The Times, October 25, 2008
- Ginny Dougary
You don’t just eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, you have a whole sensory experience. Ginny Dougary drops by his laboratory to talk the science and psychology of food, families and uncontrollable fury
For those of us afflicted with vivid imaginations, it can be disturbing to hang out with Heston Blumenthal. Odd thoughts cross your mind such as what would it be like to be served a life-sized head of the chef-owner of the Fat Duck. First: you and your fellow diners would be invited to insert earphones connected to iPods which would play barnyard sounds of contented chickens clucking. A waiter would waft a distilled essence of something suitably earthy: fresh hay, say, laced with something borderline unpleasant to stimulate the senses. You would then be presented with a silver spoon and instructed to tap the patron’s bald pate which would crack open to reveal a rich brew of truffled brains, which you may or may not find delicious depending on how easily you could overcome your conditioned resistance to cannibalism.
This tasting menu special came to me on the back of a highly unusual voyage of discovery that managed to eclipse even the extremely high standards set by the usual Fat Duck experience.
The punishing brief was to spend a day with Heston, half of which would be devoted to eating the 17-odd (in both senses) courses on his legendary menu, accompanied by my elder son, Tom, who had previously picked the Fat Duck as the restaurant at which to celebrate his 18th birthday. The thinking behind this mission was that there is something about the chef’s experimental approach to food, with his test tubes and lab, that is particularly appealing to rather clever adolescent boys. Tom was clearly up for the challenge, with his pronouncement that “Heston is really safe” (ie, “cool”) and that he was “totally psyched” about the whole prospect.
The first person we see by the narrow road that curves through Bray is the man himself, in his white chef’s jacket, nursing a broken hand from a recent cricket injury. This, so his wife Zanna tells him, is someone’s message that her husband should be spending more time at home with his family. Not much chance of that, however, with a hefty book to promote (The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a compendium of his life’s work), a television series in production, a new menu to create for the Fat Duck, as well as an intriguing commission to transform the Little Chef motorway chain into an altogether different dining experience (also to be filmed for Channel 4). There is something fitting about this last project given Heston’s parents’ admirably – if true – left-field decision to name their son after a service station near Heathrow.
He is every bit as friendly and blokey as his television persona, with no immediate signs of the rather more complicated personality that emerges in our interview. We chat about Feast, the first of his Channel 4 commitments (he defected from the BBC earlier this year), which is proving to be quite time-consuming. The idea behind it is to recreate various dishes and experiences from different periods in history, and we will get a chance to sample some of these works-in-progress in his “laboratory”.
Tom is riveted by one that is recorded in the new book, which is spectacular, but not in a good way. This involves plucking the feathers of a chicken while it is still alive – not so dissimilar to a Brazilian perhaps – then somehow lulling it to sleep (presuming it has not already passed out in shock), whereupon it is placed on a giant platter surrounded by his fellow fowl who have already been roasted. The poor creature’s rude awakening apparently comes as the host starts carving, and the pièce de résistance – oh what japes – is to watch the bald, freaked-out chicken run amok down the table. Heston wishes the Channel 4 production team had never got wind of this particular blast from the past since they keep badgering him to stage a re-enactment. We agree that he should hold firm.
The lab is no longer in the garden shed behind the restaurant where Heston and his team conducted the experiments that led to the creation of his first astonishing taste-sensations: the nitro green tea and lime mousse in 2001, for instance. He bought a neighbouring pub, the Hinds Head, principally because it came with a house – formerly used for staff accommodation and now containing an overspill kitchen, various offices and the new laboratory. As it turns out, the pub has been a great hit, too, with its more conventional (and affordable) bangers and mash and steak and chips, allowing him the freedom to be ever more recondite in fine-tuning the menu of his flagship restaurant.
We meet the lab team and the head chef-technician, Kyle Connaughton, arms covered in tattoos, who is not given to small talk. On the main table there are bowls filled with chopped truffles and pomegranate seeds and a sort of home-made Rice Krispie concoction, as well as the aforementioned dishes for the TV series. Heston, who has two or three tasting sessions here a week, reappears and tells us about one of his many collaborations.
It is important here to stress, perhaps, that although his ability to cook has been internationally recognised (three Michelin stars for the Fat Duck, and voted best restaurant in the world), Heston is also an inventor, a pioneer, alchemist, teacher and explorer, as well as being fascinated by history and psychology, science and the arts. He may be something additional for which we have not yet created a word, since he is pushing all sorts of boundaries in his curiosity to see where this might lead. All of which could make him sound a bit annoying – particularly in England where we don’t like to be in awe of individual virtuosity – which is where his natural, unassuming manner comes in handy.
