Britain's top chef tells how perilous operation saved his career

Heston Blumenthal went under the knife to end decades of crippling back pain
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Heston Blumenthal is officially the owner of the Best Restaurant in the World. The Fat Duck in Bray has won its third Michelin star and its owner was recently appointed an OBE.

But his career was almost ended because of a serious medical condition, which required a risky operation on his back last month. Without it, Blumenthal's promising career might have been over.

"The operation was a last resort," he said. "I wasn't keen but the surgeon told me, 'If you don't have this operation you'll be in a wheelchair. You won't walk again.'"

Blumenthal had suffered from back pain since his early teens, after a hairline fracture damaged a vertebra in his lower back. Years of kickboxing and long hours in the kitchen exacerbated the problem until, on bad days, he could barely walk. "Standing in one place and twisting from side to side makes it worse, and that's exactly what you do in a kitchen," he explained. "I've been going to an osteopath since I was 15 and I'd been having acupuncture but it was still painful. Some days I wouldn't be able to lift my foot off the floor."

After Blumenthal was referred to a specialist last year, an MRI scan finally discovered the problem: lytic spondylolisthesis. "The bottom bone in my back wasn't sitting on the base of the spine and it was rubbing. The sciatic nerve was trapped in a little hole." He was persuaded to have an operation called spinal fusion, which he timed to coincide with the restaurant's annual two-week Christmas break.

"It was possible that in 15 years the fusion might have happened on its own," he was told. "The bone would have worn the disc down and the spine would have fused together and repaired itself - if I could have put my feet up for 15 years. But I couldn't do nothing for 15 years. My mind would go first."

Spinal fusion is a complicated operation in which two or more vertebrae are fused together to maintain spinal alignment and stability. It involves the removal of a disc and the insertion of a cage into the space where the disc used to be. This encourages fusion between vertebral bodies. Or, as Blumenthal describes it: "You know the little wings there are on either side of each vertebra? Well they cut them off, ground them up with some glue, packed them into a little cage where the disc should be, lifted the vertebra and bolted them together. Thursday was the first time I saw the scan after the operation and I saw all the metalwork. It looks like something you would get from Homebase.

"I would recommend it to anyone. It was a last resort but it's been surprisingly easy. Human beings are really adaptable, and I think if you put up with anything for long enough you get used to it. I expected to feel a lot more uncomfortable after the operation but I'm all right. The hardest thing is not trying to run before I can walk."

Blumenthal is going to find it difficult not to over-stretch himself: he has a busy year planned. As well as writing the Fat Duck Cookbook and presenting a series for the BBC, Blumenthal is working on two research papers under his new title, Dr Heston Blumenthal. Having left school with one A-level in art, he was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of science by Reading University and has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. "I wasn't sure I deserved it but they said I had furthered research into bioscience significantly."

Blumenthal also has a new toy to play with: a kitchen/lab in an extension to the Fat Duck. "It has all the standard kitchen equipment. And a distiller for flavour extractions, vacuum machines for aerating chocolate bars, a vacuum oven and a panning machine because we are trying to turn liquids into chocolates. And a centrifuge that separates small and large particles so, for example, you can turn tomato juice into clear tomato water."

Blumenthal promises he will not overdo it. But, he adds: "I have no plans to put my feet up and relax on a beach. Sometimes I look back and think, it's been 10 years of hard slog, but however stressed and tired I have been, I have never once got in the car to go to work and wished I didn't have to go. I'm so lucky."

A LA CARTE

Heston Blumenthal's favourite new foods on the Fat Duck menu in 2006:

EDIBLE WRAPPERS "They'll be in the restaurant at the end of January or beginning of February. It's somewhere between caramel and fudge and it's in a colourful cellophane wrapper, like Roses or Quality Street. But you eat the whole thing. The cellophane is made of gelatin and some other things."

HOT AND COLD TEA "When you drink from one side of the glass it is hot, and from the other side it is cold, and if you drink from the middle then it will be hot in half your mouth and cold in the other. It's fantastic!"

TURNING LIQUIDS INTO CHOCOLATES A work in progress that involves a piece of laboratory equipment called a panning machine. "It looks like a little cement mixer."

FLAVOUR COMPOUNDS (from various foods, lavender, Douglas fir trees...) These are extracted in the laboratory using a distiller. With a mini extraction pipe "that looks like a dentist's overhead light", Blumenthal and the other chefs can smell the flavour compounds in the lab without them escaping and filling the room.

CLEAR TOMATO WATER Created in the lab using a centrifuge that separates the small particles from the large particles in tomato juice.

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