Fair warning: after leaving Shoreditch High Street at St. Leonard’s, once you get past the vegan cafe and you’re coming up on Arnold Circus, you’re going to start thinking you’ve taken a wrong turn on your way to Rochelle Canteen. Here? There’s not a single restaurant around here. Okay, don’t panic. See that old Victorian schoolhouse at the far end of the square? Good. Ring the doorbell and go on through, back towards what used to be the bike shed. Table for two?
“Ostentatious” isn’t exactly the word for Rochelle Canteen, but you know what they say about judging books by their covers. Margot Henderson, the warm, witty mind behind the restaurant, is a fifty-something woman whose food is a lot like her: straightforward, distinguished, down-to-earth. Very British, you might say. Which is funny, because Henderson’s from New Zealand, yet the description still somehow fits. In fact, locals in London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood think of Rochelle Canteen as the cozy new home of classic British cuisine. The cafe is the heart of Rochelle School, which has been a flourishing creative community center since 1999. In essence, Rochelle Canteen is a large, white room with functional vintage wood furniture and shaker-peg hat racks. It’s an unusual restaurant in a lot of ways, but an incredibly warm and welcoming space for anyone looking for a good lunch. The “canteen” in the name certainly captures the midday atmosphere: loud, cheerful, bustling. Not some deathly silent gourmet temple, to be sure. But the food? Is AMAZING.
Henderson was born in 1964 in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand – well over ten thousand miles from her current hometown of London. “I have great memories of riding horses down the Hutt River and swimming with them,” she says. “A childhood full of freedom and adventure.” Her mother was a culinary journalist and author, as well as a talented cook. “She made wonderful, very healthy food. She made her own yogurt and baked fresh bread. Industrial sugar was forbidden at our house!” She felt drawn to the culinary world from an early age: “I was a pretty greedy child. And I was always baking – for my little brothers’ birthdays, for example. But we also ate at a lot of restaurants when we were children. I loved the atmosphere. It was always special to me, but not intimidating. I wasn’t afraid of hard work, so it was only natural that once I finished school, I developed in the direction of my love of food and hard work.”
After school, she worked at several restaurants, saving up to move to London – which, back then, was every young New Zealander’s dream. Her first job was at a Pizza Express in Wimbledon. “Later, I worked with Maddalena Bonino, at the wonderful 192 in Notting Hill. She taught me a lot,” Henderson says. “In 1993, I decided I wanted to become a chef, and just like that, I got a job as a chef, at First Floor.” After that, she spent time at Quality Chop House, and then at Eagle, where she met Fergus Henderson. It was literally love at first sight for both; he proposed one month later. For their wedding reception, the two prepared cassoulet for 300 guests.
They opened the French House Dining Room together in Soho in 1992, but Fergus soon bowed out in order to open the now-famous St. John. Tough times followed for Margot Henderson, who was struggling to balance restaurant management and motherhood – until she met Melanie Arnold. “Arnold & Henderson came about because Melanie and I were working together to develop a flexible way to have a career and three small children at the same time.” The business started out as a catering company run out of Henderson’s kitchen, but then a friend who had recently purchased the old Rochelle School offered the pair part of the space, and Rochelle Canteen was born. “The renters at the time were Giles Deacon, Luella Bartley, and Katie Baggot – all big names in fashion,” says Henderson. “They brought in the customers and the press, and things just developed from there – the doorbell’s never stopped ringing.” A second Rochelle Canteen location opened in 2017 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
“Our menu follows the seasons,” she explains. “We source our meat and fish locally. We have a simple approach to food – we let the ingredients speak for themselves.” Particular favorites among customers include duck rillettes, pheasant and pig’s foot pastries, and roasted pumpkin with lentils and green vegetables. In 2012, Henderson revealed innumerable culinary secrets in You’re All Invited: Margot’s Recipes for Entertaining, a monumental 300-page cookbook. “She’s a force of nature,” husband Fergus Henderson (whose own 2004 work, Nose to Tail Eating, brought him fame as well) said five years ago, in a short film by Vice. There really is no better word for Margot Henderson. She’s transforming the public image of the female chef, making countless people happy with her lovingly created dishes, and radiates enough personality for half a dozen kitchens. Once you’ve managed to find your way to Rochelle Canteen, you’re bound to become a regular.
Note: The designation of London as a Tier 3 area means that Rochelle Canteen had to close again since December 16, until further notice.