“I’ve been coming here since it opened; I love the simplicity of it: the surroundings, the plates of bone marrow. I think they are fantastic, although I would die of a heart attack if I had it – I have ridiculously high cholesterol.
I like cooking. It’s very therapeutic, it’s something that gets me out of my studio sometimes knowing that I can go home and light some charcoal. I have a full-time assistant, Felicity, and a fantastic studio manager, Zoe, and we eat together every day – one of us cooks. Very simple things. I have friends who cook wonderfully but it’s often too detailed for me. I like my food thick and flavoursome.
My grandfather was observant [Jewish] and we lived in his house, and I went to a Jewish school, so I feel Jewish. But at home we eat bacon as much as we can! I didn’t order a pig’s head today only because I didn’t want to be photo-graphed with it.
I left Israel when I was three and I have realised how my link with Israel, and hence my father – who is the real connection with Israel – is totally disconnected. I am not that connected to my father and it’s quite insane that I do not have any link with my past.
My dad was one of El Al’s first pilots. He was in its most senior crew, but right at the height of his career, in his thirties, he lost an eye [from an illness] which grounded him. I think that my parents umm-ed and ah-ed and thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s get out of this.’ My mother was South African and so they went back there to start again. But my South African heritage is only in my taste for sunshine. I left South Africa not liking the place – it was full of apartheid.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, photography was so rooted in craft and technology and it was people such as Nan Goldin and [Andreas] Gursky who turned it into art. In part I am still very technical, logical, that’s what first attracted me to the camera – the beautiful click and the whine. It was almost a love of cameras, rather than photography, that got me started when I was 10.
I got a success taking pictures I had never felt before: I was crap at school; I had real learning difficulties; I stuttered and I think I bathed in the sunlight of photography. In a way, it was about finding a language. I still draw on a deep technical knowledge but it’s not the interest, it’s much more about the feeling you get, the reaction from a photograph. That’s all that matters.
With the ‘Obama’s People’ project I kept on thinking about the 20-year test. It’s very difficult with a picture, how do you speak to the future? So I wanted to keep it simple. There was never a question of it being being black and white, in fact I think he had refused another magazine if it was going to be in black and white, rightfully reading the way he’d have been associated to the past.
Obama himself I shot later for the cover [of the New York Times Magazine]. It was amazing being in the Oval Office. He was lovely. I remember his aide hurrying him saying you only have 22 of the 30 minutes left. His day is divided into 10-minute slots, so when he was told he had 30 minutes for me and the interview, he thought we had a really long time.
I couldn’t care a jot about the truth in photography, I am not interested in documenting the world around me or capturing the soul. The ‘Yangtze’ project was like that – they are not an accurate portrayal. To distance myself from reportage work, in about seven pictures I added to the people who were already in them by photographically migrating people from other pictures.
If I was inviting other photographers I admire [to my last meal] there would be a lot. Jeff Wall because he’s just so brilliantly clever. Bill Viola, Bill Brandt is another. But I don’t collect photography. I think it would keep me up at night – with my personality everyone is always better than me.”
Nadav Kander was born in Israel in 1961 but, aged three, moved with his family to South Africa. After leaving its air force he moved to London. He lives with his wife, Nicole, and his three children in Primrose Hill. His work has covered major commercial campaigns and editorial as well as regular art shows in the world’s leading galleries.
St John in London’s Smithfield was founded by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver in 1994 and is a celebrated champion of British cooking of the heartiest, meatiest variety.
St John, 26 John Street, London EC1,stjohnrestaurant.com
To drink: St Véran, a jug of the finest tap water and, to close, a flat white made with a regular and decaf coffee (Kander request).
To eat: Bread, then roast bone marrow and parsley salad followed by mallard and turnips with a side order of greens.
One of the best things about St John or its sister establishment, St John Bread & Wine in nearby Spitalfields, is the bread. Like the food, it’s hearty, wholesome, no-fuss. You won’t find any olives or cherry tomatoes lurking in the loaves and they don’t have clever names: they bake white, brown, white sourdough, 70 per cent rye, and raisin bread (they also make some very trad’ cakes).
In the early days, the bakery was housed in the Smithfield restaurant but as it expanded and a new bread-named dining room opened further east, the decision was taken to move the bakery there too. Justin Piers Gellatly is head baker (and looks after the cakes too). “The bread has the same philosophy as the food. Eighty per cent of our flour comes from Michael Stoates’ Canns Mill in Dorset. It’s quite an artisan mill, so the flour is not always the same.”
Justin says they now make up to 400 loaves a day which are used (and sold to the public) in the two restaurants, as well as a few family establishments (such as Fergus’s wife’s Arnold & Henderson). Justin is pleased about one change, these days his role means he doesn’t have to do bakers’ hours: midnight to 08.00.