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Margot Henderson on her plans for Rochelle Canteen and the pure joy of feeding people

10 February 2021 by
Margot Henderson on her plans for Rochelle Canteen and the pure joy of feeding people

The co-founder of the Rochelle Canteen has seen one of her restaurants close due to Covid, but she's ready to bounce back. She talks to Caroline Baldwin about working with husband Fergus and championing everyone in the kitchen.

Congratulations on the OBE – how did you feel when you received the award?

It was a surprise! But it was amazing and it gave me a warm glow – it's like being given a gold star when you're a kid. It's also a big thank you to all the teams we've worked with over the years – restaurants are nothing without the great people working in them. But I'm worried about the party – when are we going to be able to celebrate?

Restaurants are nothing without the great people working in them

Alongside your husband Fergus [chef and founder of Michelin-starred St John in London], you're now a dual OBE household. How did the recognition come about?

It's amazing – Mr and Mrs OBE. I don't know how these things happen and who put our names forward, but we've employed many people and done quite a lot of charity work. It's nice that we've both got one.

Is there competition between the two of you?

There's no competition – I'm Fergus's biggest fan. We have a healthy working relationship even though we have different businesses. We're always talking about food, thinking about food together, cooking and discussing how we feel about our businesses. He helps me and I help him. I think it's a really good balance. Sometimes I miss having a restaurant with him because we so loved working together, but he went off to do his big restaurant and his thing. I do think it was good for him to get away from me and he became more himself. I had babies and that's a big thing in a woman's life and I really wanted to do that.

Now I'm back in there, working really hard, and for Fergus it's harder to work because of his illness [Fergus was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1998], so there's a balance. We love working together and we have very similar ideas, but I also love my business partner Melanie [Arnold] and enjoy working with her. She's a big part of getting the OBE – I wouldn't be able to do anything without Melanie.

Rochelle Canteen
Rochelle Canteen

How have your restaurant and catering companies coped during the pandemic?

We did takeaways in the last lockdown and it was good to open the business and give the team something to do, but it was hard for us to make it worthwhile. We lost our business at the Institute of Contemporary Arts [ICA] last year [the Rochelle Canteen at the ICA went into liquidation in September] and we now just have the Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch, which, when we've been allowed to open, has been flourishing. We put a big tent up outside and we did a longer service, so rather than a canteen it had a restaurant atmosphere, where people got dressed up to go there. It feels like there's a bigger, wider group of people travelling there now and it's not a hidden secret any more.

What is the focus for the business now?

We've been concentrating on the restaurant side rather than the catering side. We won't be doing big events. I do think people will want to go out – just not to great big parties. Luckily, we cooked out of Rochelle for the catering side of the business, so we don't have a big unit sitting there doing nothing. But it's on hold. I don't know how catering companies are surviving – it must be really tough. We're a very small business – we're tiny, really – and we don't have a separate team for events.

Now that the Canteen is busier, I wonder if there is room for the catering – it's an unknown and that's the hardest thing at the moment. If you plan and make a mistake, everything you've discussed changes. And that's not anyone's fault, we're just all in this situation together.

Rochelle Canteen
Rochelle Canteen

What are your hopes for reopening Rochelle Canteen once restrictions ease?

I want to reopen with excitement. Maybe get everyone in the week before to discuss what food we will be celebrating that month – maybe asparagus, which makes me excited already. As it gets a little warmer, it feels like life is starting again. I think our opening times will stay the same – we have a longer service now – and at weekends maybe we'll be able to use the grass outside, get the barbecues out. But there's no point thinking about that right now, it will come naturally.

What more support would you ask from the government?

When we lost the ICA business, some of our staff had only just been employed before they were made redundant. Five of them weren't on the books long enough to be furloughed, and I think anyone on the books at all should be allowed to receive furlough. Additionally, there needs to be more help for self-employed people. In a way I'm self-employed, but I can't be furloughed.

The government also needs to give us more grants, because even with furlough we're paying out all the time and there's only one little kitty. And the government needs to address the situation with landlords' greed. While ours has been helpful, many are not.

Has this year changed the way that you approach cooking?

I suppose I've discovered the takeaway a bit more. My kids are good at takeaways, and we have a takeaway treat each week. I've been cooking a lot of Asian food; we would often go to Chinese and Japanese restaurants pre-lockdown, so we're cooking that at home in a serious way – we are missing our travels. We sit down together every night and it's been good family bonding.

