The man behind the magic: The Fat Duck’s head chef

by Tom Shingler20 February 2017

Heston Blumenthal might be the man who turned The Fat Duck into the institution it is today, but it’s head chef Jonny Lake who makes sure the fifteen-course menu is the best it can be. He talks to Tom Shingler to explain how the dishes evolve and what goes on behind the scenes.

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.

Update 09/01/18: Jonny Lake has now left The Fat Duck to pursue personal projects.

For a man in charge of one of the world’s best ­and most famous restaurants, Jonny Lake is a surprisingly relaxed and collected guy. He certainly isn’t short of work; the time I managed to get with him before lunch service at The Fat Duck felt like a rare moment of calm amongst the front of house briefings and final bits of kitchen prep taking place around us. But as I found out, the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration found throughout The Fat Duck Group makes the pretty unique workload much easier to handle.

If Heston is the man who comes up with wild, wacky – and sometimes downright barmy – ideas, then Jonny is the person who helps to make them a reality. Studying physics and biology in Canada at university whilst working with a Meals on Wheels company and cooking in a café perhaps helped shape the chef he is today, but it was only when Jonny enrolled in culinary school in Montréal that he found his true calling. After finding his way to Italy and thanks to a chance encounter with legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi, he went to work at the two-Michelin-starred L’Albereta Resort in Erbusco. After a stint in Cannes Jonny and his wife had to make a decision: move back to Canada or settle in the UK.

‘It was around 2004, and all over the world you could find articles talking about London being this amazing new food city,’ says Johnny. ‘But in particular they all mentioned The Fat Duck as the place that was doing something completely different just outside the capital. I’d already read about Heston in Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential, so I gave him a ring, worked here for a couple of days on a trial basis and loved it.’

The Fat Duck might be a small restaurant, but the number of people working behind the scenes is staggering
Jonny Lake is head chef at the restaurant, dividing his time between lunch and dinner services and developing the menu

The Fat Duck has gone through huge changes since Jonny started there in 2005. The restaurant is still known for pushing boundaries and serving a menu so leftfield it could be an art installation, but it’s moved away from the molecular gastronomy movement it used to be associated with. ‘Back then every shot of Heston seemed to have him surrounded by lab equipment or in a lab coat, so there was a certain expectation as to how things were going to be,’ Jonny explains. ‘But I quickly realised that while lots of things were done differently, there were still basic cooking techniques going on all the time. My first few days were a total blur, but I remember working with James Lowe [now head chef at Lyle’s in London] and we were just doing normal prep like brunoise, which was nothing new. But once we started weighing everything out on scales to such a precise degree, I knew I wasn’t in a normal kitchen.’

Jonny joined The Fat Duck as a chef de partie (‘quite an old one – when I came here I was thirty-two’) but settled in quickly and seemed the perfect fit for the unique approach Heston’s team had to cooking. By 2009 he was named head chef of The Fat Duck – following in the footsteps of Ashley Palmer-Watts and only the fourth person to hold the title in the restaurant’s twenty-two-year history. But he didn’t set about incorporating his own style and dishes into the menu like you see elsewhere; everything at The Fat Duck is a team effort, with each decision carefully considered. ‘The Fat Duck isn’t the kind of place where things can change overnight,’ says Jonny. ‘The menu is a collaborative effort between everyone in the senior team.’ This doesn’t mean changes come few and far between, however: ‘When I started here there was a lunch menu, tasting menus and an à la carte… now there’s just a single tasting menu, which means we can make the dishes much more complex. It can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to create a new dish, but what’s even harder is finding a place for it on the menu and choosing what to take off.’

It’s this side of the business that Jonny is more involved in than anything else. His core team is experienced enough to run a service without him, and Heston needs him to act as a sort of conduit between them and the development kitchen. ‘I love being in the restaurant and working with everyone, so they still let me get me hand in there – I probably do four or five services a week out of ten. Overall though, I spend more time planning menus and developing new dishes.’

Jonny joined The Fat Duck as a chef de partie in 2005, and by 2009 he was head chef
Many members of his team have been there for at least five years, making them some of the most experienced chefs in the country

The Fat Duck 2.0

In March 2015, The Fat Duck made headlines when Heston announced he was moving the restaurant to Melbourne, Australia for six months – sacrificing three Michelin stars in the process – before reopening in the UK again in September. While this helped to increase the Group’s international reach (the Melbourne site is now the permanent home for a second branch of Heston’s historical restaurant Dinner), it also gave Jonny and his team a unique opportunity to throw out the old menu and create an entirely new one from scratch.

