Friday, October 16, 2009

Inside the gastronomer’s lab with Heston Blumenthal

On first glance, Heston Blumenthal’s development kitchen – the place where the really weird and wonderful stuff happens – is a disappointment. What was I expecting? Pixies spinning edible gold leaf, and bubbling cauldrons roiling with smoke. An Oompa-Loompa or two, perhaps. But it looks like a normal science lab. You have to look a little harder to find the magic. What are those Petri dishes neatly arranged on that shelf for? Blumenthal brings out a tin of toffees. ‘Try one,’ he says. I start to unwrap it. ‘No, like this,’ he says and pops the whole thing in his mouth, wrapper and all. I do the same and the wrapper – which I had assumed was plastic – melts in my mouth. I laugh out loud because it feels so surprising. Blumenthal grins and nods. ‘We make the individual wrappers in those Petri dishes,’ he says. I scan the bookshelves and there, nestled between recipe books and science books, is a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

Snail porridge for the adventurous

Dominic Davies

The quaint, old-fashioned Berkshire village of Bray is an unlikely breeding ground for some of the most exciting, modern and, frankly quite bonkers food in the world, but then Blumenthal is nothing if not about contrasts. He mixes unusual flavours, textures, even temperatures. It is why when you slurp down his hot and iced tea – half of which is warm, half cold but with no physical barrier between the two in the glass – you marvel at the magic of it. Or why, on the surface, Blumenthal is a solid man of 42 running a business, but underneath that stocky build and shaved head, he’s a kid in a sweetshop.

Blumenthal’s food has often been called ‘molecular gastronomy’, because of his obsessive interest in science and how it can be applied in the kitchen, but he doesn’t like that description. ‘It’s just cooking, just an evolution,’ he says. People talk about his wackier recipes, such as his famed bacon-and-egg ice cream, but Blumenthal is just as keen to use his scientific knowledge to perfect a cut of meat (vacuum-pack it, then cook it for 72 hours in a warm-water bath). ‘Ultimately, all the technology and tricks aren’t the important factor. What it comes down to is: does it taste good?’

It does, of course. His restaurant, the Fat Duck, has three Michelin stars and has been voted the best restaurant in the world, but Heston Blumenthal is not just a cook. He’s an illusionist, a scientist, a comedian. He’s Willy Wonka, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland all rolled into one. Where you or I see a seashell or a strap of leather, Blumenthal sees a sign saying, ‘Eat me.’ Once, he tried to make an essence by distilling bits of rope to go with a fish dish, to conjure up images of old fishing boats. ‘It tasted too rubbery,’ he says. ‘We should have used rope that had been in the sea for years, with barnacles attached, all oily.’ He is like a child, he says, ‘always putting things in my mouth’.

His boyish enthusiasm and energy (he only sleeps for four hours a night, he says) is catching. ‘Do you know the difference between taste and flavour?’ he asks. Er, no. Taste, he says, is a sense – from the thousands of tastebuds on your tongue and can only distinguish sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). It is smell (and also sight, touch and to an extent, sound) that really affects the flavour of our food. I’m starting to get what Blumenthal is on about: food shouldn’t simply taste good, it should have flavour.

He pours a caramel and cream concoction into the bowl of a mixer and asks me to spoon in some dry ice (solid carbon dioxide). Thrillingly, a huge cloud of vapour billows out from the bowl and the mix immediately starts to harden. I add more and within seconds, we have ice cream. We dig in. It tastes like ice cream only more… fizzy? Is it slightly fizzy? ‘Yes, funny, isn’t it?’ says Blumenthal (dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide, the stuff they use to make drinks fizzy). It is funny; we laugh. It is also delicious.
He has been trying to perfect a cake that spouts a foamy, bubbly custard lava from its peak like a volcano, but it isn’t working. How long does he spend on an idea before he gives up? ‘I’m getting better,’ says Blumenthal. ‘I spent two years trying to make savoury candy floss before I gave up. But I don’t like to believe anything is impossible.’

