For so many, the ubiquitous Little Chef conjures up images of pulling off the road for an "Olympic breakfast", a bumper plate of sausage, eggs, bacon, sauté potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, toast and baked beans. In the future, however, hungry motorists may have to settle for snail porridge.
Courtesy of Channel 4, the famously experimental chef Heston Blumenthal is being brought in to help transform the fortunes of a very British, but somewhat faded, institution.
Little Chef was rescued from the brink of financial ruin last year by the private equity company RCapital, which bought nearly 200 of the group's 235 restaurants from the administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers after the company, said at the time to be losing up to £3m a year, failed to find a buyer or refinance.
Now Blumenthal, who was recruited last month from the BBC by Channel 4 in a deal said to be worth £1m over two years, is to create a new menu for one Little Chef restaurant.
It will be filmed for a television show, but if the project is successful, Blumenthal's menu could be rolled out in more of the group's eateries.
Blumenthal, who owns the three Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, is known for his scientific approach to food, which is often described as "molecular gastronomy".
The tasting menu at The Fat Duck includes green tea and lime mousse, salmon poached in liquorice gel, scrambled egg and bacon ice-cream, as well as Blumenthal's famed snail porridge.
Sue Murphy, Channel 4's head of features, said: "Heston has a nostalgic fondness for the Little Chef, he's not coming in from a sneering perspective, he really wants to help them."
Blumenthal said he was "excited" by his new partnership.
The first Little Chef, a tiny 11-seater restaurant, opened in Reading in 1958, the year that Britain got its first motorway.
The menu currently features such trusty favourites as haddock, chips and peas (with bread and butter on the side).
* Cherie Booth is to tackle the problem of gun and knife crime in a new series for Channel 4. The wife of the former prime minister will head up a "Street Weapons Commission" which will travel to different parts of the UK in an attempt to understand why youths carry weapons.
How Blumenthal might see the task
I'm a simple chap. Little Chef has always catered for busy motorists who want something simple, quick and tasty, so I don't muck about with anything fancy.
If they order my all-day molecular breakfast, they'll get plain old slug porridge, sardines-on-toast ice cream and a country-fresh egg poached in liquid nitrogen, flavoured with lime, vodka and astringent polyphenols. Little Chef has a reputation for serving food that tastes like nothing on earth, and I'm happy to continue that tradition. I've taken their mushroom omelette, an old favourite, and recreated it in a particle accelerator using hand-cured leather, shoelaces and boot polish.
I couldn't determine the ingredients of their chicken nuggets (no one can, apparently) so I did my own version, using actual coal nuggets flavoured with bergamot and hydrochloric acid and it works really well.
Some customers resist new ideas, but I suppose that's human nature.
They don't understand why I clamp a conch shell to their ears and squirt a brine aerosol up their nostrils while they're eating fish fingers – it's so they can experience the ocean as well as the combination of haddock, Marmite and Jeyes Fluid – and we've had some raised voices.
But as I always say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of my laboratory.
Some travellers like to relax and linger over their lunches, so I pamper them with my Hestonburger special, a flavoursome bacon cheeseburger: it takes 14 hours and 58 minutes to construct, using three vacuum cleaners, a road drill, a blow-up doll, two shire horses and the Sadler's Wells corps de ballet, but it's worth the trouble. As I tell the waiting (and salivating!) diners, every few hours or so.
As told to John WalshReuse content