The Fat Duck: a multi-sensory journey

The Fat Duck: a multi-sensory journey

by Tom Shingler 22 February 2017

After being introduced to the idea behind a new way of personalised dining by Heston Blumenthal, Tom Shingler sits down at The Fat Duck to experience it first-hand.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

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

Once my interview with Heston was over, it became clear that to truly understand some of the things he was talking about I needed to experience them myself. Apart from getting the chance to eat at one of the world’s most influential restaurants (I was pretty giddy with excitement), I wanted to see how all this talk of personalisation and multi-sensory dining made its way from Heston’s ten-miles-a-minute mind to the dining tables in The Fat Duck.

Weeks before the meal, you’re asked to fill in a questionnaire about your favourite holiday, ice cream flavours and fruits; this is how the team start to collect the info needed to begin tailoring the menu to specific people. After a quick follow-up call full of slightly enigmatic questions (‘does your partner have a favourite chocolate bar?’ and ‘where was it you stayed on your holiday?’), the day soon approached. I don’t want to go into the details of every dish and write a play-by-play of the evening; it would take far too long and if you’re planning to go it’s much more fun not knowing what to expect. But in terms of multi-sensory, personalised dining, there’s plenty to talk about.

The building itself is pretty unassuming – you could quite easily drive through Bray unaware that you’d just passed by one of the best restaurants in the world – and if it wasn’t for the hologram that appears in a fireplace when you set foot in the entrance, The Fat Duck dining room could pass for any upmarket restaurant in the UK.

But then you start noticing the little things. Beautiful chairs emblazoned with Heston’s coat of arms on the back; small lights above each table that change with each course; the waiters carrying levitating pillows instead of plates (perhaps that one isn’t so subtle). The attention to detail is mind-boggling; the toilets, for example, are panelled with burnt charcoal, which naturally absorbs odours, and the hand soap was specially created by Miller & Harris to not interfere with diners’ olfactory senses. Even the toilet itself is one of those all-singing, all-dancing Japanese ones that lights up, opens automatically and God knows what else. Every single thing inside the restaurant has been thought about – the kitchen, recently refurbished to the tune of £2.5 million, ensures no sounds or smells upset the neighbours. There’s even a quaint, low-maintenance garden out the back to make the restaurant fit in with the houses along the street.

Damping through the boroughgroves
'Damping through the boroughgroves' is an edible woodland scene full of contrasting textures and flavours, with a billowing terrarium full of woodland-scented dry ice placed in the centre of the table
Counting sheep
'Counting sheep' is served on a levitating pillow with a furry, camomile-scented spoon, with lots of subtle, light flavours

The menu itself is like a journey through one of Heston’s childhood holidays – probably Cornwall – beginning with the day before the car ride down, moving on to breakfast, a visit to the seaside, dinner in a smart restaurant and then finishing with bedtime. The service is much more involved than at a normal restaurant, with waiting staff weaving a story together instead of just bringing plates to the table. Right from the off you’re asked to choose between one of four frozen cocktails, but the first real signs of personalisation come with ‘breakfast’.

Inside a variety pack of full English breakfast-flavoured cereal is a little wooden puzzle that every diner needs to complete so they can earn a coin for the sweet-shop-cum-doll’s-house at the end of the meal (stay with me here). Mine was embossed with the logo of my favourite football club (Stoke City FC if you’re interested) – something I’d briefly discussed on the phone with someone at The Fat Duck a few weeks ago. This happened again with a mini-cone of the crab ice cream (or frozen crab bisque) that inspired Heston all those years ago; it came accompanied with a little wooden sign from me and my partner’s favourite ice cream parlour, as well as a postcard from Funchal, where we’d spent our favourite holiday together.

There were other subtle additions to the menu – our gin and tonic aperitifs were served in the same balloon glasses we’d fallen in love with on our holiday, brought to the table with a wink from the waitress. Dessert came with a side order of giant white chocolate sea shells, after I mentioned my partner’s favourite chocolates were Guylian. They were all timed just right and made the meal all the more special. Certainly like nothing else I’d ever experienced in a restaurant.

The idea of multi-sensory dining was present throughout the night, from the lights changing colour for each course (those representing the seaside were served under a bright, sunshine-like glow) to the famous Sounds of the Sea, which for me was the standout dish of the evening. I expected a plate that tasted of incredible shellfish and perfectly cooked seaweed; while these were certainly present, it was the overall experience of being transported to the seaside, getting sea spray in your mouth and smelling the wet sand that really blew me away. Was this because of the waves I could hear crashing in my headphones, the sand underneath my glass plate, the lighting or the taste and smell of the dish? I think it must be a combination of them all.

It took a few days after leaving The Fat Duck until I could make sense of it all. The whirlwind of courses, each one perfectly segueing into the next, makes the whole meal feel like one big experience rather than a succession of dishes. Heston said he wanted diners to experience five emotions when they eat at The Fat Duck – adventure, playfulness, excitement, curiosity and happiness. He’ll be pleased to know every mouthful was chock-full of them all. If this is just the beginning of what he’s trying to do, I can’t wait to see how it evolves from here.

Whisky gums
Towards the end of the meal, a series of whisky wine gums are brought to the table, each one an expression of a particular region of Scotland