Blumenthal, I think, comes up with more ideas than he knows what to do with and even though his cooking and methods are most definitely 21st century, he has developed a fascination for centuries-old recipes, working with historians – a Trojan Hog, for instance, which was a Roman favourite. ‘They would stuff a whole pig, bring it to the table, cut the belly and all these sausages would fall out, looking like entrails.’ He wants to make an edible garden that sits on the table – ‘so instead of soil, we’ll have black truffles and olives, and vegetables sticking out of it, which you pull out and eat’ – and an edible tablecloth, with ‘candles’ that melt and can be scooped up and eaten.

He is working on a soup that changes flavour (pure Willy Wonka, that) and a dish, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, with a dissolving fob watch. ‘In the book, the Mad Hatter dips his watch in a cup of tea. So we made this langoustine stock, freeze-dried it in the shape of a watch and covered it in silver and gold leaf. So at the table, you pour your tea, dunk the watch and it dissolves into this consommé flecked with silver and gold.’

It was a summer night in 1982 when, at the age of 16, Blumenthal discovered his passion. On a holiday in France, the Blumenthals went to a Provençal restaurant and he can remember every detail: the crunch of gravel, the shade of the setting sun, the other diners on the terrace, the scent of lavender in the air and how it added an extra layer to the meat, the sparkle of the glasses and heavy, neatly folded napkins, the bow-tied waiters and the handlebar moustache of the sommelier. The teenage Heston devoured it all.

‘I realised that with the Fat Duck, I wanted to re-create that excitement,’ he says. ‘But I don’t have a cliff and an olive grove or a waterfall in the background, and the smell of lavender and the noise of the gravel. I think, being in this small building, by the side of the road, without those views, forced me down another path. So the whole multisensory thing – the sights and the smells and the sounds – I put into the food.’

Back at home, Blumenthal started working his way through the cookbooks of some of the great French names, carefully picking apart each sentence, like filleting a fish, with a French-English dictionary. ‘It got completely under my skin. It was in me, that was it.’ The obsession with chemistry came after he discovered a book called On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, a food scientist. ‘I found it fascinating. It wasn’t about teaching myself chemistry, it was about wanting to understand why I was having a problem in the kitchen.’

In 1995, Blumenthal, who had been working as a debt collector and whose cookery skills were completely self-taught, opened the Fat Duck in a tiny 450-year-old pub in Bray. It was a brave move – he had to sell his house to fund the business. He and his wife Zanna moved in with his parents; their son was two and they had a newborn daughter (they now have a second daughter). ‘My wife had gone from having a husband and father at home, doing a nine-to-five job, to not being there at all. We closed on Mondays and I just slept all day. For the first five to seven years, she was almost a single parent. Zanna is the biggest reason for the success of the restaurant – she has been the one doing the sacrificing in order to support what I wanted to do.’

These days, he still works in the Fat Duck kitchen, but slightly less manically. I imagine his kitchen at home has blowtorches and flasks of liquid nitrogen, but no. ‘We always have Sunday lunch,’ he says. ‘We do barbecues. I bought a big stewpot and I love getting the coals on the barbecue and doing a one-pot meal – it could be rabbit, it could be a braised potato and fennel thing with mullet on the barbecue, I could bung in some prawns or langoustines.’

Nitro-poached green-tea-and-lime mousse

Dominic Davies

In 1999, Blumenthal won his first Michelin star, but he describes those first four years as hell. ‘I was experiencing levels of delirium that I never thought I would get through,’ he says. ‘I remember once trying to light the blowtorch from the hot tap. Somehow my thought process had gone far enough to think that I couldn’t light it from the cold tap, it had to be the hot tap. I made ice cream at 3am and was braising oxtail at 4am. I remember once falling asleep on my feet while trying to portion some salmon. I was working 120 hours a week. I didn’t miss one service for six years – I couldn’t leave the kitchen.’

