Heston Blumenthal: “Hand on heart, I don’t just stick my name on something”

“We do everything from scratch for the product development. With my team, we do about half a dozen rounds of tasting with each recipe,” explains the avant garde chef

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Heston Blumenthal: “Hand on heart, I don’t just stick my name on something”
Written By
Ginny Dougary

Could Heston Blumenthal get any more bonkers, I asked myself last time we met, five years ago – and the answer, based on this most recent encounter, has to be a resounding “Yes!” His creative thought process sounds like a stream of consciousness fuelled by industrial quantities of whatever Hunter S Thompson was on.

His manner is excitable, but more mad inventor meets small boy – a character dreamt up by a partnership of Lewis Carroll (one of his creative heroes) and Roald Dahl – than counter-culture desperado.

Here he is, talking about inviting a group of fishermen to taste his “monster from the deep” – the eyeball with its pupil made out of squid ink and its iris from saffron and gold-leaf veal stock, a thousand-island dressing made of cod cheeks and tongues, the guests offered a spoon to dig out the eye. Charming, Heston! And how did the fishermen cope? “At first, when they looked at it, it was a bit of a challenge. Then the fish burped out pieces of turbot... and we had soft poached quail’s eggs coming out of its bottom...”

There’s much more along these lines: eating udder in Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna with food critic AA Gill; having his blood sucked by a slimy eel; making a dead chicken “come to life” with a foot pump, tube and Christmas paper whistle to startle the diners when it unfurls out of the corpse’s mouth with a sharp blast; dispatching another group of unwitting guests into the sky by a giant crane in a “room” of suet crust to make a fantastical “pie in the sky”; sending a Heston-lookalike potato, adorned with the chef ’s trademark specs, in a weather balloon in a bid to send the first vegetable to space... STOP! You can see how one’s head begins to spin in his presence.

Our first interview took place at the Fat Duck, his game-changing eating experience in Bray, Berkshire, that has won him so many plaudits and awards (three Michelin stars, best restaurant in the world in 2005). We ate the full 17 courses of a tasting menu (it’s currently 14, costing £195) with multi-sensory elements, including the beautiful Sound of the Sea, with iPods in conches that you put to your ears so you hear the keening screech of a seagull and the wash of the waves while you eat from a platter resembling a wild beach with rock pools and seaweed and edible shells. Afterwards, we repaired to his lab, where he and his team of assistants conduct their experiments and work on pushing the gastronomic envelope in ever more inventive ways.

Today, we are talking in a room of baronial proportions in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel next to the British Library, where Heston will be giving a talk in the evening about what influence the Georgian era has had on his creations. But first he has a treat that has taken three years to pull off, and he is radiant with expectation: “I’ve asked to see the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. So I guess I’m going to be accompanied by armed guards or something. It’s under lock and key under a glass box and I will be given some white gloves, and I think they’re going to take it out and let me touch it!”

In March this year, Heston (he is a one-name legend, like Nigella) started filming his new Channel 4 series – Heston’s Great British Food. The idea is that it’s highlighting and examining the origins of the dishes that are synonymous with Britain – classics such as fish and chips, the beef carvery and puddings. He’s also exploring, for a future programme, the finer points of British curry.

In 2007, in his BBC2 series In Search of Perfection, the chef travelled to Delhi to investigate the origins of chicken tikka masala. It’s a myth, he says, that it was created in Glasgow by someone in the kitchen of an Indian restaurant adding a tin of tomato soup to tandoori chicken when a diner demanded some sauce.

He was knocked out by Delhi: “I went from China to India and it was like chalk and cheese. In Beijing, everything seemed quite grey and not a lot of energy... I’d never seen so many different military and police uniforms. You’d think, ‘OK, they must be the army, and they must be the police but who are they? And what about them?’

“But in Delhi everything is so full on, and I loved it. The barrows with cardboard boxes on the top that people were selling as beds in the old town spice market, which was an almost derelict building. At night-time everywhere is covered with people lying on cardboard boxes because they just don’t have money. You felt that if someone dropped some rubble on the ground, they would set up a stall and try to sell it. They were so full of energy.”

Heston says that what struck him is that “British curry” is now being taken up by Indians in India, in a rather fabulous, improbable loop. “I only found out two weeks ago, and I need to confirm this, but it seems that it was us Brits who invented the notion of curry being a meat stew with rice... People would say ‘British curry’s not authentic’ but it is authentic because it is British curry – those dishes that never existed in India: chicken jalfrezi, rogan josh... are now on the menu in India.”

