"When I came to the UK, my first job was working at Pizza Express in Notting Hill. I got a certificate in pizzology."
These are not, perhaps, the words you'd expect to hear from someone who has just been awarded an OBE for her services to the culinary arts – someone whose distinctive, produce-led style of cooking has gone on to influence a whole generation of chefs in London and beyond.
That's because these days, Margot Henderson is not known for pizza, but rather as one of London's most enduring and pioneering chefs, both on her own terms and as one half of a London food power couple alongside her husband Fergus (who also received an OBE in the 2020 honours list). The two met working in the kitchen at The Eagle in Clerkenwell, fell in love, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Soon after meeting, the couple opened The French House Dining Room, above iconic Soho pub The French House. "We were a partnership," she says.
"Everything we did, we did together. I brought lots of the food I cooked in the past to him, I brought new ingredients, I taught him how to run a kitchen. I also taught him how to clean, which is about 50% of being a chef. We both brought a lot to the plate."
But there's far more to Margot's culinary history than her husband. She started out washing dishes in kitchens at the age of 12 in her native New Zealand, before going on to work at a handful of well-established restaurants in Wellington when she left school at 18.
In the UK, as well as her stint at the iconic pizza chain, she spent time in the kitchen at The Quality Chop House and 192, as well as First Floor in Notting Hill, where she developed her experience with changing menus and seasonal cooking.
And while you can see Fergus's influence in Margot's cooking, she undoubtedly has her own style. "My cooking is humble and earthy, and a lot of it comes from the food that women cook at home."
Henderson frequently references the time she spent at home looking after her three children – "It turns you gaga, cooking all those mushy things. But I have no regrets."
It's safe to say we're glad she returned to professional cooking. Today, Margot is co-founder and patron of Rochelle Canteen with her business partner Melanie Arnold.
As you'll see in her five career-defining dishes, the food Margot serves is both old-school and contemporary, celebrating traditional ingredients, characterised by a slight Franco-British inflection, and with an undeniably modern deftness of touch.
Roast quail, lentils and aioli
"I started marking this dish when Fergus and I were at The French House Dining Room, madly in love (as we still are, of course). The quails came in, I started to bone them out and Fergus said, "No, we're going to keep them whole." In hindsight it was so weird to bone them and stuff them. Quail and lentils is a classic French dish, and it loves a bit of aioli. It's just simple and straightforward. It's so lovely to cook it well, then you can pull the legs off and eat them with your fingers. I love dishes that you can eat with your hands."
Braised squid and potato
"This is a dish inspired by Marcella Hazan. She was one of the food writers who helped bring Italian cooking to Britain. I was reading one of her books one day and saw this stew. I'm very passionate about potatoes – especially new potatoes, which are amazing – and when they're cooked in a broth this way, they absorb everything. While the squid is incredible for the flavour of the dish, I think the potatoes are almost as good. It's a really simple, ingenious little dish and I've nicked it right off her, so thanks, Marcella."
Pork chop, beans, and radicchio and puntarella salad
"We get our meat from Swaledale, we're very passionate about using lovely joints of pork, and the fat is always incredible on them. Sometimes we'll cut the whole loin and chop them up into pieces, and sometimes we'll get chops. Pork and beans is just classic, especially with the salad, which is a bit like a coleslaw. Puntarella and anchovy is also a classic combination. The puntarella is quite bitter with the pink radicchio, but it's set off by the anchovy and the sweetness of the pork chop. Pork chops have been a part of our lives and our cooking, and we love serving them. And they're even better with crackling, although this one didn't have it."
Whole John Dory with fennel
"I love a John Dory. It's a very glamorous fish – the story goes that St Peter pulled the first one up. Another thing that's been part of our style of cooking for a long time, since The French House, is having sharing dishes and not always chopping things into small pieces, cooking fish whole and serving it to share. That's where the idea for this dish came from – cooking fish on the bone, rather than in fillets. It gives it more flavour, the fish holds better, and it's just a lovely way to cook – especially with the fennel, which gives this dish great structure. When we left The French House, my business partner Melanie [Arnold] and I started catering from my kitchen at home. We cooked a dinner for 500 from my kitchen – it was full on. We even had to empty all the toy boxes out. But then my friend James bought this building [Rochelle School] and he said we could use the space here, which is how the restaurant was formed. Now, the backbone of a lot of my cooking comes from catering as well as from restaurants."
Quince and almond tart
"This is a classic tart that we do all the time. It's very characteristic of The French House and of Rochelle Canteen, it's really yummy and slightly chewy. It uses skin-on almonds and brown flour. I love almonds with their skins on, I like a bit of texture – which I think comes from my hippy mother – and using a brown flour like this can give food a unique texture and taste. Quince, as well, is one of those genius fruits. They can be hard to cook but I love their tartness, I love what they take on, I love the way they hold flavour, I love the way their colour changes when you cook them, and they're beautiful when they're on the tree, too."