Did he ever think about giving up? ‘No. All I kept thinking was: if I fail and I believe I could have worked a bit harder, I would never have forgiven myself.’ By 2004, the restaurant had won two Michelin stars and top marks in the food guides, but the Fat Duck was on the verge of going under because, while the weekends were busy, the restaurant was empty during the week. ‘Our house was heavily mortgaged, we’d borrowed up to the hilt. There was the wine cellar, but when you start selling your wine to get out of debt, that’s a very bad sign,’ he says. ‘The only reason it was like that was because it was me doing what I wanted to do. I could have run the Fat Duck as a one-Michelin-star restaurant, had a smaller team, simpler food, but the reason we were on a financial tightrope was my self-indulgence.’

Breakfast reinvented as dessert: nitro-scrambled egg-and-bacon ice cream

Dominic Davies

But that drive and obsession is what makes Blumenthal special. Was it worth it? He pauses. ‘Yes, definitely, but I would never want to go through that again.’ Since the Fat Duck picked up its third Michelin star that year, business has never been better (he bought the local pub, the Hinds Head, a few doors down, where they serve more traditional food). How does he feel when people call him a pioneer? ‘I suppose you can only call yourself a pioneer when you come through the other end. If you don’t, if we had gone under, people would just have thought I was an idiot.’ He laughs. ‘It’s a very fine line.’

Lollies created with the funfair in mind

Dominic Davies

It is 9pm in the Fat Duck and I watch the amusement on diners’ faces as they are served Blumenthal’s sound of the sea dish – a plate made to look like a beach scene with edible ‘sand’, seafood and a foam lapping the edge like the ocean, which is served up with an iPod in a conch shell to play sounds of breaking waves and seagulls. Blumenthal isn’t cooking here tonight (he is filming for a TV show), but his head chef Ashley is more than capable of choreographing his cast of chefs.

I am hovering in the kitchen, hoping some treats might come my way. One of the waiters asks if I’d like to try the famous Fat Duck green-tea-and-lime mousse. He squirts a shaving-foam-like ball of mousse onto a spoon and drops it into a flask of liquid nitrogen, a swirling mist escaping over the top. Seconds later, he scoops the little meringued ball out, dusts it with bright green powder and says I have to eat it in one go. There is an intense explosion of lime then – puff! – it has gone. Magic.

Heston Blumenthal’s The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (£100, Bloomsbury) is out on 21 October. Win a meal for two at the Fat Duck by voting in our Global Gourmet Awards ( Felicity Dahl, widow of Roald Dahl, has called Heston Blumenthal the real Willy Wonka. This month Heston meets Felicity to discuss her late husband’s influence on the chef on the High Life channel, showing on selected flights. Visit

‘A little place I know’
Heston’s hot spots

Asador Etxebarri
‘This restaurant is set against the backdrop of the Basque mountains and is fantastic. The chef, Victor Arginzoniz, makes his own charcoal and he’s got these racks above the coals, with a pulley system, as sometimes he’ll want the flames to lick the meat. I’ve had the most amazing gambas there. You have this prawn on a plate – you bite into it and the world stops.’ Plaza San Juan 1, Axpe-Marzana, Atxondo, Spain (

Tsukiji Fish Market
‘It’s the largest fish market in the world and here you’ll find the freshest sushi at the restaurants. Go to a tuna auction at 4.30am (you will probably need a guide to gain you access), then go to Daiwa sushi restaurant for breakfast. It’s always really crowded, with a long line of people outside.’ 5-2-1, Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Jack O’Shea butchers
‘Jack helped me make my “perfect burger” for my TV show In Search of Perfection. He has been supplying my restaurant for a couple of years and the quality of his meat is outstanding.’ 11 Montpelier Street, London SW7 (

Domaine de Blancardy
‘This is a family-run farm where they rear their own ducks, goats and other livestock. They also make wine and have set up a small restaurant. It’s a lovely area of France in the Languedoc region, quite underdeveloped with a rustic charm.’ Moules et Baucels, 34190 Ganges (

Pierre Hermé
‘His chocolates, cakes and macaroons are just brilliant. The packaging is great – it’s like going into a jeweller’s shop. I love the white chocolate and hazelnut macaroons, passion fruit and chocolate, salted butter caramel, rose and raspberry…’ 72 rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris (

Katz’s Deli
‘It’s been there for years. It’s big, it’s packed. And their salt beef sandwiches are legendary.’ 205 East Houston Street, New York (

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