As the chef whose reputation has been built on his ability to confuse and tantalise tastebuds with such confections as crab ice cream and leather purée, Heston Blumenthal would be naturally drawn to a company that depends upon the strange alchemy of suffusing fried potato with the chemical essence of prawn cocktail, ketchup or roast chicken.
But when that company is Walkers Snack Foods Limited, which as part of the Pepsico conglomerate helped generate global profits of £2.8bn last year from the sale of sugary drinks and starchy nibbles, a collaboration between the high priest of molecular gastronomy and an enterprise that sells 11 million packets of crisps in Britain every day takes on a different flavour.
Walkers confirmed yesterday that it is working on a project with Blumenthal, the British cheerleader for melding science with food. The Leicester-based company, which markets 41 different flavours of crisp ranging from ready salted to lamb with Moroccan spices, said details will be announced in the coming weeks but denied reports that the chef is working with it on a "healthy eating" initiative.
The chef's Fat Duck restaurant in the Berkshire village of Bray is regularly listed as one of the world's top three restaurants and has been awarded three Michelin stars.
Blumenthal initially eschewed the commercial tie-ups and television deals that have swelled the incomes other food celebrities but more recently he has increased his public profile – and bank balance – with a number of deals, including a TV makeover for a branch of the Little Chef motorway café chain for which he is being paid £330,000. He is already known for his obsession with fried potatoes after using his BBC2 cookery show, In Search of Perfection, to develop a "triple-cooked chip".
The chef has previously worked with Firmenich, based in Geneva, which is one of the world's biggest flavourings producers and has isolated 10,000 separate perfumes and tastes. Its clients include Walkers. A source at the British company insisted that this was not the reason for its link with the chef but described the joint venture with Blumenthal as, "big and new and exciting".
"Heston is working with us," said a company spokesman, "but there is nothing more we can say until we are ready to go public with the details."
The alliance between culinary genius and an industrial crisp maker sparked immediate speculation that Blumenthal, 42, will be putting his name to a new line of snacks developed in the same kitchen-cum-laboratory he has used to perfect hundreds of agenda-setting recipes, such as caviar and white chocolate soufflé, with the help of centrifuges, vacuum jars and soda fountains.
Walkers' frontman for its television adverts is the football pundit Gary Lineker who has been joined by a cast of celebrities including the singer Charlotte Church and the chef Gordon Ramsay. The company also said that it did not expect Blumenthal to replace Lineker as its advertising frontman when the former Leicester City and England striker's contract expires in 2010.
Walkers faces stiff competition in Britain's £1.3bn-a-year crisps market, which has returned to steady growth after sales dipped in the late 1990s amid concerns about fat and salt levels. It launched a Sensations range with a variety of exotic flavours to counter the success of "premium" brands such as Kettle Chips.
Can you spot the Fat Duck flavour?
Odd one out: Below are 12 crisp flavours and one flavour culled from the menus of Heston Blumenthal. Can you guess which one it is?
* Baked Bean
* Turkey and Bacon
* Sausage and Tomato
* Chip shop curry
* Crab and seaweed
* Branston pickle
* Cajun Spice
* Tandoori Sizzler
* Lamb and Mint
Answer: Crab and seaweed