sweetbreads and liver. None of the children are nervous about food.

What are your favourite dishes to eat as a family?

We love dumplings. On a big round table with a Lazy Susan in the middle, loads of people. Fergus always orders in a restaurant as he knows how to order – that’s the art of restaurants, that sort of thing.

Do you have any favourite home cookbooks, or do you just wing it?

Diana Henry. And Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken & Other Stories is my all time favourite. Obviously Nose to Tail Eating.

Margot Henderson Fergus Henderson

Restaurant Cooking

Do you think fine dining restaurants should be child free?

Years ago we went to Michel Roux’s restaurant – Fergus and I had an argument about how we would spend the lottery money if we won and, although we didn’t buy a ticket, by the end of the argument we had booked a table. There was a Japanese family there with a really young child and I thought it was great. Why not? If they scream, scoop them up and leave. Kids yes, but I don’t like pushchairs in my restaurant. They are so ridiculous these days – like huge great Rolls Royces. What happened to the little fold up ones? Just leave it outside in the reception and put your child on your lap! If they need a sleep, you can park them in the cold, it’s good for them – toughens them up.

Do you eat out as a family or avoid restaurants when off duty?

No, we like to go out, we love restaurants. We used to live in Covent Garden and it was hard to stay at home. To be honest I like being served. And the children know how to treat waiters because they work in kitchens. That’s really important.

What do you think of Britain’s separate kids menu culture?

I don’t understand it. There’s nothing wrong with Pizza Express, we’ve all loved it and it has its place in the world, but a kids menu is disgusting. They should learn to eat what we eat. What’s nice about going out with your kids is you can’t go off, it focusses you, you have to be together. It’s not easy to at home with phones and distractions. In a restaurant  you have to sit up and behave. It’s expensive – but order a half portion for kids?

Top places to eat out with your family?

  • KOYA Bar on Frith Street for Japanese noodles
  • Barrafina, Soho and Covent Garden
  • Cioa Bella on Lamb’s Conduit Street
  • Royal China, Baker Street

Margot Henderson was born in New Zealand, moved to London when she was 20. She set up Rochelle Canteen with Melanie Arnold as a base for their catering company Arnold & Henderson, which they started up while running The French House Dining Room in Soho in the 90s. Margot had previously worked in many other restaurants, including First Floor, 192, The Quality Chop House and The Eagle in Farringdon. She lives in London with her husband, Fergus Henderson, and their three children. Follow Margot on Instagram @margothenderson.
All images ©Joe Woodhouse