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Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor of The Fat Duck and star of the small screen, talks to Gaby Huddart about his continuing drive to innovate and reveals his gastronomic visions for the future
It may only accommodate 45 diners at a service and be set in a tiny, ramshackle cottage, but The Fat Duck in Bray is king of the restaurant scene. It holds three Michelin stars, has been named the World’s Best Restaurant by a panel of international pundits and is current holder of the BMW Square Meal Restaurant of the Year title.
I’m willing to bet that lucrative offers are rolling in thick and fast for chef-proprietor Heston Blumenthal to open a Fat Duck mark two in luxury hotels in the likes of Las Vegas or New York or on a luxury cruise liner.
After all, there’s a growing trend among his peer group of big-hitting chefs of launching eateries across the globe. Branches of Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s Nobu are popping up all over the place, as are restaurants from French superchefs Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse. And our own Gordon Ramsay has recently opened an operation in a New York hotel and has plans to follow it up with branches in Paris and Ireland.
‘Yes, I do get offers all the time,’ admits Blumenthal, raising his eyes heavenwards. He’s clearly fed up with fending off the offers. He is determined to protect the unique identity of his Bray eatery, stating emphatically: ‘No, there won’t be another Fat Duck.’
OK, point made. But what about another restaurant, a different sort of place? Does he really have no visions of any more eateries in future?
There’s a long pause and a bit of hesitation as Blumenthal confesses he will ‘never say never to opening somewhere else’. And such is his enthusiasm that he can’t resist sharing the seed of an idea for his next project.
‘We’ve been doing lots of research into historic British dishes and food culture and I’m really excited by it,’ he says. ‘There’s real potential to do something with that – a restaurant or gastropub focusing on historic British food.’
At first, this sounds rather bizarre, what with the UK’s lousy international reputation for its cooking – one that has only started changing very recently. Indeed, there are still many on the continent who look down their nose at our food and regard our single culinary achievement as roast beef served with roast potatoes. Who can forget French president Jacques Chirac’s public lambasting of the quality of British cuisine in summer 2005?
‘We should be championing British food culture,’ Blumenthal counters. ‘In the 18th century, it was the French who came to England to learn how to roast meats. Throughout the 18th and 19th
centuries, there was a very complex and involved
food culture in this country – particularly in the homes of the elite – and that has been buried over time. I would really like to see some of the old dishes from those times brought back.’
He explains that his interest in the history of British gastronomy really started after the 2004 opening of his gastropub, The Hinds Head, located across the street from The Fat Duck. The gastropub specialises in serving simple, traditional Brit favourites, such as oxtail and kidney pudding, Lancashire hotpot and skate wing with capers.
‘In researching dishes for The Hinds Head, we’ve come up with some really interesting old stuff,’ says Blumenthal. ‘There are so many recipes from the past that have been forgotten. We should be bringing those back and developing them in a modern context.
‘Some of the recipes appear rather crude and I wouldn’t suggest preparing them in the same way as in the past, but it’s possible to develop them using up-to-date techniques. It makes sense to revive some of our great, buried dishes from the past and modernise them, rather than always trying to reinvent the wheel.’
Blumenthal is at pains to stress, however, that a restaurant specialising in historic dishes is no more than an idea at this stage. ‘I have no immediate plans for this,’ he says.
For the time being, it is diners at The Fat Duck who are likely to benefit from Blumenthal’s fascination with the past. In particular, he has been working on a dish called beef royal, which dates back to 1758. As well as beef, the dish contains anchovies, white and black truffles, red wine, oysters and ox palates. It is likely to go on the menu at the restaurant in the near future.
‘I think contrasting the old and new is really interesting,’ says Blumenthal. ‘If you juxtapose opposites with food, like hot and cold or smooth and crunchy, it accentuates the qualities of both. Similarly, contrasting the old fashioned with the contemporary can be really powerful. So, following a modern dish with the beef royal would be an experience for diners.’
That’s not the only new experience that visitors to The Fat Duck are likely to enjoy in the coming months. Blumenthal is on the point of launching numerous other culinary innovations to his restaurant – though, unlike the beef royal, the great majority are decidedly futuristic rather than harking back to times gone by.
Around the time this article is published, for instance, diners will for the first time be presented with a stunning silver sculpture in the shape of a rosebush when coffee is served at the end of their meal. The rosebush will offer them tiny edible petals in different flavours.
‘We’ve been working with parfumiers to develop crystallised rose petals, overlaid with scents of apple, lychee, coriander, raspberry and so on,’ says Blumenthal.
