I first met Heston Blumenthal, chef patron of The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, two years ago at the official re-opening of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, where he made his signature ice cream with liquid nitrogen in front of the Queen and 400 other guests.
I asked him if he would ever consider opening another restaurant in London, to which he replied that he would, but it wouldn’t be another Duck (as he refers to it) and that there could only ever be one Duck in the world. As it turns out, he had already been approached by The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group to open a Fat Duck in Tokyo a couple of years earlier.
“It was the first time any offer like that had happened and it was great for the old ego,” he says. “I had a whistle-stop tour to Tokyo, which I absolutely loved and got so excited with the whole thing.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I’m going to have to lose some really important, key staff to go and set it up and I didn’t feel the team was strong enough at the time. And then I started thinking, I don’t think there should ever be another Duck and I still say the same thing – although there’s always the danger of never saying never.”
So after sitting down with David Nicholls (group director of food and beverage at the Mandarin Oriental) and looking at other options, Heston agreed to do a simpler version of The Fat Duck – one of four restaurants in the UK to hold three Michelin stars. Called Dinner, the restaurant will open next month at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, with group executive chef of The Fat Duck Ashley Palmer-Watts at the helm.
“Basically, Dinner is a smart brasserie – quite refined, but it’s absolutely not the Duck,” says Heston, whose trademark dishes at The Fat Duck include egg and bacon ice cream and snail porridge.
The concept of Dinner is somewhere between The Fat Duck and Heston’s gastropub The Hinds Head, also in Bray. The menu will focus on reviving and modernising traditional British recipes. “We have a culinary heritage here, which most people never knew existed, including me until I started looking,” says Heston.
“I bought a transcript of a recipe book by Taillevent who was the chef to the Palais Royale in Paris in about 1300. I came across this chicken recipe where you pluck this chicken while it’s alive and baste its skin with wheat germ, dripping and saffron, put the head under its stomach and rock it to sleep. You then put it on a serving platter with two roasted chickens and it looks like it has been roasted – and I’m like, God, I can’t believe this.
“You then bring it to the table and start carving one of the roasted chickens and somewhere through the carving process, the chicken that looks like it has been roasted and rocked to sleep wakes up and runs down the table. They then kill the poor thing, stuff its neck with mercury and sulpher, roast it and then as that expands you bring it out of the oven and apparently it makes a clucking noise – so you bring it back to life again.”
You’ll probably be pleased to know that this particular dish doesn’t feature on the menu at Dinner, but for Heston, there’s a lot more to food than the taste of what goes into your mouth. He believes cooking and eating should be about fun and pleasure, so any place overseen by him is going to have that element of theatre, surprise and interaction with the diner. One of those elements will be ice cream made on a trolley in front of the customer using liquid nitrogen – a method first advocated in the late 19th century by one of Heston’s culinary heroes, Mrs Agnes B Marshall, after she’d seen it demonstrated at the Royal Institution. She was also the first person recorded as putting ice cream into cones.
Another unusual dish, created after a conversation with historians at Hampton Court Palace, is “meat fruit”. A Tudor recipe, originally made with an apple, Heston has used a mandarin instead. “Basically it’s chicken liver parfait but with mandarin skin, with a mandarin leaf – it looks beautiful and we’re going to serve that as a starter,” he says. “So it’s not replicating historic recipes – it’s inspired by them.
“But not every dish will be like that because there are a lot of people who go out to eat, particularly in London, who aren’t going for the food. So it’s trying to get a balance between having a few of the theatrical and unusual ones, but also ones that are just nice to eat. So there might be a rib of beef done in a wood oven with triple cooked chips and mushroom ketchup, which is an old 18th century recipe.”
Heston believes, however, that people are much more receptive to new ideas now than they were 10 years ago. “There is a massive difference,” he says. “There’s a hunger in this country and people are up for trying new things. When I first put crab ice cream on the menu with a crab risotto in 1997, it was fascinating – you’d say, taste this crab ice cream and the barriers went up, then you’d say it’s frozen crab bisque and it wasn’t a problem. Now they wouldn’t bat an eyelid.”
