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What's next for Heston Blumenthal

What's next for Heston Blumenthal

by Tom Shingler 22 February 2017

He’s already changed the way we cook; now Britain’s greatest chef is turning his attention to how it’s served. Tom Shingler talks to the culinary legend about his plans for personalised, multi-sensory menus for every one of his diners, before experiencing the menu at his legendary three-starred restaurant The Fat Duck.

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‘I feel like the past twenty years of my life has been an apprenticeship. Now is when it all begins.’ This is quite a statement from someone who, for at least the past ten years, has been single-handedly responsible for changing the British dining landscape. He might be known for his eccentric TV escapades – creating giant boiled eggs or historically-inspired psychedelic banquets to celebrities – but it’s easy to forget just how much of an effect Heston Blumenthal has had on how we all eat. He is, after all, the inventor of the triple-cooked chip, now a staple of gastropubs across the UK. He made cooking something everyone could enjoy, encouraging people to start scrutinising why certain things tasted nice instead of taking them at face value. And he’s captured the imagination of diners and chefs everywhere with his unique, outside-the-box approach to cooking. It’s fair to say that he’s a pretty big player in the world of food and science.

Interviewing Heston was the last step in my task of uncovering all the work, wacky ideas and incredible talent that goes into The Fat Duck Group – the umbrella company that brings together all five of his restaurants. I’d already talked to Jonny Lake, The Fat Duck’s head chef, Ashley Palmer-Watts, who handles the operations at Dinner, and the people behind The Hinds Head, The Crown at Bray and The Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow T2. They all talked about a sense of community and collaboration and how having access to the mythical Fat Duck database – a sort of Wikipedia of Heston’s recipes that’s talked about in hushed tones amongst the chef community – meant they had enviable access to some seriously cutting-edge culinary research. But I wanted to meet the man who started it all to find out what his next steps were.

Heston Blumenthal
Heston has been tinkering with the idea of multi-sensory dining since the 1990s, but he says it's not until very recently that he's started to achieve the results he's been looking for
The Fat Duck
The Fat Duck moved to Melbourne for six months in 2015 before reopening in Bray with an entirely new menu

We covered a lot of topics over the course of the interview, ranging from the early days of civilisation (‘the Bible is effectively a book about the domestication of animals’) to the future (‘more and more we’re living our lives like a computer algorithm’). He jumps from subject to subject at such a rapid rate, perhaps powered by his ADHD, which he was only diagnosed with last year.

‘When I found out I thought, ‘great’!’ he tells me. ‘I have so many ideas whizzing around my head, which is so busy all the time. The amount of thoughts that can go through my mind in five seconds can join the dots between thirty, forty or fifty things, which is brilliant, but when it doesn’t work it’s like a big bang without anything being formed together again. The general public tends to misinterpret it against this system of perfection, but I think it’s the kids with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism that make humans human. They have so many incredible abilities that others don’t.’

As I looked at my notes, wondering how to make sense of it all, it became clear that everything we talked about, no matter how disjointed it seemed at first, all boiled down to one thing: how food is one of the few experiences where all five of our senses are hard at work, and how we can, and perhaps need to, make the most of this when it comes to enjoying food.

This is why Heston is now putting all his attention into ‘multi-sensory’ dining. This isn’t anything new in the world of The Fat Duck; his most famous dish Sounds of the Sea comes accompanied with headphones, so diners can listen to crashing waves (sound) as they tuck into a dish of seafood, seaweed and edible sand (taste and smell), served on a glass plate with real sand and shells below (sight). But what’s really exciting is how he is trying to move beyond this, taking into account how subjective food can be. Personalising menus – something which goes dead against the rigid consistency usually strived for in professional kitchens – is a revolutionary idea that’s taken years of research for Heston and his team to understand. Finally, it’s beginning to see the light of day on The Fat Duck’s new menu, marking a new chapter in the restaurant’s profound history.