Another bit of restaurant theatre about to be launched involves after-dinner whisky gums. Several gums are attached to a map of Scotland brought to the table in an upright picture frame, each gum placed above the part of Scotland from which that whisky comes. Although the gums have a rich whisky smell and flavour, they contain no alcohol. ‘We’ve also developed a Jack Daniels gum, so we have the island of Tennessee off the coast of Scotland on the map,’ laughs Blumenthal.
A dish labelled ‘sound of the sea’, which will be making its debut on the tasting menu about now, promises to be an unforgettable experience for diners. The dish will involve a wooden box containing sand and seashells beneath a glass top. On the glass will be a mixture of tapioca, fried breadcrumbs, crushed fried baby eels, cod liver oil and langoustine oil, combined to make a sand-like mixture. On top of this will be abalone, razor clams, shrimps and oysters and three kinds of edible seaweed.
Blumenthal explains: ‘Then we have the juices from the shellfish made into a foam and placed along one side of the tapioca beach, so it looks like the sea. And alongside the dish we’ll serve a glass of seaweed extraction and mirin, which will give diners a massive umami hit.’
The dish will be a truly multi-sensory experience for diners. Not only will its taste and look thrill their senses, but they will also be issued with an iPod playing the sound of waves breaking.
‘I did a series of tests with Charles Spence at Oxford University three years ago, which revealed that sound can really enhance the sense of taste,’ says Blumenthal. ‘We ate an oyster while listening to the sea and it tasted stronger and saltier than when we ate it while listening to barnyard noises, for example.’
The fun doesn’t stop there.Later in the year, occasional tableside magic tricks will be introduced. Front-of-house staff are already learning how to turn a rose petal into an egg, which they will then crack into a pan and cook. And The Fat Duck website is to be relaunched as a virtual sweet shop.
Blumenthal believes a visit to his restaurant should be ‘all about having fun’. He says: ‘I don’t want people coming here and feeling apprehensive. I want them to feel excited and to be out to have a good time. When I discover something new, I feel like a kid in a sweet shop, so that’s the emotion I want to generate for diners.’
From August, when diners make a reservation, they will be sent a pair of 3D glasses, an atomiser spray and a code for the website. Squirting the spray will fill the air with an intense sweet-shop odour, and the code will allow them to enter the sweet shop website.
The door of the sweet shop will open to the sound of a tinkling bell. And during the tour that will follow, diners will see everything from jars of flying saucer sweets to bursting sherbet fountains, crabs holding ice-cream cones and boxes of snail porridge, each providing their own performance.
Frankly, it all sounds a bit bonkers, but within moments of being issued with my 3D glasses and being shown the prototype of the website, I’m giggling like a child at the magical sights within the sweet shop. ‘That’s what we want,’ says Blumenthal, ‘that sense of pleasure and anticipation.’
When diners arrive at The Fat Duck, the scent from the atomiser, which will have been rubbed on the doorframe of the restaurant, will fill their nostrils and trigger their memory of the website. ‘And when they finish the meal and pay the bill, we’ll be giving them a bag full of Fat Duck sweets to take home,’ adds Blumenthal.
If this all sounds light-hearted and frivolous, don’t be fooled. Several years of work has gone into developing the website and, for every new dish that is launching on the menu, months of trial and error have taken place in Blumenthal’s kitchen laboratory across the road from The Fat Duck. No fewer than five chefs are working in the lab full-time on culinary experiments and new dishes. And, stresses the boss, ‘the guiding principle is always taste’.
It concerns Blumenthal that some younger chefs, impressed by both his innovative approach to cooking and that of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of elBulli and US chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, are imitating them without understanding the basics of classical cookery first. They forget that successful flavour should always be paramount. ‘The danger is when technique overtakes quality,’ he says. ‘What’s the point in a lemon tart that jumps off the plate and explodes in front of a diner if it doesn’t taste good?’
Indeed, as his winter TV series In Search of Perfection illustrated, although Blumenthal is always ready to harness every possible gadget, gismo and technique in his cooking, it’s always with the aim of producing the most delicious result possible.
No doubt series two of the programme, which he is currently filming and which is set to hit our TV screens in October, will be similarly inspiring. We may even learn how to make perfect versions of the dishes our ancestors ate before us.
Heston Blumenthal’s approach to cookery has often been labelled ‘molecular gastronomy’. But it’s a description he loathes because he thinks it sounds ‘elitist’ and ‘creates a barrier for people’.
‘The term was created for a scientific research centre in Sicily about 20 years ago,’ he explains. ‘Nicholas Kurti, the head of physics at Oxford, came up with it, but his intention was purely to look at the science of cooking.
‘What I do is simply cooking. I may use the latest equipment, but all I care about is the enjoyment of food.’
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2007