Behind the scenes at Heston’s Perfectionists’ Café

by Tom Shingler11 March 2016

Tom Shingler talks to Heston Blumenthal and head chef Julian O'Neill to learn more about their quick-service restaurant at Heathrow's Terminal 2 and discover the stories behind the ever-evolving recipes.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

It’s pretty bold for any chef (even Heston Blumenthal) to even remotely suggest a dish is perfect. It leaves you wide open to criticism, and everyone’s idea of perfection is different. At first glance, Heston’s Heathrow-based restaurant might seem a little sure of itself to say the least, but with a little backstory – and a minor grammatical detail in the name – things become a little clearer.

‘There is no such thing as perfection,’ explains Heston, who set up the restaurant in June 2014. ‘Perfectionists are always in search of improving what they do. Just take the pizzas we serve, for example; they’re really good but we’re always looking at tweaking them here or there – the wood we use, the flour – simple nuances that perhaps our customers wouldn’t even notice. Everyone’s tastes are different, too. If you’re a perfectionist and your ‘perfect’ pizza is deep pan, the ones we serve wouldn’t be what you would consider ‘perfect’. ‘Perfect’ recipes and ‘perfect’ dishes are subjective. That’s why the position of the possessive apostrophe is important – Perfectionists’ not Perfectionist’s!’

The idea for the restaurant was born out of the TV series (and accompanying books) Heston created back in 2007, called In Search of Perfection. The recipes that resulted from the research done for those programmes were adapted to suit a restaurant service, and after a very long development process, The Perfectionists’ Café was opened to the public. While the menu has evolved over the few years it’s been open, the menu gives people that scientific ‘Heston element’ without the prices of his Michelin-starred restaurants.

Dishes include classic favourites like burgers, which are served at the perfect height to allow diners to enjoy a full cross-section of flavour with each bite; fish and chips, with a batter that’s squirted through a siphon to make it extra crispy, and pizzas made with the finest ingredients in Europe’s only airport-based, wood-fired pizza oven.

The development of The Perfectionists' Café was top secret, with few details released until right before opening
Julian O'Neill was brought on board to develop the recipes and run the kitchen

Open for business

While Heston (and his incredibly accomplished team) are involved in the restaurant and help out on the development side of things, it’s really the project of head chef Julian O’Neill, who spearheaded the opening and now takes care of the kitchen. He was brought in from the very beginning to help make The Perfectionists’ Café a reality – under top secret conditions.

‘I started with the company about ten months before the café was opened, to help develop the recipes and organise the opening,’ he tells us. ‘After countless sessions at Tectonic Place (one of The Fat Duck Group’s development kitchens) we were able to take some of the recipes and adapt them to suit being served in a restaurant. We were only able to cook in the actual kitchen two days before it was open to the public; before that, we were training staff in a huge tent near Maidenhead.

‘Everything was completely under wraps – the only people who knew why I’d been hired were Heston, Ashley Palmer-Watts (the head chef at Dinner) and his right-hand man Tom, Jonny Lake (the head chef at The Fat Duck) and the MD and HR managers,’ Julian continues. ‘Everyone else thought I’d been brought in to help Heston develop recipes for the European Space Agency.’

The biggest task The Fat Duck team had was to find the recipes which could be cooked and served consistently in a restaurant kitchen. But this was no ordinary restaurant – catering to diners who are about to board a flight means there are no long, drawn-out meals. ‘We knew we needed dishes that could be cooked and served speedily, but we didn’t realise just how fast we would have to work – most people want to be finished within twenty minutes,’ says Julian. ‘So serving the pizzas, burgers and fish and chips made sense as they can all be prepared very quickly.’

‘When we made the In Search of Perfection programmes, we discovered that some of the recipes leant themselves best to being cooked quickly,’ adds Heston. ‘The pizzas were cooked in a matter of minutes, as were the fish and chips. It was food that could be cooked ‘fast’ without compromising on the quality of the ingredients or the dish itself. Even the ice cream takes minutes to make, as we use liquid nitrogen.’

When the nitro ice cream machine is in action, it fills a corner of the restaurant with a misty vapour
The fish and chips is a classic example of Heston's creativity – the fish batter is put through a siphon for extra crunch and comes with a spray bottle of pickled onion essence

Safety first

It wasn’t just the customers that were different at Heathrow – the rules and regulations surrounding an airport restaurant are like nothing the team had experienced before. ‘It was a massive learning experience,’ says Julian. ‘Their standards and demands are incredibly high – the health and safety is through the roof. We have to have the thermostats on the fryers replaced every three months instead of every year; the cans of liquid nitrogen have to be taken over to the far side of the airport every time they’re replaced so they can check there isn’t anything being hidden in them and all the staff had to take part in all sorts of safety training.’