Rochelle Canteen
Rochelle Canteen

These Asian flavours may come into future menus at Rochelle. At the moment it's about the power of dashi. Sometimes I think stocks can be overcomplicated, but I love Japanese stock. The fish stock is just the bones and kombu and the flavour is clean and clear. I would also like to do more pickling, but you need to make sure you use your pickles – you can't have jars all over the place and not eat them.

Where would you like to be in 10 years' time?

I would like to be happy in my work and working hard – I'll be 66 in 10 years. I would love to have a restaurant in the countryside, but I'm very happy at Rochelle. I don't want to stop working – I can't afford it. I want happy staff and a happy home. And I would like to think my garden will be looking better in 10 years.

Michelin has just awarded three stars to two female chefs – Hélène Darroze at the Connaught and Core by Clare Smyth. Do you think we're doing enough as an industry to support women in the profession?

There are some incredible women cooking and they are getting stronger, so there's a lot of hope, but it is still a bit of a boys' club. That means women have to fight harder and men need to be aware of that and they need to make sure that women – unless they really want to be pastry chefs – are not ‘just' the pastry chefs.

We should let people do everything in the kitchen, even if they're not the best at it, as the more they do it, the better they will get. Even if it's a job that requires physical strength. Women can definitely cook as well as men, sometimes it just needs a bit more muscle. When we get a massive carcass in that you have to joint, I can still do it. I'm not as good [as the men], but it's important that I still do it.

We should let people do everything in the kitchen, even if they're not the best at it, as the more they do it, the better they will get

As a woman, it's helpful if you have your own business, even if it's small, because if you work for other people they won't let you be quite as flexible as you could be working for yourself. You have to follow your heart. If you want children, have children, ad what a joy it is to bring them up. You also need to employ well. It's about building good teams of people who can allow you to be flexible and that's why catering was helpful.

How can operators encourage female chefs to climb the career ladder?

It's about asking people what they want to do. We need to be pushing chefs – young male chefs as well. If you put someone in a position, they will usually rise up and be successful at it. All the women I've had work for me have been incredibly dynamic. One little push and they're off.

We should treasure the people we work with and look for ways to help them. Being in a kitchen is a hard job, but it's a craft. A lot of people aren't going to have three Michelin stars, but they can be very successful. It's the joy of making something and feeding people; it's creative, physical and a great job if you can hack the hard work. But restaurants are tricky with late nights and they don't suit family life. That's why some women move into food writing or catering because you can't work every Saturday night when you have children.

We should treasure the people we work with and look for ways to help them

What's been the most difficult time in your career?

I think it was losing my confidence after I became a mother. You become absorbed with being a mother and you forget things – you cook mush for babies and you go a bit gaga. You need to keep on cooking. Cooking is about doing, and if you are sat in an office you are not cooking, and you forget how to. It's about confidence, and if you go off and do another job – and being a mother is a job – you can lose part of that.

Margot Henderson, Hector Henderson, and head chef Ben Coombs
Margot Henderson, Hector Henderson, and head chef Ben Coombs

A life in food

1964 Born in Wellington, New Zealand

1982 Leaves school and starts working in restaurants

1984 Leaves New Zealand for the UK and settles in London's Wimbledon. First job is at PizzaExpress, followed by a chef role at the Justin de Blank restaurant at the National Gallery

1987 Works at various London restaurants including 192 and First Floor in Notting Hill, the Quality Chop House in Farringdon and the Eagle in Clerkenwell

1992 Meets now husband Fergus Henderson at the Eagle. They open the French House with Jon Spiteri

1993 The pair cook cassoulet for 300 people at their wedding

1994 Their first son Hector Henderson is born

1994 Melanie Arnold replaces Fergus and Spiteri as Margot's business partner after they depart to establish St John in Smithfield

1995 Owen Henderson is born

1997 Fergus is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease

1998 Margot and Arnold start their catering company, Arnold & Henderson

1999 Frances Henderson is born

2004 Rochelle Canteen opens in Shoreditch

2005 Margot and Arnold partner with gallery owner Sadie Coles to run an art auction that involves a number of artists, including Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, which raises £180,000 for Soho Parish Primary School

2010 Margot and Arnold start Soho Food Fest with Anita Moir and the Soho Community

2012 Margot publishes You're All Invited: Margot's Recipes for Entertaining

2017 Margot and Arnold launch a second branch of Rochelle Canteen at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA)

2019 Rochelle at the ICA goes into liquidation due to Covid-19 restrictions

2021 Margot receives Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2021 New Year Honours for services to the culinary arts

Photography: Patricia Niven

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