Blumenthal sprinkles a little good taste on roadside cuisine
His sense of humour once extended to telling a newspaper interviewer that his parents had named him after enjoying trips to Heston Services on the M4. Now Heston Blumenthal is once again trying to associate pleasure with roadside meals, but this time the chef credited with inventing "molecular gastronomy" is serious.
The inspiration behind the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire – one of the world's finest restaurants – is revamping a branch of the Little Chef roadside chain, best known for serving cooked breakfasts to motorists. As he welcomed Fleet Street's finest to the Little Chef at Popham, Hampshire, on Wednesday night to launch his new menu, Blumenthal said he would probably never have started the project if he had known what it involved.
At the Fat Duck – one of only three British restaurants with three Michelin stars – he has a 13-course tasting menu that costs £125 before coffee and optional 12.5 per cent service. At the Little Chef on the A303, he found a kitchen entirely bereft of pots and pans.
"Everything was out of packets," the chef said, suggesting that mass catering presented almost as much of a challenge as haute cuisine. "I was probably quite snobbish when I started and I realised just how difficult it is," he added. "There comes a time when you have to use the 'compromise' word."
With the help of Ab Rogers, the son of the architect Lord Richard Rogers, Blumenthal has given the cafe the feel of a 1950s diner, with a bright red colour scheme, pendant lighting and a ceiling resembling a summer sky.
Blumenthal has resisted the temptation to stick snail porridge or bacon and egg ice-cream on the menu, instead retaining many truckers' favourites such as the Olympic breakfast and Jubilee pancakes.
He said he wanted to give the dishes a modern twist – and famished motorists better value. Fish and chips is hake with beer batter rather than the haddock used at the other cafes and comes with a slice of lemon wrapped in muslin; the bacon butty has two rashers of Wiltshire back bacon; the mussels are Scottish rope-grown and served with a wine sauce; the meat pie is Hereford steak and Abbot Ale. The average price of a main meal is £8.40.
Blumenthal, whose adventure is being filmed by Channel 4 for a three-part series, Big Chef, Little Chef in January, said he had not wanted to bamboozle diners with French dishes. "The key thing to me is to give better value for money by increasing the quality of the ingredients that go into the dishes. I have tried to bring more British ingredients; for me it's about keeping to the Britishness," he said. "This is not about creating a Little Heston, this is about Little Chef."
On the first night, the cafe was staffed by 40 rather than the usual eight, led by Blumenthal's head chef, Ashley Palmer-Watts. But Little Chef's chief executive, Ian Pegler, insisted that it was feasible to roll out the experiment to the 180-strong chain. "When you see the menu and taste the food you will see the quality is there, the price is there, and there is no reason why we shouldn't," he said.
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