He is continuing his Odorama investigations, which have already gone down well, as I remember from our first visit, with his introduction of a sort of bosky woodland smell to accompany one of the starters of oak moss and truffle toast. Now he’s working with a guy to produce a blast of campfire smoke, a vanilla-scented cloud intended to summon the memory of an old-fashioned sweet shop, and the fresh hazelnut blissfulness of a newborn baby’s head. He produces a vial of the final one but, alas, it has curdled and (rather spookily) replicates that precise tang of regurgitated breast milk that I last smelt coming at regular intervals from someone standing not very far… happily, a veil of discretion descends.
We join the tasting team for Frog Blancmange, a Heston tweak of a Tudor recipe: a beautiful vast wooden bowl, with a giant water lily settled on a bright green resin, a puddle of some kind of white cream, the Rice-Krispied frog legs rising up like little spears, and a scattering of rosy pomegranate seeds. The maestro is not happy with the cream-cheesiness of the taste and says it needs more work.
Then Blackbirds in a Pie, which after six weeks on the job is declared to be perfect. The question is: will Channel 4 release four-and-twenty blackbirds (probably not) when the pie is cut. Next come a Roman dish of doormice (sausagemeat) that still leaves a lot to be desired, a Victorian edible garden (to be served with the smell of grass and the sound of a lawn mower), and an incredibly complicated business that combines Mock Turtle soup with the Mad Hatter’s tea party, involving templates of a fob-watch encasing an intense broth, wrapped in gold leaf, which dissolves in the teacup when boiling water is added, so that the heady black liquid is flecked with specks of gold, which is simply the accompaniment for another dish which… well, you get the general idea.
Our time in the lab is over and it’s off to the restaurant for lunch. I’m wondering how the menu, as well as the whole drama of the event, will stand up to a second tasting, particularly only a couple of years after the last visit. I loved it the first time round but had looked upon it as a once-in-a-lifetime treat – rather like a visit to another planet, say – and not just because it’s so expensive. What was striking then was that despite the number of courses, the portions were mercifully small so we left the restaurant feeling rejuvenated rather than torpidly overstuffed.
The food was as delicious as ever but I had to fight the urge to ask the waiters to skip the introductions, which were perhaps necessarily elaborate the first time but redundant on a second visit. We both loved the Sound of the Sea, the dish Heston says is his pride and joy. Conches are deposited on the table into which iPods are secreted and as you push the plugs into your ears, you hear the rhythmic crash of waves and the intermittent cry of a seagull. Before you even taste what’s on the plate, you are instantly transported into some childhood seaside resort of long-distant memory with your parents placing a shell to your ear. It’s the oddest, intense feeling suddenly to be driven into your own private, interior world while you are in a most public place. Heston recently tried this out in a dining room full of captains of industry and they were all reduced to being little boys.
There are other mind tricks, an integral part of the Heston experience, which is a lot to do with perception and breaking habitual ways of thinking. I seemed to remember not liking the salmon poached in licorice gel because I loathe licorice (although love fennel) – and the idea of the combination was pretty unappetising. This time round, at any rate, it was delectable but it could be that it was on the first occasion, too, only the unappealing concept is what lingers rather than the actual taste.
Four and a half hours later, we finally emerge from the Fat Duck, waddling after all the wine pairings and extra dishes Heston has had the kitchen serve us. (Tom declared the new puddings, in particular, to be “totally bad-ass”.) No time to digest, however, as it’s straight into the interview. Since Heston has worked with so many different scientists from Bristol University, Oxford, Nottingham and Reading – where he was awarded an honorary degree – I wonder whether he has any regrets about not going to university himself. He was a studious grammar-school boy, with six O levels, who devoted his Friday nights to homework but became “distracted” in the sixth form and left school with one A level in art.
Heston mentions his father, who studied architecture and did a furniture restoration course, but did not go to university or encourage his son in that direction. The difficulty is being forced to make a decision at too young an age, Heston says looking at Tom, and he thinks now that he would have liked to have studied psychology or history.
The distracted years – which Heston dismisses as being the usual “bloke stuff” – also coincided with his discovery of gastronomy when his parents took their sixteen-year-old son to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Provence. It was, as he writes in The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, “love at first sight. I fell in love with cooking and the idea of being a chef.” Most of his spare time back home was devoted to poring over the Guide Michelin and Gault Millau, “cross-referencing three stars against high marks out of twenty… with the focused intensity of a cipher-breaker”.
