Heston Blumenthal cooks in a tiny kitchen for a few people at a time. Now he has joined Ramsay and Roux as a holder of three Michelin stars. Terry Durack asks whether acclaim will spoil the master of molecular gastronomy

He does not forcibly eject restaurant critics or celebrities from his restaurant. He does not rate a mention in Hello!, OK! or Whatever! Nobody has tried to sue him. Nor does he own an astrakhan coat, a bespoke hunting outfit, a Maserati, Lamborghini or Ferrari. After the flamboyance of Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, could there be a less suitable subject for Michelin stardom than Heston Blumenthal?

At 37 years old, this father of three has suddenly entered the ranks of the culinary super-élite, becoming one of only three three-star Michelin chefs in this country, joining the irascible Ramsay and the polished French veteran Michel Roux, whose legendary Waterside Inn lies in the same Berkshire village of Bray as Blumenthal's Fat Duck. Marco Pierre White built a business empire after earning his three stars, but handed them in three years ago.

Blumenthal is different from any of these, and I am not just talking about his sardines-on-toast ice cream and tobacco-infused chocolate. Apart from one week's work experience at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, he is a self-taught cook. It was only at home that he indulged his love of food and cooking, teaching himself the classic foundation of French cuisine, from ice-cream to butchery. In 1995, he bought a 450-year-old pub in the centre of Bray and turned it into a pleasant, simple bistro serving up basic French provincial cooking. It was here that Blumenthal's fascination with molecular gastronomy evolved, as much through necessity as curiosity. The bistro's kitchen was somewhat primitive, with an oven fixed at one temperature and domestic rather than industrial gas burners, forcing him to investigate alternative cooking methods and techniques.

Blumenthal began questioning the golden rules of cookery, such as adding salt to water to preserve the colour of green vegetables and searing meat to seal in the flavour. Both processes are ineffectual, he claims. A follower of the American scientist and food revolutionary Harold McGhee, he soon dismissed the tried-and-true for the untried and yet to be proven. He combined garlic purée with coffee jelly, because garlic and coffee have a similar molecular structure. He also teamed red cabbage with French mustard ice cream; oysters with passion fruit jelly and lavender; and pine sherbert with mango and Douglas fir purée.

To further his research, Blumenthal regularly visits Fermenich, a Swiss scientific company that creates "flavours" for medicines and perfumes. In the meantime, his kitchen has gone from primitive to high tech, equipped with all sorts of whizz-bangery including a Rotavapor machine that extracts natural essences from ingredients such as rosemary or garlic; a water and oil bath; a canister containing liquid nitrogen and a gleaming machine that turns purées into ethereal foams. So there are teasing curiosities such as red pepper lollipops, green tea and lime mousse poached in liquid nitrogen, snail porridge and parsnip breakfast cereal with parsnip milk. Help, Ma, he's messing with my head.

But for all the intellectual prankery, Blumenthal is far more than a wacky kitchen boffin. His skill with honing and combining flavours borders on genius. Grilled scallops with caramelised cauliflower purée and Oloroso sherry jelly is a delightful succession of melting moments, while a lozenge of sensitively cooked duck foie gras sandwiched between thin, sweet crab biscuits, layered with crystallised seaweed and marinated salmon is a thrill-seeking roller-coaster ride for the mouth.

Rather than the accepted technique of cooking meat at a high temperature and then resting it, Blumenthal, together with Peter Barham, a Bristol University physicist, has developed a method in which meats are cooked at temperatures low enough (around 60C) not to set the protein. So soft, nutty veal kidney is cooked gently in its own fat, served with a big Macvin du Jura sauce, a firewood stack of potato logs also cooked in the kidney fat, and an amoebic splodge of "tomato ketchup".

After a meal at The Fat Duck, you come away not just amused and intrigued, but well fed and watered. The wine list is one of Britain's most serious, the service is attentive and sympathetic, the atmosphere refined but relaxed, and the price of £60 per head for food - while scary - is no more than at equivalent restaurants.

Blumenthal has always been quick to brush off the trappings of fame, and rigorously denies being a celebrity chef. But will Michelin success spoil this truly original, supernaturally talented and refreshingly modest chef?

The three-star club is a very small one, and too many of its members wind up cooking for themselves and each other, rather than for us, the people who put them there. That's if they're cooking at all, instead of gallivanting around the world or masterminding huge business empires. Will he now hatch a flock of Fat Duckling franchises across the length and breadth of Britain, or supply Waitrose with branded Fat Duck ready-meals of salmon and liquorice - closely followed by a low calorie Thin Duck range. Well, no. The only real danger that I can foresee is that Blumenthal might be tempted to use his new stardom as an excuse to go too far into the world of science. His rise to fame has been based not just on his confident adventures with the outer reaches of gastronomy, but because he is, at heart, a very good cook with great technique and an instinctive need to feed people.

He has not won three stars by trying to win three stars (ie by conforming) but by doing what he wants, and doing it exceptionally well. This independence is what gives his food such confidence and personality. But if science ever comes before flavour and technique before taste, those stars will soon stop glittering so brightly.

Comments