A little while back, I found out that St. John had a Twitter account. I sent the account a small tweet, asking if an interview was possible. The response was, “You mean you want to interview Fergus, right?” Of course I wanted to interview Mr. Henderson (which I’ll post later this week) but I truly did want to talk to the person behind the Twitter account, as they had been posting some incredible behind-the-scenes information of the goings on in the kitchen, and jaw dropping pictures as well.
It turns out that the man behind the account was none other than the General Manager for both St. John and St. John Wine and Bread, Thomas Blythe. Mr. Blythe is an integral part of the restaurants, having worked with Mr. Henderson for over 13 years. It was a real pleasure and honor interviewing him. I very much look forward to shaking his hand in person and buying him a drink as thanks sometime in the future.
What is your favorite memory of working with Mr. Henderson, and of working at St. John?
There are so many, eating beyond our appetites at L ‘Ami Louis in Paris, the extraordinary St. John 10th birthday party in 2004, my job interview over Campari and White Wine when I joined as a chef in 1995, the night the mariachi band snuck in to the dining room and started playing, so many services, lunches and suppers at the restaurant and beyond – being served Pigeon Prince Rainier III at Le Grande Vefour and laughing like kids at the giddiness of it all.
Fergus and Trevor are quite the Dickens to work for.
And then at work, the brilliant focus and extraordinary simplicity out of which something so exciting happens every day at both the restaurants. I think it’s very rare to meet someone who has the courage of their convictions and Fergus has it in spades.
Nothing quite comes close to a heaving dining room on a Friday evening, everyone is happy, the noisy hubbub of a full restaurant, the team working calmly, confidently – chefs, waiters, barmen, porters – and taking it in their stride, and afterwards you think, blimey, we made that happen – we did that.
I feel very privileged to be General Manager for both restaurants.
What has been the overall best dish that you’ve ever had at St. John?
The Pigs Head and Potato Pie we served at this years’ Top 50 restaurant lunch was pretty special, then there was deep fried baby rabbit one lunchtime, achingly slow cooked Speckle Faced Lamb from James and Lee at Bread and Wine, custard doughnuts from Justin and the bakers… there simply isn’t one… you walk in the kitchen of a morning and there’s Big John crumbing veal breast and you know that’s what you want for lunch…
Working in a bakery is usually thought more of as a early morning/daytime job, where the restaurant business seems to be primarily afternoons and evenings. Are you a morning or evening person, and how do you balance the two since you help run both St. John and St. John Bread and Wine?
The thing is restaurants are an all day business – we open at noon but there’s a fantastic amount of work going on from early in the morning, REALLY early if you’re the baker.
Am I a morning or evening person?
Both. I like morning rituals, the civility of lunch service but also love a buzzing supper service.
A morning or two a week at my desk means I almost keep up with admin but the brilliant office team make that side of things much easier.
Before you worked at St. John, what was your personal position on offal and had you experienced it before?
Very little experience of it actually, a friend of mine was managing the restaurant at the time and asked me to supper – it was like nothing or nowhere else I’d been and the menu back then was quite full on. Only three or four options per course and I think I ate Bone Marrow followed by Deviled Kidneys, I loved it.
Before that I had eaten Tripe but it’s a testament to how good our kitchens are, I hated it before coming to St. John. Now I’m a fervent Tripe lover.
Social networking and sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp have changed the restaurant industry, and do you think they will have a bigger or lesser influence as time goes on?
I suppose there’s an irony to St. John being on Twitter, Facebook and so on when you think about how simple the restaurant and the dishes we serve are.
I started a personal Twitter feed and then it made sense to do one for the restaurants as it’s a very simple interface but so effective.
It’s proving quite useful and I would like to see it grow as a resource among restaurants for sharing information.
I guess it’s a line of communication beyond the four walls of the dining room, a way of expressing what we do to a wider community of eaters and drinkers, bakers, barmen and chefs. No question it’s been an advantage in terms of recruitment and we wouldn’t enjoy the wider reputation we do were it not for the online food communities.
Blogging is fine but is everyone qualified to be a critic? I’m not sure.
I don’t think it changes what you do as a restaurant though – at the end of the day it’s about what’s put down on the dining table that counts and the internet will never be able to simulate that.
Again, thanks go out to Mr. Blythe for his insight and opinions, and next week I’ll be posting the interview with Mr. Henderson!