The pizza oven was a particularly hard-fought battle – open flames are a big no-no in airport terminals. But by building in extra safety features, they were eventually given the go-ahead. ‘We wanted a wood-burning grill for the burgers, so we could get that smoky charred flavour, but weren’t allowed one,’ says Heston. ‘We managed to get the pizza oven in the end as it has a small opening that can be closed off if ever the flames get out of control!’ To combat the lack of an open grill, Julian uses a smoke-infused butter so the burgers and steaks have a flame-cooked flavour.

We managed to get the pizza oven in the end as it has a small opening that can be closed off if ever the flames get out of control!

Heston Blumenthal

The specially-built oven cooks pizzas in a few minutes, helping to keep service fast and efficient
Julian spent time with one of Naples' best pizza chefs to learn everything he could

The upper crust

The pizzas are a big selling point at The Perfectionists’ Café – after all, they’re the only wood-fired ones in Europe that are cooked in an airport (‘We thought we were the only ones in the world, but then someone annoyingly set one up in LAX,’ laughs Julian). The amount of time Julian and the development team took to come up with the dough recipe is the perfect example of how Heston’s relentless attention to detail is realised at all of his restaurants.

‘Some years ago Heston met a guy called Enzo Coccia who makes the most amazing pizzas in Naples,’ says Julian. ‘He’s a lovely guy but doesn’t speak a word of English – I think the two words he does know are ‘Heston’ and ‘BBC’. Ashley Palmer-Watts and I went over to spend some time with him – eating fifteen pizzas in two days whilst we were there – to learn everything we could about cooking the best Neapolitan pizza. Now, we make our own dough with a long, slow fermentation, which combined with the high salt content and strong gluten, results in a very digestible pizza that doesn’t leave you feeling bloated after eating it.

‘The recipe has evolved quite a few times since opening,’ Julian continues. ‘We now use a different type of salt and switched from a blend of flours to just one single variety. One thing we had to take into account is the ambient temperature inside the terminal – it stays the same twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This means we can work with flour, water and salt that’s exactly the same temperature, then leave it to ferment at that level of warmth too. You don’t get that anywhere else.’

The burgers are built to the perfect height, so every element can be enjoyed in one mouthful
Julian sources the 30-day dry-aged beef from a farm in north Yorkshire

A never-ending story

Despite the name of the restaurant and the intense development process before it was opened, the dishes at The Perfectionists’ Café are always changing. Like the pizza dough, Julian and his team are always tinkering with the existing recipes to see if they can make them even better. One thing that’s consistent across all of them, however, is that they are the product of the scientific analysis that Heston has become famous for. Every element and ingredient has been painstakingly tasted, tested, researched and developed to be the best it can possibly be.

‘The siphon batter for the fish and chips probably encapsulates what we’re trying to do here the most, but everything has that Heston element,’ says Julian. ‘For our garlic bread, for example, I went on the Fat Duck recipe database and nabbed the recipe for the garlic butter they serve at Dinner in Melbourne. To check out the beef we use for the burgers, Ashley and I drove for nine hours in the pouring rain to north Yorkshire so we could see the process for ourselves. It was an amazing place with boxes of meat whizzing around like something out of a Pixar film. The whole thing was so space age and perfect for us, as we knew what we’d be getting would be consistently great.’

Even the simplest sounding dishes have been through a rigorous development process. ‘We put on a new dish called The Breakfast Bun which at first looks a bit basic,’ explains Julian. ‘But the sausage in there has the perfect percentage of fat so it can be kept warm without losing quality (we taste tested hundreds of sausages to get it right); the streaky bacon is the same bacon that was developed during Heston’s Little Chef project; the egg is slowly cooked so there are no bubbles and it’s nice and flat and the slice of tomato has been prepared in a way to bring out as much umami flavour as possible.’

As Julian showed us round the kitchen and talked us through the dishes, one thing was definitely clear; The Perfectionists’ Café isn’t ‘Heston-lite’. The same amount of time, care and research has gone into every one of the recipes, and while there’s a little less pomp and theatrics (the cocktails are topped off with a mist of scented dry ice, but there aren’t waiters making liquid nitrogen ice cream at your table), it’s a fantastic way to satisfy your curiosity about Heston’s food without paying the high prices. You’ll just have to book a flight to get a table.

Images courtesy of AfroditiKrassa.

It was an amazing place with boxes of meat whizzing around like something out of a Pixar film. The whole thing was so space age and perfect for us, as we knew what we’d be getting would be consistently great.

Julian O'Neill

Get in touch

Please or register to send a comment to Great British Chefs