Another obsession was martial arts: karate until he was 16, then into full-contact kick-boxing to which he devoted 20 hours a week. This was when Heston first became aware that he had a problem controlling his anger, and that exercise helped: “There were a load of Wycombe hard nuts down there [in Buckinghamshire, where the family had moved from London], potentially quite dangerous people but I was the youngest person and the moment they saw I wanted to learn, they took me under their wing and it was a really great feeling of camaraderie.”
Before we move on to his anger, I ask him whether he has ever suffered from a lack of confidence. “I have had big confidence issues, really big,” he says. “Although I wouldn’t say I had a serious lack of confidence now, I would certainly say that fear of failure was always a bigger driving force than the will to succeed.”
It was becoming a parent himself that prompted Heston to look back on his own childhood to search for clues about his character flaws. Two years ago, a back operation forced him to abandon the restaurant for a time and recuperate at home. “My wife had bought a Christmas tree and I’m standing there doing the decorations and my son [Jack], who was 13 at the time, said, ‘This is great, Dad, it’s the first time you’ve been here to do this with us.’
“My initial reaction was, ‘Ahhhhhhh,’ and then I thought, ‘Hang on a second, what he’s really saying is, “You haven’t done this before,”’ which gave me a big lump in my throat. This goes back to the confidence issue. From that moment, I started thinking a lot more about my upbringing which on the surface was a great childhood. But it’s amazing how your actions – even when you think they’re fine – can be subconsciously damaging.”
So what was it, growing up, that dented his confidence? “What is interesting, you might disagree with me on this,” Heston addresses Tom, “is your parents will always be your parents. Even if you’re 50 [Heston is 42], you are still their son and you still seek recognition and support and approval and compliments from them. It’s the most powerful source of compliment you can get.
“I realised I had this thing a couple of years ago – got the three Michelin stars, got the honorary degree, got the OBE, got the best restaurant in the world, and the doctorate from Bristol, and the one from Reading, got entered into the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry, when the only other two people were Nobel prizewinners…” all of this said at a gallop as though he is a bit embarrassed about listing his laurels, “…and these things were amazing, absolutely amazing, and yet my old man could say something like, ‘They mentioned so-and-so in the papers and not you – why have they got a thing against you?’
“And I’m thinking, actually, all those amazing things that happened have just disappeared. You think it’s not going to affect you but it does, even though you know they’re saying it to be protec-tive… It’s things like that and the Christmas tree… And I had a really, really bad – ah – temper and I fought really, really hard to control it, and then there’s this thing that only happened two weeks ago…”
He proceeds to tell a story about a bloke outside his house – “and we live in a nice road in Marlow now”, he adds – who was screaming at his wife or girlfriend “really aggressively” and Zanna and the three children are out in the garden, running after the chickens and the screaming is getting worse – “He’s going really mad” – and his wife, he continues, said to the kids: “‘Oh my God, imagine being married to that!’ and Jack turned round and said, ‘You were.’ Zanna came into the kitchen and said, ‘You’ll never guess what Jack’s just said.’ And that was just out of the blue.”
It was Zanna who insisted that Heston do something about his temper before something truly dreadful happened: “It was just getting worse and worse and worse. It’s a long story but she probably stopped me being jailed twice – actually pulled me back – an incident with a shotgun… an incident with a bottle…
“It was awful but it’s easier to talk about now because I’ve absolutely dealt with it. But it went on for five or six years. What was dangerous was the aggression was going down and the more cold, calculated feeling was getting stronger. It was an uncontrollable feeling and when it starts to feel…” he pauses, “…good… when that feeling starts to feel really good, it’s not good news. What’s bizarre is there’s a difference between being aggressive and starting to feel good about anger and violence. Zanna read about cranial osteopathy and it just gave me the impetus, although it might have been psychosomatic, to do something about it.”
It all started when Heston was a teenager and someone provoked him at a bar, and then leading up to the restaurant, “It was a situation where I had bitten off more than I could chew and I wasn’t in control.” I ask him, with some trepidation, whether he’d ever wanted to kill anyone. “Ughhh… yessss,” he says. But you haven’t, have you? “No, no, no,” which is a relief.
He says that he was a “very aggressive fighter” – probably an intimidating one, I imagine, with his muscular bulk and all those martial arts skills – and also suffered from really bad road rage. As it happens, the previous night, Tom had shown me a clip on his computer of Heston talking about a car-ramming incident on Griff Rhys-Jones’s two-parter on anger, Losing It, but it was the chef who brought up the subject, not me.
