Heston Blumenthal may come across as a perhaps overly-ambitious chef, culinary explorer, and infectiously enthusiastic lab technician who uncovers scientific truths of good food. But at heart, he’s a man taking care of business.
Granted an OBE in 2006 for services to British gastronomy, a number of honorary degrees and fellowships – including one from the Royal Society of Chemistry – he was granted his own personal coat of arms by the College of Arms in 2013. ‘GQ Magazine’ has awarded him various accolades over the past decade, including Man of the Year, Personality of the Year and Chef of the Year.
Elsewhere, there’s Heston’s not inconsiderable empire: restaurants in the village of Bray, in London, in Melbourne 2002, and a series of books, magazine columns and TV series.
It’s no wonder then that these days you’d be unlikely to find him doing the actual cooking. The irony of Heston’s food empire is that, in his own words, it’s not about food at all, as he reveals to RSNG...
RSNG What’s the most surprising thing you ever discovered about an ingredient?
HESTON BLUMENTHAL, PERFECTIONIST CHEF ‘I think it’s less about the ingredient and more about the experience. The whole idea of the food I make is that you sample the intricacies as part of the bigger picture. It’s about embracing all five senses and injecting some magic – theatre and noise – into the experience. It’s about entertaining and engaging people in food… so while I love the science of food, I adore the appreciation of it too.’
‘When you go to a restaurant you’re really paying for the ambience. The food itself is one of the lower costs, although of course it’s important. What I’m saying is there are many elements that have to come together for everything to work.’
‘But okay, if I had to name my favourite ingredient or the one that offers the most versatility, I might say something as simple as the potato. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but there is nothing on this Earth that you can do more with than a potato.’
‘Either that or the Scottish chanterelle mushrooms. If you cook then in the right way – or is it the wrong way – you can get them tasting almost of apricots.’
RSNG Is cooking science or art?
HB ‘It’s science over art. I think what’s more commonly asked is if it’s science over cuisine, and my answer to that really depends on what side of the bed I’ve got out of!’
‘The science will always draw me back though – it’s just who I am. We usually have in the region of 500 dishes in development. Most of those will never reach the plate; it’s a process of trial and error. There’s always pressure to create new experiences, and I’m lucky to have the tools available to me to do that.’
‘People ask me if, after white chocolate with caviar, and crab ice cream, is there a fear that one day the well of inspiration will run dry? Not likely. I get my inspiration mostly from travelling the world and observing how different cultures enjoy their food. It’s fascinating. But while it’s easy for me to say the inspiration comes from the world around me, it’s all about how I can express that as to what I can create in the kitchen.’
‘Balancing the senses is ultimately just about making people happy – if people like it then you know it’s balanced’
RSNG You’re known for multi-sensory dishes – how do you balance the senses in a dish?
HB ‘Well you never have more than four ingredients on a plate, that’s the first rule. We’re not trying to over-egg the pudding, so to speak, we’re just trying to make the pudding appear as if it’s not a pudding.’
‘Beyond that, balancing the senses is ultimately just about making people happy. If people like it then you know it’s balanced. As much as the drive has always been to challenge people and to get them to cast aside all those horrible, naff, dull food traditions of the 1980s, at the same time we haven’t moved on to such an extent that we’ll eat anything.’
‘Humans are conditioned to know what is right and what isn’t right on a plate, which is why we have so many dishes in development. As I said, a lot of cooking is trial and error, but especially so for us.’
‘There are chefs who get Michelin stars by being excellent at what they do, but not necessarily showing any innovation; they’re just really precise and good at it. My focus is on making people happy. It’s wonderful to receive recognition and awards in that pursuit, but that’s not what drives me. Food should taste delicious and make you smile.’
‘In terms of technique just embrace the basics of French cuisine – it’s as simple as that’
RSNG Do you have three simple kitchen tips for people scared of new recipes and cooking techniques?
HB ‘In terms of technique, just embrace the basics of French cuisine, it’s as simple as that. Those techniques will give you the building blocks of everything that’s good about food. For instance, how to properly bone a chicken or fillet a fish or make hollandaise sauce… right the way down to how to boil a pan of water properly.’
‘That leads me to the second point, which is to question everything. The standard rules are there because people have put them there, but why, and does it always have to be done that way?’
‘Thirdly, for people who have children, I say let your youngsters choose food combinations. If you want to truly see the extent that food can delight and enchant, let your kids take the lead with their own food combinations.’
‘Children are free of all the standards, preconceptions and ideas that we are tied up with, and they can really set the standard in trying out new things… if you’re brave enough to let them!’
RSNG What’s the overall purpose that drives you?
HB ‘The challenge. That’s what it comes down to – it’s all about the challenge. It’s about getting square peg into a round hole and once I’ve succeeded in doing one, I need to find another.’
‘That could be in my own personal accomplishments, it could be in completing a dish that has troubled the team for a long time, it could be making staff happy. My team is so passionate about flavour and texture, colour and vibrancy and people enjoying and being fascinated by what’s on their plates.’
‘Or it could be succeeding in a business sense. That’s certainly what it felt like when I opened The Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow airport. There’s a lot of footfall in airports so I knew the opportunity from a commercial perspective.’
‘With the footfall at The Fat Duck, for instance, I could disguise the aspects of an old building that wasn’t designed for the purpose of being that sort of restaurant. After all, it only seats 42! Then take Heathrow - a different prospect altogether. The design, efficiency and front-of-house all work differently. And airports are an exciting place to be, full of optimism and energy. I wanted to reflect that in the food whilst also referencing the fact people need to order and eat quickly – they’ve got a plane to catch!”
‘Some people just want to obsess with the science angle, but for me it’s about exploring the possibilities. Yes, there’s an element of showmanship there, but mostly it’s problem-solving and making people happy.’
WHAT NEXT? When Wonka went wonky: the chocolate waterfall may be Heston’s wackiest creation.