‘Moving to Melbourne was the first time we ever had to just stop and take a look at everything we were doing,’ he explains. ‘Completely redesigning everything is a huge undertaking – especially when there aren’t really any rules, constraints or boundaries – so it took us a while to get going. A lot of it came together quite late and very quickly, and then we started to look at how we could piece in all the other things we wanted. For example, we knew we wanted to control light intensity and colour over each dining table, so we installed these special lights before we even knew how we were going to use them.’

The refresh paid off – the restaurant regained its three Michelin stars in 2016, and the menu (based around Heston’s childhood holidays with an Alice in Wonderland slant) proved a huge hit. Rather than just a procession of dishes, Heston and Jonny wanted to tell a story with the tasting menu, which meant taking a step back and looking at the experience as a whole as well as evaluating each dish.

‘The most interesting aspect of the current menu for me is that there are set times of day throughout it,’ he explains. ‘When you remember a two-week holiday from your childhood it sort of merges into one big day, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. For example, there’s a point in the menu where you go out for a three-course meal in the evening – so you’re out for dinner at The Fat Duck while you’re at The Fat Duck. The three courses we serve at that point change quite a lot – we tend to recreate dishes from older menus, which gives the team the chance to do their own research into The Fat Duck’s history, and that keeps things fresh and allows us to tinker with and improve recipes.’

We knew we wanted to control light intensity and colour over each dining table, so we installed these special lights before we even knew how we were going to use them.

Jonny Lake

The menu was completely overhauled in September 2015, but some dishes remained, including the savoury ice lollies and infamous Sounds of the Sea
Dishes might appear the same to diners, but they are reviewed and changed over and over behind the scenes

Improving dishes is a constant at The Fat Duck Group – something seen at every single one of the restaurants. This is why so much time and money has been invested into an internal recipe database; a sort of Fat Duck Wikipedia. This gives all the head chefs easy access to everything, from how the mash is made at The Crown or the right ratio of sausagemeat to egg for The Hind’s Head’s Scotch eggs to the variety of tomatoes used for the pizza sauce at The Perfectionists’ Café.

‘Consistency is really important but so is evolution – that’s the approach across The Fat Duck Group,’ says Jonny. ‘To diners it might look like the menu rarely changes, but dishes might have changed five or six times since their conception. If you’ve eaten here at any point since 2007 then you would’ve had Sounds of the Sea [a seafood dish served with headphones so diners can listen to waves crashing as they eat], but it is now completely different to what it was. The concept is still the same, with headphones to listen to as you eat it, but in terms of development we’ve been changing everything from the ingredients to the soundtrack. The dish used to be right in the middle of the menu and now it arrives earlier, so we’ve had to tone it down a bit and make the flavours subtler. On the old menu the dish before Sounds of the Sea was quite heavy, so it needed this stronger umami hit to make it work. Now the dishes preceding it are lighter and fresher, so instead of strong umami there are more pickled and fresh flavours from the seaweed.’

Development ranges from the micro (changing particular ingredients on a single dish) to the macro (how the experience of the tasting menu as a whole can be improved)
The next chapter for The Fat Duck is all about personalisation and bespoke menus for individual diners

Improve, personalise, review

While the menu overhaul at the end of 2015 helped Jonny and his team introduce a whole new Fat Duck experience, their work was far from over. As well as playing around with how existing courses are cooked or introducing new interpretations of retired dishes, there’s also a need to improve and evolve the menu as a whole – with some seriously exciting changes in the making.

‘At the moment we’re looking to improve the breakfast chapter of the menu,’ says Jonny. ‘Currently we serve a version of this dish we’ve had for a long time which is like a tea that’s cold on one side and hot on the other – it really catches people off guard. What we’re doing now is fine, but we want the breakfast chapter to make more sense to more people. If you’re of a certain age and British then tea is always going to be associated with breakfast, but for a lot of people coffee is more suitable. We want to be able to ask which they’d prefer, then if they take milk, and then present them with the final hot and cold drink. We know how to do it in terms of technique, but it’s getting the flavour right that takes more work.’

This personalised approach to dining – tailoring a dish to a guest’s own preferences – is the direction The Fat Duck is heading. While the past twelve months have given the team time to settle into the new menu and work out any remaining kinks, Heston’s vision for entirely personalised menus is something both he and Jonny are incredibly excited about. But it’s a long, time-consuming process; because no one has done anything like it before, there’s very little information out there for the duo to delve into. ‘We can’t find the answers we want in books – even the lights we had installed are a prototype that took someone months to build,’ says Jonny. ‘A lot of what we do has to be created for the first time.’ So while there might be some hiccups, wrong turns and mistakes along the way, Heston, Jonny, Ashley Palmer-Watts and everyone else involved with The Fat Duck Group can rest assured that they’ll be making culinary history. And after all the work that’s gone into headphone-assisted fish courses, hot and cold teas and future-proofed lighting systems, that must feel pretty good.

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