When I ask him why he thinks he was so angry, he pauses and says: “I don’t know. I have asked a lot of questions [and seen a therapist and faith healer]. I’d like to do some work on it and I did work on it because I haven’t raised my voice for years but I still don’t know why.” He’s particularly proud that the kitchen – where there are 43 chefs to an average of 42 diners – is a far cry from the notoriously abusive hellholes of some of his confrères. “Now, there’s no shouting, no screaming and no tantrums.” One of the many waiters who served us did say, however, that genial as he found the boss, he certainly wouldn’t want be on the wrong side of him.
Tom takes over for a bit and the conversation shifts into the more arcane territory of synaesthetic responses… much chat about learned associations, the effects of a crunch versus sizzle on the palate, the way a sound can stimulate other senses, and so on. As a music student, my son is interested in whether Heston has thought about working with composers and, of course, Mr Collaboration is already planning an event with David Coulter, Damon Albarn’s music supervisor on the opera Monkey: Journey to the West.
Back on the domestic front, I wonder how Heston’s wife has handled this long journey from sharing her life with an obsessive self-taught foodie – after the briefest of stints, Blumenthal famously turned down the offer to be an apprentice at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (two Michelin stars) – to being married to a world-famous chef. He speaks of her in the warmest and most generous way – as well he might – saying that, “In the whole time since the restaurant opened and the build-up as well, she has literally never moaned about the time I’ve spent at work.”
For 15 years, Zanna has “reared”, as Heston first puts it before correcting himself, “brought up” their family more or less as a single parent. He attended his first parents’ evening at his children’s school during that back-break, and put up with being ribbed by the teachers when he attended his first carol service that same year. When I ask him whether he ever socialises, he says: “Errrrrr… probably a couple of times a year. Even my son says, ‘Dad, you’re sad – because all you do is work and don’t go out.’”
There was a time when his wife was lonely but Heston says that she’s well past that stage. There are consequences, of course, as he discovered when he spent time at home this year writing his book in the evenings. “It was like walking into somebody else’s family,” he says. “They had their own routine of homework, dinner, getting ready for school and, with the exception of my son, all of them love watching EastEnders. So I would stand and watch this whole routine which exists without me.” Did it make you feel unwanted? “At first it did, yeah.” Did you talk to your wife about it? “Not at first. I kept quiet about it and then I said, ‘Look…’” She’s not resentful of you? “Not at all. She’s always been really, really supportive.”
When the news came through about the third Michelin star, Heston was in Spain conducting a demonstration at a symposium. The Fat Duck was on the verge of financial disaster – something Heston had kept from his wife. That night, fairly typically, there were bookings for only two tables. “Another week and we would completely have run out of money,” he says. “I couldn’t even pay the wages. I remember calling her with the news, and her screaming, just screaming at the other end of the telephone, with joy.”
Heston flew back from Spain straight into Friday night service, and got home at about midnight. “I walked into the living room and Zanna had cut out the front page of The Times – Harold Shipman was in the margin…” a splutter of laughter, “…and that was in a frame with three balloons blown up and gold stars and cards, which made me shed a tear. My family were all asleep. I poured myself a glass of wine and just sat there, and there are very, very few times when I wake up and smell the roses and I don’t know if I said it at the time, but I thought, ‘It’s all been worth it.’”
Since then, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength and last year, for the first time, Heston ploughed money into his own family, buying “quite a big house”, rather than back into the business. I wonder if he’s anxious about the effect of the credit crunch on the Fat Duck. “It’s funny, well, actually not funny, that I’ve had years of real financial struggle – all because I was pursuing my own selfish wont to make the restaurant better and better and better – and for the last two years, touch wood, everything’s started to, you know…
“But people have had hunger issues for years and years, so what we’re talking about is the credit crunch affecting people who already have money, and hopefully we will continue through it. So here’s a restaurant that costs 130 quid for a menu but that’s the price because that’s what it costs to produce that food. A car manufacturer will still be selling their new cars for the price of a new car.”
What is clear, as he told his son, Jack, when he accused his father of being “sad”, is that in the past 14 years, he’s got into the car to drive home, exhausted, drained and stressed, maybe, “But I’ve only once got into the car in the morning thinking, ‘I don’t wanna go to work,’ and I think that’s a really lucky thing.”
As we pack our bags to go, Heston tells us that his wife has started an Open University course this week. The subject? Psychology. I ask him why he’s smiling. “Oh, I was just thinking that I might make quite a good case study for her.”
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal is published by Bloomsbury and is available from BooksFirst priced £90 (RRP £100), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
25 Oct 2008 Administrator