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The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal
“Creativity needs to take place in an environment that does not have an outcome – you need the freedom to fail”
In the latest instalment of our Best and Beyond series, presented by Miele, we look at the impact of Heston Blumenthal, the hyper-creative force behind game-changing British restaurant The Fat Duck.
There’s nothing ordinary about dining at The Fat Duck – from the booking process to the petit-fours, from the innovative dish presentations to the original flavour combinations. And that, of course, is at the heart of the restaurant’s enduring appeal. Heston Blumenthal’s hyper-experimental flagship might not offer the locals much by the way of a quick bite – although his two nearby pubs certainly do – but its 17-course, £255 tasting menu remains one of the world’s most thought-provoking, technically adept and exhilarating dining experiences.
On this menu, nothing is quite as it seems. The ingredients of a Waldorf salad turn into ice cream; a golden pocket watch vanishes in hot water to create a soup; a virtually weightless beetroot and horseradish macaroon disappear on the tongue.
What’s even more amazing is that 20 years after opening, The Fat Duck – located just to the west of London in the upmarket village of Bray – remains a relevant and hugely influential restaurant.
Over the past two decades, Blumenthal has developed hundreds of new cooking techniques, and the great majority of these have found their way onto the menus of other ambitious restaurants. He was the first person to recognize the culinary potential of liquid nitrogen. He was an early adopter of sous vide cooking. He pioneered the use of different gelling agents to deliver a hitherto unknown clarity of flavour. He gave the world triple-cooked chips.
In the wrong hands, all this would have brought nothing: fancy cooking techniques do not make a great chef. But Blumenthal is able to combine all this culinary know-how with a child-like sense of wonder and excitement to create some of the restaurant world’s most iconic dishes: Snail Porridge, Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, the Alice and Wonderland-inspired Mock Turtle soup, and his famed Meat Fruit to name-check but a few.
Yet, more important than all these individual innovations and brilliant dishes is the 51-year-old chef’s constant questioning of established culinary practices and his striving for continual improvement, or, as he describes it, “restless development”.
Blumenthal was one of the first chefs in the world to understand the importance of a separate kitchen and development team, and this approach has influenced the way many other high reaching establishments are run.
“The professional kitchen is not creative” he explains. “It’s a manufacturing line. The Fat Duck is a measured and precise place because we need consistency. All of that is the enemy of creativity. Discovery and creativity need to take place in an environment that does not have an outcome – you need the freedom to fail.”
A life less ordinary
Blumenthal’s leftfield approach to his work is partly due to his equally unusual route into the cheffing world. Unlike the majority of his peers, he has had minimal professional training or experience in top-grade kitchens.
Born in London, his interest in cooking was piqued when he was taken to a Michelin-starred restaurant in southern France while on a family holiday. After school, Blumenthal spent the next decade working in a string of relatively undemanding jobs by day and teaching himself classical French cooking by night. A chance encounter with a then little-known book by American scientist Harold McGee changed Blumenthal’s course, empowering him to question established culinary practices, such as searing meat to ‘seal in’ the juices.
The Fat Duck opened in 1995 as a low-key bistro but soon started making a name for itself. In 1999, the restaurant won its first Michelin star, followed by a second one two years later. In 2004, it was awarded a hallowed third star, and in 2005 it was ranked No.1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – the first and only British restaurant to hit such heights.
By the late Noughties, the chef was making a number of increasingly popular TV shows, one of which inspired the historical British menu that underpins Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Opened in 2011 within London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park with executive chef and long-time Blumenthal acolyte Ashley Palmer-Watts at the helm, the restaurant was an instant hit.
Blumenthal’s body of work is considerable, yet he wants to be remembered for one simple but very important idea: ‘multi-sensory cooking’. “The senses are all ingredients – what we hear, smell, see, and touch. All of that plays a major role in the enjoyment of food. I want to control what diners feel. It sounds cheesy, but restaurants are in the business of emotions. I want to leave this world a happier place than I found it.”
There’s no question that Blumenthal’s ability to push culinary boundaries has made him one of the most important chefs of his generation. One aspect that sets him apart from the majority of his top-flight gastronomic peers is the ability to make what he does accessible to the general public. His media output includes some of the most original food and drink TV programming of the era, not least the brilliant In Search of Perfection series for the BBC, where Blumenthal created ‘perfect’ versions of everyday dishes.
Since 2010, he and his development team have been designing dishes for upmarket supermarket Waitrose, bringing unusual flavour combinations – most recently a headline-grabbing banana and bacon trifle – to the mass market.
“It sounds cheesy, but restaurants are in the business of emotions. I want to leave this world a happier place than I found it.”
Two years ago, The Fat Duck reopened following a six-month sojourn in Australia. Some £2.5m has been invested in the chef’s flagship, which famously employs more than 60 members of staff to feed 40 customers. While the low-ceilinged dining room retains a similar layout and feel, the rest of the Grade I-listed building has been reworked. Most importantly, long-standing head chef Johnny Lake finally has a kitchen that befits the calibre of the restaurant.
Some of Blumenthal’s earliest innovations were designed to get around the challenges the space presented. For example, he first started experimenting with liquid nitrogen because the domestic-grade gas supply at the restaurant was stopping him from preparing green beans in the traditional manner.
“The Fat Duck has shaped me more than any other thing or person on this planet. It has housed a lot of my memories. In fact, the whole thing is based on memories and emotions now,” he says.
Over the two decades, The Fat Duck has been open, Blumenthal has delved deeper into memory and, specifically, nostalgia. “Accessing a happy memory can warm you up, that’s been scientifically proven. Memory is thought of as a dusty treasure chest that we’re supposed to hide away. In fact, we should be accessing memories all the time. We should be looking at our lives in both directions.”
Blumenthal was diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder last year, and recently spoke out about the UK’s ‘Victorian’ school system, which, as he says, stigmatises kids with ADHD. He believes that children can only be creative if they are taught not to be afraid of failure. Blumenthal says his hyperactivity allows him to work on multiple projects simultaneously. While the condition does bring with it some challenges, it is at least partly responsible for this great chef’s restless and – it must be said – quite extraordinary mind.
Read the full version of this interview on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants website.
Images: © Alisa Connan