First you see the food – but behind the food, and inseparable from it in the public eye – is the man and his unusual cooking methods.
Richard Aldhous meets Heston Blumenthal (whose Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, has retained its 10 out of 10 rating in the Good Food Guide 2012, in continued recognition that 'eating here is the experience of a lifetime'), and discovers him keen to shoot down all those misconceptions…
There’s something stirring in Heston’s kitchen... condensation forms inside test tubes, bubbling concoctions pour over the sides of cylinders, and pungent smoke rises away through air vents.
It’s no secret; the 44-year-old is a sorcerer of the food science lab, a culinary magician whose wand has been waved over thousands of plates in the last decade. But beneath the dry ice machines, bacon-and-egg flavoured ice cream and seemingly faultless deliveries of flavour and finesse, there’s an earthy and very modest chef trying to be heard.
“I’ve had a number of names given to me over the years – some complementary, others less so – because I think people feel they need to label me as something,” he tells me.
“At first I was a mad scientist,” he laughs. “Then, when they realised I didn’t have fuzzy hair, and that I rarely heated my house using just Bunsen burners, I was ‘the chef with the shock factor’. But at the end of the day I’m just someone with an absolute passion for food.”
It’s a passion that, some years ago, very nearly got the better of him, given that he was within a few days of defaulting on his staff’s wages after taking on The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire. But the timely offer of a £160,000 book deal saved the experiment, so to speak, and the net worth of this hard-working chef has escalated since, with three Michelin stars, an assortment of restaurants, plus numerous publishing and television deals.
Yet for someone whose food begins its life in the lab, the inspiration comes very much from nature’s stable.
“Very soon after opening, it was obvious to me The Fat Duck wasn’t going to draw people in with rich mountainside views, the smell of lavender or the rich sounds of crickets in the bushes and gravel driveways – all of the things that I remember from my trip to the L’Oustau de Baumanière restaurant in Provence when I was 15,” he explains.
That mindscape – the idea of the countryside on a plate – was what got him in to cooking in the first place. “Bray’s a beautiful place,” he says, “but it doesn’t offer those surrounds, so I decided the food would be the thing that appealed to the senses”.
Heston is very open to fresh sources of stimulation. He gains most of his inspiration from “simply travelling around” and spending time with creative people, “and preferably those who aren’t chefs. It could be a sound engineer, a magician or a perfumer… learning about other professions gives me ideas.”
He tells some wacky anecdotes about the development of his food, too. “The inspiration for my ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish, for example, stems from the fact that I once experimented with Charles Spencer at Oxford University on listening to the sea while tasting an oyster. We found that it tasted stronger and saltier with the sound, so the sound became central to the dish itself.”
Heston’s world is one where dining isn’t solely about taste. Instead, it’s about embracing all the senses, inviting in the magic of food’s theatre. “The Fat Duck has succeeded without being a grand venue itself. It doesn’t have grounds, a lake at the front or a view of the ocean. It’s a little old cottage on the side of the road, and it works because of what goes on inside.”
But Heston isn’t one to rest on his laurels. This summer he has announced a first tentative step into the event catering world, with proposed projects at venues as grand as the Royal Albert Hall and the Saatchi Gallery.
And while the chef courted publicity in his unforgiving appraisal of large national chains such as Little Chef in the 2011 Channel 4 series Heston’s Mission Impossible, his profile has been bolstered somewhat after signing a food deal with Waitrose alongside his long-time cooking heroine, Delia Smith. How can such a modern and unconventional chef remain inspired by the ‘Laura Ashley’ of the kitchen?
“Delia is something of a legend in my eyes. I remember a series she did years ago where a large proportion of one episode was dedicated to showing people how to simmer water properly. Boiling water is simple, but simmering to produce a good poached egg, for example, is a skilled and precise task. I love that kind of attention to detail. She has done so much throughout the years to encourage people to sample new ingredients and that, for me, is the essence of what food is all about.”
Heston and Delia have spent “some good time together” as a result of their Waitrose work, which he describes as a real pleasure, adding, “I agreed a six-year contract with the supermarket last year, with 40 products available to date and another 40 to come by the autumn, so it’s a really exciting time.”
Given his schedule, it’s a wonder the 45-year-old has time to unwind. The fact he chooses 6.30am every morning for his downtime maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the non-conformity that flavours his work.
“I exercise a lot outside of the kitchen and enjoy going to the gym and playing racquetball. I try to play racquetball every morning, first thing. It’s a good start to the day, and with 600 dishes currently in development, I find it’s a decent way of keeping the calories off…”