Curiosity and crab ice cream

To truly understand this idea of multi-sensory dining, however, we need to go back to when Heston first started to realise all sorts of things could affect how food tasted. At sixteen years old he was obsessed with the great French chefs, translating them word by word with nothing more than a pen, some paper and a French to English dictionary. ‘I saw that each of these cookbooks had a recipe for vanilla ice cream, but they all varied – some would use whole eggs, some just the yolk; some used cream, others used milk, a few mascarpone; then there was glucose or sugar – the list went on,’ he explains. ‘Were these just the recipes the chefs had learnt during their studies, or was there a reason for the different ingredients and ratios? I started trying to develop my own recipe for the perfect vanilla ice cream and came across a Victorian recipe for asparagus ice cream, and then later a Sicilian one for Parmesan ice cream. Why did these sound weird? I thought it must be because we think of ice cream as something sweet.’

Heston didn’t realise how important this little detail was until 1997, a few years after he opened The Fat Duck. ‘I made a crab ice cream to go with a crab risotto,’ he says. ‘Some people absolutely loved it and others thought I was the devil. But I discovered if I called it a frozen crab bisque, people were much more likely to enjoy it.’ This eventually led Heston to write his first research paper with Martin Yeomans at the University of Sussex, where they discovered that people found a frozen smoked salmon mousse tasted up to twenty percent saltier if it was called smoked salmon ice cream. ‘I thought, hang on a second, you can change how a dish tastes just by calling it something different? And that’s when my mind started to properly think about multi-sensory dining.’

This realisation, combined with what Heston read in Harold McGee’s seminal book On Food and Cooking, led to the simple motto he now uses to describe his approach to food – question everything. ‘I needed to look at everything differently,’ he says. ‘I started investigating how the senses can influence one another and realised that eating is a complete multi-sensory experience that’s all about awareness of what’s going on around you. Just the font used on a wine label can change the taste of what’s inside. It wasn’t until around two years ago that scientists really started to look at food and eating as a multi-sensory thing, and it’s had a huge impact on that world already.’

The Fat Duck
The Fat Duck's unassuming exterior means it fits in perfectly with the other buildings in the sleepy village of Bray in Berkshire
The Fat Duck
Inside, the small dining room is clean, simple and spotless – it's only when you notice the little things, like the colour changing lights above each table and the bespoke leather chairs, that you realise you're in a three Michelin star restaurant

We all know that environment can have an effect on our enjoyment of food and drink – many of us have enjoyed an incredible bottle of wine while on holiday in a hot country, only to find the same bottle doesn’t taste as nice when brought back to a grey, drizzly Britain and knocked back in front of the TV. It’s the same with using a plastic knife and fork at a street food festival or drinking out of a plastic pint glass at a gig; our appreciation of the food and drink would be different if they were served in what we perceive to be higher quality surroundings, on proper plates and in a real glass. The challenge for Heston was to incorporate this into a restaurant setting, knowing that every person’s idea of a ‘perfect’ environment would be different.

‘No one had talked about incorporating smell, sound and sight into a restaurant before, and I knew it wasn’t just a case of spraying a scent over a dish,’ he says. ‘It’s the noise in the background, the temperature of the room, the lighting and how all this relates to an individual person. The frustration with multi-sensory dining is that you have your idea of the perfect ice cream that you had as a kid on holiday or whatever, but it won’t be the same as mine. I realised that all the work I did with sous vide, pairing ingredients with similar flavour molecules and playing with nostalgia were the building blocks of my food, but what was missing was the personalisation. That’s why I see this chapter of The Fat Duck as the beginning and the past twenty years I’ve been completing my apprenticeship. Where we’ve got to today is the result of years and years of work, and you’re going to start to see it all being implemented at The Fat Duck from now.’

It sounds as if Heston’s final plan is for every diner who comes to The Fat Duck to have a bespoke, tailored menu presented to them that represents their own memories of food. This is obviously a huge undertaking, but if anyone is driven (and, quite frankly, outrageous) enough to achieve it, it’s him. With entire teams of chefs dedicated to research and development at The Fat Duck Group, it’s an incredibly exciting time for the restaurant, and – just like the triple-cooked chip – it might be the catalyst for a sweeping change for other restaurants across the UK and beyond.

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