Ask well-versed Londoners their favourite restaurant and there's a good chance they'll name Margot Henderson's Rochelle Canteen.
London gallerist Sadie Coles is a fan. A regular at Henderson's first restaurant, the dining room above the The French House, in the 1990s, Coles goes first to Henderson for gallery dinners and private openings. It was only a matter of time before the others cottoned on, and now Rochelle Canteen is a go-to for YBA artist Sarah Lucas, White Cube's Jay Jopling, and the rest.
Henderson sits down with Ocula Advisory to speak about the food she grew up with in New Zealand, her days feeding the YBAs, and her friendship with Coles.
You were born and spent your childhood in Wellington before leaving for London at 20 years old. What do you remember eating growing up?
My mother was quite a health nut, so we grew up on her homemade brown bread and yoghurt. We made sugar in the house, it was all cider vinegar and honey, that sort of thing.
We went to many restaurants. There were the old school glamour French restaurants like Le Normandie Restaurant in Wellington and Bacchus in Dunedin. At that stage, to get a restaurant licence you had to have carpet in the loo, so they all had red carpets. We'd probably have oil skins, crappy old coats on. It was all very old school and glamorous and waiters and bow ties and trolleys.
However, there were also places like The Settlement run by Jeff Kennedy who's still very much in the restaurant scene in Wellington. It was much more relaxed, but still very busy. I remember going there, I'd run out of school, and go meet Mum for lunch. I had my first artichoke vinaigrette there, pumpkin soup, and patés.
I suppose back then, the food was about looking abroad, whereas now the food is much more about looking at New Zealand—where we are, what's on our shores, Māori culture and its roots.
You opened the French House dining room in Soho, which was a hugely popular bar for artists and dealers at the time.
Yes, we opened in 1992 with Melanie Arnold, her husband Jon Spiteri, Fergus [Henderson, Margot's husband] and I. Then after a couple of years, John and Fergus left to open St. John, and I carried on running it for seven years with Melanie as my partner. It was a very much loved restaurant.
The photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd told a particularly funny story about Gary Hume's birthday at the restaurant in 1996. Cerith Wyn Evans was there, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst, among others. They ended up breaking into Damien Hirst's studio and signed every dot in one of his dot pictures. Is it true?
I didn't go back to Damien's that night with them all, but it sounds quite funny. It sounds like them. They're just an incredible group of people. They all changed our lives and we became great friends.
Johnnie took a picture of Cerith and Gary that night and we have it hanging above our bed now. Cerith's got a huge hickey on his neck and they're looking at each other very adoringly. It's a brilliant photo. That photo was the first piece of art that I ever bought actually.
What are your memories of cooking and dining with the YBAs?
All those artists brought an incredible bout of energy and enthusiasm to everything. There was a great passion for food and life. I remember them all sitting around, Damien [Hirst], Sarah Lucas, all just cracking jokes the whole time.
They'd draw all over the tablecloth, which you'd then fold up and put somewhere. God knows where all those tablecloths are now.
Is the French House where your friendship with Sadie Coles began?
Sadie started getting me to do private openings at her gallery. They all started having their openings at The French House and St. John. Then we started catering for people like Jane Hamlin at Frith Street Gallery.
Sadie has been one of our biggest supporters. I wake up every day and thank God for the art world. I don't know where I'd be without them. They have been so supportive over the years.
I am always encouraging them to buy more expensive wine by saying to them, 'If your clients don't drink enough, they won't buy enough'.
I read somewhere that you would invite Sarah Lucas to your fantasy dinner party alongside Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, and Nina Simone. What do you think Elizabeth I, the 'Virgin Queen', would have thought of Lucas's Bunny series, a metaphor for dulled desire and impartial violence?
I think Elizabeth I would have quite liked Sarah's shows. I like to think she was a very sexual woman and the reason she didn't marry was because she didn't want a man to take over her life. I mean she was definitely having sex, don't you think?
I'd want Sarah there as if they're all being a bit grumpy, she'd keep spirits high and keep them all together. Not that Elizabeth II would have been grumpy at all. I think they would have all liked each other's company immensely and it would be great fun to feed them all and be a fly on the wall watching them.
They're all strong characters, strong clever women with lots of opinions, and don't like to be ruled by men.
Is there a recent exhibition that you really enjoyed?
Do you see yourself as an artist?
I'd say I have a craft, a skill, but I'm not really an artist. There's no meaning in what I do. I am a feeder—I nourish and nurture.
If you were to swap roles with Sadie for an evening—if she were to cook and you were to curate—who would you show in your exhibition and what would you ask her to cook?
I think I'd show Kai Althoff. I love those paintings. We've got one actually in the restaurant at the moment. Kai is a dream.
And for the food, Sadie's a really good cook. She cooks a beautiful piece of sirloin and vegetables, and she likes roast potatoes. So I suppose I'd ask her to do a Sunday lunch.
Main image: Margot Henderson.