Words Jo Bates
Published Winter 12
Anyone doing something that has individuality will have their critics,” says Heston Blumenthal, flatly. After 17 years in the spotlight, Heston has his fans and a few detractors.
His trail-blazing trajectory of success includes four Michelin stars (three at Fat Duck, one at Dinner) by the age of 44, a catalogue of accolades including an honorary doctorate of science and an OBE, plus numerous television series, books, food products and countless headline appearances at industry events.
It may not be a dissimilar path to other celebrity chefs in the top echelon, but there’s something different about Heston. He’s a scientist-investigator-magician-chef with razor intellect, who also happens to be a natural entertainer. And he’s self-taught. Perhaps that’s what niggles the doubters, and perhaps that’s where Heston went right from the beginning. Instead of learning what others were learning in order to don the white chef’s jacket, he opened his mind, explored, experimented and challenged conventional thinking to get to the very essence of food and flavour.
With a sense for humour that delights in the absurd, he makes for compelling star quality. And while he may not sing and dance – yet – that hasn’t stopped him from taking his show on the road with a series of ‘one night only’ events in Australia this May.
Before opening the Fat Duck in Bray, near London, in 1995 – the restaurant that made his name – Heston immersed himself in understanding the science of cooking, supporting himself as a salesman and debt collector along the way. His boundlessly inquisitive nature and child-like enthusiasm hasn’t relented.
“The Fat Duck has been an opportunity for me to behave like a big child,” says Heston. “In the last few years, television has given me great opportunities for experimenting.”
A feast of fantastic TV
It’s true, he broke ground with the TV series Heston’s Feasts and its fantastical themes that saw him recreating famous period dishes; the kind of food that was inconceivable in his restaurant. The Willy Wonka-esque episode is probably the most referenced, in which he had his famous guests licking their entree off the wall. And the Medieval Feast was a riot of guests squealing in delight and horror as pigeons flew from a 120-kilogram pie inspired by the nursery rhyme ‘four-and-20-blackbirds’. In the same episode, Germaine Greer devoured bulls balls disguised as plums as he quipped:
“I might just be the first chef to put a testicle in Germaine Greer’s mouth.”
The feasts were theatre, comedy and with clever kitchen wizardry, a twisted kaleidoscope view back to the future. The series made for thrilling viewing and the follow-up book captured his devilish humour; probably necessary alongside the bombastic recipes.
Television has certainly given a wider audience a taste of Heston’s food-as-art. Tables at the Fat Duck are in such demand that some cheekily call it ‘Fat Chance’. Thousands of diners call daily in the hope of securing a table at the restaurant that boasts more chefs than its 42 seats. His pub, the Hinds Head, which serves classic British food, is nearby, but it’s the Duck (as he calls it) and his new restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which opened in Knightsbridge last year, that showcase his food philosophy. Dishes at the new ‘modern brasserie’ are based on historical British recipes and within just months of it opening, Dinner had a Michelin star.
Each dish on the menu appears with its period of inspiration: Hay Smoked Mackerel (1730), Powdered Duck (1670) and Tipsy Cake (1810). In their countless hours of research, Heston and his executive chef Ashley Palmer-Watts worked with scientists, food historians and the British Library to study cooking techniques that date back to the 14th century.
The quest for understanding, even the minutiae of research, is all part of the fun. Heston recalls with morbid delight a book that described how to ‘roast’ a chicken.
“You pluck it alive, then brush it with wheatgerm and dripping to make it look like it’s roasted. You put it under your arm and rock it to sleep, then place it on a dish with two cooked chickens and serve it. You carve the roasted chickens and by this time the plucked chicken comes alive and runs down the table,” he says, laughing at the audacity and absurdity of the poultry fiasco disturbing everything from goblets to guests. And animal rights activists, too, had they existed. “There was no TV or radio back then, so I guess it was a form of entertainment,” he surmises.
He cites another recipe that puts sulphur and mercury down a chicken’s neck, so that when it cooked the chemicals made the chicken ‘cluck’.
“There was no evidence to show that anyone ever cooked this, but it got me interested – creativity is not a modern thing; food was more theatrical back then.”
Although the food at Dinner is based on historical ideas, modernist techniques typical to the Duck are used to achieve their creation. “For me the best form of evolution is when you respect tradition and history but use modern techniques to drive it forward,” says Heston.
“Modern cooking today is an evolution of 70s nouvelle cuisine – lots of people believed nouvelle cuisine was small food on big plates, but it represents a massive change from what food was. Any new style can be interpreted in the wrong way. It’s not revolution but evolution.”
It’s his obsessive curiosity in understanding and evolving food that leads Heston to his off-the-wall creations. And it gains him plenty of attention.
As an April Fool’s Day prank, the British tabloid The Sun ran the ‘world exclusive’ that Heston had created the first lick-able newspaper. “Someone saw three people on the train that morning licking the newspaper,” he laughs. “It even made me want to lick the paper, although it said it may contain traces of nuts.”
Frivolity aside, cutting-edge thinking also allows Heston to collaborate with other top names in food and science. And he’s the first to acknowledge them. He cites Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, as a turning point.
“Harold’s book changed everything for me. It was 1985 and I was 18 and cooking for myself and experimenting. Harold made the point that browning meat doesn’t seal its juices and it went against all that we knew. He explained why and it made perfect sense to me.
“At this point I started to think if that’s not true, what else is not true about what we know and what I had been studying of classical French food. The foundation of food is critical for me.”
Rest assured, it’s not just your taste buds that Heston wants to engage, it’s your intellect and senses in their entirety, too. He’ll take the lot and show no mercy to your doubting mind.
“We get pleasure in the brain from food,” he says. “The cooking that excited me originally was about exciting the senses. It’s just my style and I don’t really need to make any apologies for that.”
The molecular myth
Despite his name becoming inextricably linked with molecular gastronomy, it’s a term that makes no sense to Heston Blumenthal.
“It was created to use at a centre in Sicily (at the Erice workshop) and it has been misused,” he says. “When we cook, physical reactions happen – a soufflé rises for a reason; it’s the science of cooking.”
There’s a tendency for experimental cookery to be branded, but Heston believes the techniques are as relevant to a baker or barista as they are to a chef.
“Embrace technology for a better result – why shouldn’t it be applied in the kitchen; it’s the same with cooking as it should be for computers and phones.”
While the molecular myth continues to perpetuate, Heston believes the discussion, ‘when is a chemical not a chemical’ is an important one to have. Shown the chemical make-up of water, most people wouldn’t swallow it.
“It’s a grey area,” he says. “So is it okay to have sodium chloride, or sugar, which is a refined product? MSG is a salt and, like salt, it is refined. In terms of medical research, salt is bad for us but MSG is not, but its name gives it a bad name.
“Even flavour molecules like benzaldehyde don’t sound like something we should eat, but it exists naturally in almonds. Vanilla bean has no flavour until it is processed, but you can create vanillin from wood. We need to have more understanding about what we eat; there needs to be more awareness about it.
“With any chef embracing modern technology, it doesn’t matter what that technology is, ultimately the food has to give pleasure. Sometimes it’s about creating surprise and there will always be a level of subjectivity.”