Heston Blumenthal: The alchemist
He turns cooking into both an art and a science, his touch in the kitchen is miraculous, and his new restaurant has sent diners into ecstasy. Can he really have risen so high without making any enemies?
Saturday 05 February 2011
Celebrated chefs are devils for stabbing each other in the back, mostly figuratively, although if Marco Pierre White had ever had a voodoo doll of Antony Worrall Thompson, he would have been hospitalised for months. Anyone interested in the culinary arts keeps an amused eye on histrionic cheffy feuds, and when the former master turns on his old apprentice, or vice versa, as in the case of Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, tempers bubble and spit like you wouldn't believe.
So not least of what is so extraordinary about 44-year-old Heston Blumenthal is that his fellow chefs not only admire him, but also seem to like him. The same goes for restaurant critics. And for a man who rose so young to the summit of such a knife-waving and indeed willy-waggling profession, that is some achievement. It is one reason why this week's reviews of his new restaurant, Dinner, have been so rhapsodic. But the other reason, the main reason, is that the food at Dinner – in the swanky Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Hyde Park – is by all accounts truly sensational.
Even so, it is one thing to wow professional critics, but quite another to leave your professional rivals grasping for superlatives. On Thursday this newspaper's illustrious food writer, Mark Hix, who is himself one of Britain's most successful restaurateurs, wrote that his meal at Dinner had been better than any other he had eaten for at least two years. He even garlanded a dish called Meat Fruit, ostensibly a glossy tangerine but containing chicken liver mousse, with the words "genuinely astonishing". It says a lot about Blumenthal that he can still astonish a fellow as worldly as Hix is in gastronomic matters. And a lot more that Dinner has already justified the excitement generated by last summer's news of the opening.
The news was exciting because Blumenthal has for years resisted the temptation to open a restaurant in the capital, preferring to pursue culinary perfection in the Berkshire village of Bray. It is true that Bray is not exactly a foodie backwater; it is also home to Michel Roux Snr's acclaimed Waterside Inn, and by opening his own restaurant, The Fat Duck, there in 1995, Blumenthal was applying the old shoe-shop principle, that the best place to open a shoe shop is next to one already thriving.
Nonetheless, within a decade he had cast a giant shadow even over the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn. In 2005 The Fat Duck was voted the world's best restaurant by Restaurant magazine, and even though it was subsequently edged out of top spot by El Bulli near Barcelona, and more recently Noma in Copenhagen, it has never lost its lustre.
At The Fat Duck, Blumenthal's cooking philosophy embraces what is sometimes called molecular gastronomy, a reference to the way in which the kitchen appears to have been crossed with a chemistry lab. In fact he has always disliked the expression. "Molecular makes it sound complicated, and gastronomy makes it sound complicated," he says. Whatever, The Fat Duck has become famous for bizarre-sounding dishes such as snail porridge and bacon-and-egg ice cream. Deadly serious but ever playful, Blumenthal loves to toy with our preconceptions about food. And yet at Dinner he has done something different, delving into traditions of British cooking sometimes 600 years old to offer such delights as spiced pigeon (c 1780) and taffety tart (c 1830).
What is gobsmackingly remarkable about all of this is that Blumenthal is almost entirely self-taught. Although he once worked at Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat' Saisons under the tutelage of a rising star, the volatile Yorkshireman Marco Pierre White, it was only for a fortnight, as a schoolboy on work experience. He then went home and read voraciously about cooking, practising endlessly. In the meantime he left school with six O-Levels, and got a job as a photocopier salesman, perhaps not even daring to dream that one day he would himself be much copied, if hardly ever matched.
He was born in May 1966 into fairly modest circumstances. His father, who had been born in Rhodesia, ran an equipment-leasing company, which by the early 1980s was doing well enough for the family to take a rare foreign holiday, to France, and on that holiday to book a meal at a fancy restaurant, L'Oustau de Baumanière, near Arles. It was the first time any of them had eaten at such a place. Blumenthal was 16, and instantly smitten. He still describes the experience as the most pivotal in his life, recalling a sommelier with a handlebar moustache and leather apron, and lobster sauce being theatrically poured into soufflés in front of thrilled customers. "At this moment I realised gastronomy was for me," he has said.
During his years selling photocopiers, from which he graduated to become credit controller for his father's business, he continued to teach himself the rudiments of classical French cooking. In 1985 he found a soulmate, his wife Zanna. She shared his interest in food, and together they went back time and again to France, feeding his ambition to open his own restaurant. Eventually they saved enough to buy a 450-year-old pub on the high street in Bray. The Fat Duck was born, but by then, so were two of their three children. Blumenthal had to put domestic family life on the back burner as he dedicated himself, with almost religious zeal, to making the restaurant a success.
It was, of course, although not until 1998, the year he got his first Michelin star, did Blumenthal embark on the culinary alchemy with which his name (which he owes, incidentally to a great-grandfather from Latvia) has become synonymous. Until then he cooked classic French brasserie food, but he was falling increasingly under the spell of a book called The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee. "I read it again and again," he once told me. "It was a revelation."
Encouraged by McGee's text, Blumenthal began to question certain orthodoxies of cooking, such as the need to add salt to water to fix the colour of vegetables. Ever thirsty for knowledge, he phoned a scientist at Bristol University, Peter Barham. "I said, 'I really don't think you need to add salt to water.' And he said, 'Eureka!'"
With Barham's help, Blumenthal perfected a method of cooking meat and fish far more gently than normal. With lean meat, he identified 60C as the temperature at which the proteins tighten, strangling flavour. So he would have a fillet of lamb turned constantly in a pan until a probe revealed that it had reached 59C, at which point out it would come, uniformly pink.
Needless to add, this required a high-maintenance kitchen, with prices set accordingly. But not even his celebrated attention to detail could prevent an outbreak of food poisoning among his customers in 2009, which forced The Fat Duck to close for three weeks and was eventually traced to infected oysters. That has not been the only tribulation in Blumenthal's mostly gilded career; he admits that his wife has helped him to overcome "anger-management issues". And yet it is a strikingly benign fellow who accepted, with characteristic humility, this week's lavish bouquets of praise.
A life in brief
Born 27 May 1966, London.
Family His parents ran a finance company. He is married to Zanna; they have three children.
Education Apart from a week's work at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and a short time at Marco Pierre White's, he is self-taught.
Career After working as a trainee architect, cameraman, photocopier salesman and debt collector, he opened his first restaurant, The Fat Duck at Bray, Berkshire, in 1995. By 2004 it had become one of only four UK restaurants with three Michelin stars and in 2005 was voted the world's best by Restaurant magazine. Blumenthal was made an OBE in 2006. He has just opened his first London restaurant, Dinner.
He says "Of course I want to create food that is delicious, but this depends on so much more than simply what's going on in the mouth: context, history, nostalgia, emotion, memory and the interplay of sight, smell, sound and taste all play an important part."
He says "He's the No 1 chef in the country today, without a doubt – he's in pole position." Marco Pierre White
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