He has always been fascinated by history as well as science (he is particularly proud of having been awarded an honorary Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry), psychology and the arts. When I ask him what he enjoys most about his television work, he says: “Being really selfish, I love the idea that television can be a really good R&D [research and development] tool – it gives you subject matter to work on and a deadline. This series has more history and more science than the previous one, Fantastical Food.”

So with fish and chips in the first episode, for example, he will be looking at all aspects of the dish, such as when was batter invented and why. “The whole thing grew as a result of the increased rail network. Fresh fish was brought to more parts of Britain and frying it in batter was a way of protecting the fish.

“There are lots of old recipes for fish with bread or breadcrumbs and there’s even one that was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s – a whole cod’s head, stuffed with minced veal.”

Five years ago, he spoke at some length about the problems he used to have with controlling his anger. He had first become aware of it being an issue in his teens, and found that doing exercise – karate, then kickboxing, to which he devoted the equivalent of three hours a day, really helped. I wonder whether he’s still managed to keep that in check?

“There hasn’t been one instance since we last spoke,” he says. “Not even a frown. It’s like I’m a different person. Really weird.”

He had used therapy – encouraged by his wife, Zanna (the couple are in the process of decoupling after more than 20 years of marriage) – and faith healing, and now he does a lot of mindful meditation.

“Mindfulness is just brilliant,” he says. “You can be mindful with a raising, even. You look at the raisin – how does it feel? Look at the light and the dark and wonder where the shadows have been cast. You draw that our for a minute or two and then you put it in your mouth, and focus on your lips, tongue, teeth… it’s about being completely in the moment.”

He lives with American food writer Suzanne Pirret, but it’s not a subject the chef will discuss other than to say: “The divorce is taking quite a long time but we [Zanna and himself] are on the same page and we can communicate.”

He is clearly very proud of his three children: the younger daughter, Joy, is still at school; Jessie is doing a foundation year in art; and Jack, 21, is doing a degree in – yes – culinary arts. Heston is a bit conflicted about this, knowing how punishing the catering world can be – the long hours, the toll on relationships and, indeed, family life. “He wants to go into cooking but I told him, ‘I’ll push you away. I’m going to keep dissuading you because the only reason you should ever become a chef is because you want to do it so hard, and you’re going to have to work so hard at it.’ ”

Heston is now a brand whose name is used as an endorsement – for a Japanese knife collection “as recommended by Heston” and, since 2010, with his Heston from Waitrose range (he was signed at the same time as Delia Smith). There’s also his London restaurant, Dinner, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Hyde Park, and coming in 2014, a somewhat faster food restaurant at Heathrow Airport. The chef has unquestionably become more corporate since we last met, but does this mean that he has somehow sold out?

“I turned down a very handsome offer for a very large supermarket to make a range of food – when I really needed the money – because it wasn’t right. I also turned down a very large offer for a large wine brand last year,” he says, “because I don’t drink the wine. I know somebody who will remain nameless who has no interest in food and who is putting their name to stuff they don’t believe in. With the Waitrose thing, that is where I’ve always shopped. And, hand on heart, I don’t just stick my name on something – we do everything from scratch for the product development. With my team, we do about half a dozen rounds of tasting with each recipe – ‘Right, you’re going to need a bit more salt... cook it a bit less... add some tarragon... that’s not right, take that out...’”

The Waitrose deal means that Heston can invest even more in the Fat Duck – what he calls “the blood, sweat and tears of the business”. He now has 200 staff on his books and another 120 who come under his tutorage: “I’ve got some fantastic people who have been with me for a long time and worked their socks off. I was never driven by money and I think there is a responsibility to enable these guys to grow with the business and to make sure at the same time that you’re secure enough because the cost of running the operation is pretty big.”

It’s always enjoyable meeting Heston. His sense of wonderment and curiosity is so engaging and there’s absolutely nothing cynical or jaded about him. His very Scottish PR lady, Monica (“fud” for “food”), who has been with him for years, says of her client, “Ginny, what you have to understand about Heston is that he is basically a ten-year-old boy – once you understand that, you understand everything.”

She does have a point. The chef and I last saw one another at a food symposium in a pop-up club. Also there was Ferran Adria of El Bulli, who has retired from his restaurant to re-open it as some kind of a culinary think-tank foundation in 2014.

Heston says that his confrère has got government funding, with a sideways look that I interpret to be one of wistful yearning. Can he imagine himself doing something similar? “What I’ve always wanted – and I’ve wanted this for years – even though we do have three development kitchens, is to have a lab that is like something out of a Bond film, hidden under a pyramid, with a door that goes ‘Swoooosssshhhhhhh’. Now, whether that will ever happen...?”

See Heston’s Great British Food on Tuesday at 9:00pm on Channel 4


 


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