Heston’s love affair with food started at the age of 16 when, in 1982, his family visited a famed three Michelin-starred restaurant in Provence in France called L’Oustau de Baumaniere.
“I’d never had anything like it before in my life,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with lobster or caviar – in Seventies’ Britain, food was pretty bad, so I was absolutely knocked for six by it and the setting was just completely magical. I felt I’d gone down this rabbit hole and was in wonderland. I’d never seen a sommelier with a handlebar moustache and a leather apron with this metal tasting cup. And I’d never seen a cheese trolley in my life before.
“But it was all the sensory stuff. I remember as much or more about the gravel crunching, the lavender smells, the noise of the crickets and the chink of the glasses.
“And I think because The Fat Duck doesn’t have what the Baumaniere had in terms of natural beauty, I tried to recreate that through my food, so my mountain and gravel and crickets are all to do with the dishes, hence the multi sensory stuff.”
Heston’s route to three-star chef (The Fat Duck achieved the fastest three stars in British Michelin history) has been unconventional to say the least. Apart from a 10-day trial at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Quat aux Saisons, he is completely self-taught, learning from books, visiting restaurants and wine estates in France, and experimenting on dishes. The one book that had the most impact and changed Heston’s way of thinking was On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, which taught him to question everything and to apply a scientific logic to his recipes, ingredients and techniques. “It rubbished one of the biblical French cooking laws,” he says. “Basically, there was a bit in the book that said browning meat doesn’t keep in the juices and when it explains why, you think, flipping hell, that’s so obvious. I wasn’t inquisitive before then and I started questioning everything. That’s what that book did to me – it made me inquisitive.”
Does he think he would have been so successful had he gone down the conventional route or would it have stifled his creativity? “I think possibly it would if I’d gone in to it earlier, between the age of 18 and 23,” he says. “Those are really formative years and there might be a point where you don’t question anything – you just do it. And I think questioning everything is absolutely what did it for me.
“Having said that, would I recommend other people to do that? No, I probably wouldn’t because it’s been flipping hard – it’s been a rollercoaster and we’ve been so close to going bust.
“I remember the days – about six years ago – when one week, we had made £500 profit, which was fantastic. I was upstairs in a little office with my accountant and he said, ‘Heston, you’ve done very well’. At the same time, there was a knock on the door – it was a bloke from a kitchen company going, ‘here’s the plug-in induction hob you asked for’. My accountant asked, ‘Heston, how much was that’? I said £595. He just looked at me and said, ‘you’ve just lost £95’.
“So I wouldn’t recommend it as a route. It’s a mixture of working myself stupid, have a good dose of luck here and there, having a great team around me, and a wife who has managed to put up with me, that it’s kind of worked.”
Still only 44, Heston has achieved three Michelin stars, helped to change the way people think about food, has published books, produced TV shows (his recent series Feast was one of Channel 4’s most successful series ever), and now opened a restaurant in London. So what on earth is next?
“I would say I need to do some work on reward mechanisms – I’m absolutely fascinated,” he says. “It was previously thought that reward mechanisms were all to do with people with drug addictions and stuff like that. But these reward mechanisms are really powerful in doing every day things and eating is one of them. For example, a pistachio taken out of the shell always tastes better than one that’s pre-shelled from a plastic packet. Cherries with stones in – anything where you do a little bit of work, you get a pay off for it. If you think of some of the memorable meals you’ve had – if you’ve had to drive to get somewhere – it always seems even better.
So Heston is working on one of his biggest projects yet – an animated website for The Fat Duck. A film will lead the viewer to the door of a magical sweet shop. As the door opens you’ll see a shopkeeper (in this case John Hurt) offering sweets – designed to whet the appetite for the meal to come. When guests arrive at the restaurant, they’ll be given a pink and white striped paper bag of the sweets they’ve chosen as they leave.
“At the end of the day”, says Heston, “pleasure and emotion from food only exists because of the brain. “It doesn’t exist because of the ingredients. The ingredients and the cooking techniques are catalysts and the eyes and the ears are catalysts, whereas the brain is what gives us pleasure.”