An interview with Heston Blumenthal

Willy Wonka, the eccentric genius of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, came to life in Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel two years before British chef Heston Blumenthal was born. Nonetheless, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were twins, separated at birth.

Blumenthal looks like a cross between a mad professor and a rugby prop. He’s nuggety, bald and wears glasses. His mouth hovers between grin and grimace and mischievousness glints in his eyes, yet he’s consistently hailed as a culinary alchemist and one of the world’s greatest chefs.

His three Michelin-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck, in the sleepy Berkshire village of Bray, near London, was named the world’s best restaurant six years ago and remains in the top three since, feeding enraptured diners dishes such as snail porridge and egg-and-bacon ice cream.

In his television show, Heston’s Feasts, which screens on SBS, Blumenthal fed Germaine Greer a bull’s testicle disguised as a plum.

Taking a royal medieval recipe that became a nursery rhyme, four-and-twenty blackbirds – “it’s so insane, so barking mad,” he says – Blumenthal made a 120kg pie in a builder’s yard and filled it with live pigeons, which flew out as the pie lid was lifted.

Like Jamie Oliver, he’s keen to raise the standard of everyday food.  In earlier TV show, Blumenthal transformed the menus at Little Chef, an ailing service station café chain. His new show, Heston’s Mission Impossible, tackles hospital, military and airline food.

You get the feeling that Blumenthal likes both a challenge and a bit of showmanship. He’s a ringmaster rethinking what it means to dine out.

“I think restaurants no longer have the sole purpose of satisfying hunger. A lot of people might go out for the setting or occasion, but the exciting thing about restaurants now is they don’t have to fit into one category.”

Eating at The Fat Duck borders on theatrical event, where diners listen to an iPod in a seashell, playing ocean sounds, as they eat a seafood dish.

He visited Sydney recently, at the invitation of his friend Neil Perry, to cook alongside two more of the world’s greatest chefs, American Thomas Keller and Spaniard Andoni Aduritz, at a $1000-a-head charity dinner at Rockpool Bar and Grill.

Perry sings his mate’s praises. “Heston is just one of the most gifted individuals on the planet. I really think it is his inquisitive nature that clearly makes him think the way he does.”

Blumenthal’s happy to be here. “As a food city, Sydney has just exploded and it just so happens to be one of the most beautiful city I’ve been in,” he says. “And the phenomenon that’s Masterchef is just unbelievable.”

His own empire has exploded too. Last month, Blumenthal, who also runs two pubs serving classic British tucker, opened Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, next to London’s posh Hyde Park. One gushing critic immediately declared it the best new restaurant in the world.

“I knew there was going to be some anticipation, but I didn’t expect it to be as crazy as it was,” he recounts. “I looked out during the first lunch and saw six critics on six different tables. That’s when it dawned on me how big this all was”.

Inspired by 16th century British cookery, Dinner takes a modern-medieval approach to dishes such as the already infamous ‘meatfruit’, a crown jewels-free version of the Greer dish.

Oak moss and truffle toast, quail jelly, langoustine cream & foie gras parfait, Blumenthal's homage to Alain Chapel.

 

His most recent success comes off the back of launching a product range bearing his name in Waitrose supermarket. This is no typical celebrity endorsement. Blumenthal has full creative control, producing everything from hand-made beef, ale and kombu (seaweed) pies to salts flavoured with smoke, vanilla and rose. Later this year, mustard ice cream hits the shelves.

Blumenthal has three development kitchens. “We currently have 600 dishes in development, for everything from menus to Waitrose and the TV shows,” he says.

So is he just another celebrity chef gagging to get on telly? “Television can be a great research and development tool,” he says. “I learnt a lot and on a show like Feasts, we did dishes you could never do in a restaurant.”

But not everything’s been caviar and champagne in a 20-year career that also includes six cookbooks.

In February 2009, Blumenthal closed The Fat Duck for two weeks following a food poisoning outbreak. More than 500 people reported feeling ill. It shocked the meticulous chef and the public too. He had one of the few restaurants in the world where food was routinely and voluntarily tested every fortnight.

“Closing the restaurant was the hardest part of my career, especially not knowing if it would ever open again. I learnt a lot of stuff I didn’t want to learn,” he says. Oysters, contaminated by sewage, and staff infected with the oyster virus, were blamed.

Despite the setback, the public appetite remains. Up to 5000 people call daily, hoping to book one of just 42 seats at The Fat Duck. It takes a gobsmacking fifty chefs to cook for them.

Blumenthal takes a fastidiously forensic approach to food, mixing science with a boundless curiosity. A key turning point was reading that searing meat to seal in the juices was a myth.

“I’m basically a big kid and I ask lots of questions. I’m not a scientist, but I am endlessly curious. The best advice I can give to anyone is question everything.”

Largely self-taught, Blumenthal worked briefly for the infamous Marco Pierre White, a chef who made Gordon Ramsay cry. Blumenthal had his own anger management issues, since resolved, perhaps in part because he discovered you can taste when a restaurant kitchen is angry. How? The food is often too salty. Why?

“If you’re stressed, perceptions of sweet and salt can be reduced by up to 50 per cent,” he explains.

A similar problem occurs with airline food. “When you’re in a pressurised cabin, up to seven times the amount of salt is needed before it registers on the palate.”

Blumenthal loves the role of memory in food. “I like prawn cocktails,” he declares. “I grew up in the seventies. Nothing makes me happier than coming home late at night and finding my wife’s bought a prawn cocktail and it’s in the fridge. I’ll eat the lot.”

The pleasure we get from eating comes from the brain and the memories the food evokes.

“We’re hardwired to like fat and sweet, but the actually liking a particular flavour is learned and that comes down to the memory.”

Food is also contextual. “There’s a time and place where you might fancy a kebab. The best hot chocolate you’ve ever had is after a walk, after getting lost and cold miserable.”

Blumenthal’s not into food snobbery or watching foodie orgasms over “cheese harvested in spring from three-legged goat at 3000 feet up a mountain”.

A bit of junk ain a bad thing.

“It’s OK to eat processed food. I’m not advocating it, but it’s OK. Just do it with your eyes wide open. A lot of foods are not that bad. Should be about generating pleasure and memories.”

That said he’s scathing about “the con” of manipulated labelling on packaged food. “The funny thing about a packet of chicken slices is nobody stops to think that hasn’t come from a chicken breast.”

So what’s his ultimate ingredient? “There isn’t one, but as politically incorrect as this is, salt is the most important ingredient in terms of the number of varied uses that it has,”

Meanwhile, as a culinary adventurer, he’s hoping to try witchetty grub while in Australia and should he get a call from Buckingham Palace to do the reception for Will and Kate, he has a plan: Beef Royal “a dish served at the largest banquet ever held in Britain for the coronation of James II. There were 170-odd courses, including 43 desserts!”

So does the Great Chef ever cook at home? “Generally only Sunday lunch, although I get told off as its really Sunday dinner-depending on what you call lunch, since I get back from work about 4pm.

“Normally it’s roast chicken, roast tatties, Yorkshire puddings, confit carrots with caraway salt, braised cabbage with chili and bacon, cauliflower cheese and gravy.”

A father of three who’s been married for more than 20 years, Blumenthal recently dined at The Fat Duck for just the fourth time in its 16-year history to celebrate his eldest son’s 18th birthday.

It marked another milestone.

“For first time I was happy with the restaurant. “

In that moment, he had his Golden Ticket.

 

 

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