Margot Henderson is London’s trump card for a good party. Hailed as British food’s best-kept secret, she co-runs the high-profile catering company Arnold & Henderson and is the chef of the operation’s base Rochelle Canteen, the city’s favourite lunchtime spot. Everything about her oozes warmth and effortlessness, coupled with unwavering ambition. Whether Margot is cooking for her three children or the art crowd, famously hosting a luncheon during Frieze London solely for redheads like herself, one thing remains a constant. “It’s a joy to cook.” Margot is equally at home devising a menu for Paul Smith’s 50th-anniversary party at Paris Fashion Week, or peeling onions gleefully while cooking her husband’s favourite meal with him, none other than the renowned chef and restaurateur Fergus Henderson. The other half of the pair crowned as the culinary couple who built a British Empire by The New York Times. With their detail-oriented mastering of technique and respect to tradition, their role in making London become a culinary destination is eminent.
Another decades-spanning partnership is the one she has with Melanie Arnold. The duo settled at Shoreditch in the early 2000s, making Rochelle Canteen a place for world-class food in the oldest council estate in Europe, what once used to be the bicycle sheds of a Victorian school, then converted into artist’s studios. Serving seasonal British food through a daily-changing menu, all hidden behind an unmarked door, you must first find among the red brick buildings and then ring a doorbell. Eating there has been described as an experience that makes you feel like you are in on a secret. The food and the atmosphere they bring are desired far beyond the East End, spanning from New York to Moscow and catering to clients from Vogue and Tate to Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood. “She’s a sort of genius at hospitality,” says Lynn Barber about Margot, “If she’s at a party, you know it’s going to be fun.”
Wearing its fabulousness lightly is a review for Rochelle Canteen that evenly captures the essence of Margot herself. While she was recently awarded an OBE for services to the culinary arts, the about section for Arnold & Henderson simply reads; “we like parties. Maybe that’s what we bring. No rules, everything will be great. We’re nice people, and we have fun.” There are few rules though.
“Food should be friends, not lovers” is one motto, in reference to the trends of foods on top of each other. “No garnishes, the ingredients should speak for themselves.” Her food is a mix with equal measures of sophistication and simplicity, and her much-loved cookbook You’re All Invited: Margot’s Recipes for Entertaining is proof. Behind the delicious recipes for every mood and occasion, from comfort food for the family to elegant and crowded dinner parties, lies the experience of a life abundant with exceptionally stylish cooking.
Photography by Patricia Niven and @rochellecanteen
Margot’s passion for food and hospitality has deep roots in her early family life in New Zealand. Eldest of four children, she grew up in the hillside Wellington suburb of Belmont with journalist parents and younger brothers. She recounts collecting snails from the garden to cook with bread crumbs as her first catering job, the instant hit of her parents’ dinner parties.
Her love of restaurants can be attributed to her mother, a journalist and food writer who wrote a series of books about eating out in New Zealand, taking Margot along with her to posh French restaurants. However, young Margot would rebel to her mother’s devotion to health food and the banishment of all that was white and refined from the household. The first recipe she made was cooking batches of ginger crunch slice and meringues from New Zealand’s classic Edmonds Cookery Book for her brothers.
Aged 20, Margot packed up and moved to the UK, dropping out of an English degree at university to work at a Mexican cantina. Three love interests intertwined; a boy, The Face magazine and above all, London. Her life changed, it seemed, within the span of a single afternoon. Having bought a new dress, and feeling rather good about herself, Margot walked past Notting Hill’s 192 restaurant and thought she would like to work there. They said she could start on Monday. Going on to work at several Soho restaurants that helped make her career, her resume reads like “the story of all that was hip and delicious in 90s London.”
The Hendersons’ love affair with lunches may have started on one of those Sundays. Over a lunch at The Eagle, Margot met fellow chef Fergus. He made quite the impression when she ordered pigeon and peas. And to her surprise, that was precisely what she got on her plate, which was quite unfashionable for chefs at the time. However, their insistence on highlighting the simplicity of good ingredients and local seasonal produce becoming à la mode was in the works.
“By the end of the weekend, we were a couple.” It quickly became apparent that they should get married, and that they should start a restaurant together. So, the couple opened the French House Dining Room at Soho’s French House in 1992, with Arnold and her former husband. When Fergus left two years later to establish St John, Margot ran the French House with Melanie, concurrently having babies.
When Fergus is asked whether they argue if food remains a boys’ club, he responds “I wouldn’t argue with Margot.” He credits her with making him a chef, and Margot reciprocates the admiration. Being pregnant with their first child around the time Fergus left French House, and having two more children afterwards, Margot has been open about the struggles of balancing motherhood with a culinary career, a rarely-achieved feat in the male-dominated industry. It was “half of you wanting to work, the other half wanting to be with the kids, being so busy and tired all the time.”
While her experience may offer an explanatory glimpse into one of the reasons for the lack of women chefs, Margot’s kitchen remains staffed predominantly by women. And together, the Hendersons have mentored an entire generation of young chefs who stay loyal to them in the fast turnover of the restaurant business.
Ultimately, Margot says she has always enjoyed cooking because “to create something is a great pleasure in life.” And her philosophy behind her achievements as well as her joie de vivre is evident when she speaks of the values she passes on to her three children. “Work hard. And afterwards, sit around the table with friends and family, and enjoy a good meal.”
By Defne Saricetin for Semaine.
"Cook with Margot and Fergus"
This week, join Margot and her husband, fellow Tastemaker Fergus Henderson in the kitchen as they prepare the perfect dinner for a party of six. Braised Duck Legs and Carrots.
"Movies with Margot"
Margot is here to recommend her favourite streams, for a family night, a tv marathon or some alone time. Whatever you are craving, Margot has got you covered.
“Ray Donovan, a mediator at a leading law firm does the dirty work for LA’s elite; from celebrities, athletes and business moguls, he can make anyone’s problems go away, except his own. When his Father is unexpectedly released from prison, a chain of events follow that disturb his otherwise seemingly perfect life.”
“A financial advisor, who serves as the top money launderer for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico drags his teenage kids from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks, so that he can appease his boss and keep his family safe.”
Hunt for The Wilderpeople
TAIKA WAITITI, 2016
“Funny so funny! Great look at rural New Zealand and the kid in it is genius.”
QUENTIN TARANTINO, 1994
“It’s just the best film, so shocking, so wild when it first came out and now it just sits beautifully, the violence is epic, the music better, I could watch it over and over.”
Yoga with Adriene
“Adriene is a gem, it costs nothing, and I love her yoga and the way she speaks to you at home, it really is a gift. She has a good soul.”