Heston Blumenthal: 'For my next trick, a toast sandwich...'

The Monday Interview: The innovative chef's new London restaurant, Dinner, will serve historic British fare. Martin Hickman is given a flavour

Monday 08 November 2010 01:00

For such a thoroughly modern chef, Heston Blumenthal has a surprisingly strong interest in the past. As well as recreating Medieval and Tudor recipes for the TV series Heston’s Feast, he serves old dishes such as pork belly and steaks with bone marrow at his Hinds Head pub in the Thames-side village of Bray.

The menu at his soon-to-be opened brasserie at the uber-posh Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, London, will be “inspired” by meals dating back hundreds of years.

He says Dinner won’t be like the Fat Duck, his celebrated restaurant, where he applies scientific techniques and pairs unusual flavours and textures, arriving at headline-grabbing dishes such as snail porridge - and a warm welcome from diners, chefs and food writers.

In his mind, one suspects, Dinner is a comforting, enjoyable pudding; the Fat Duck is his main course.

After being enchanted by a three Michelin-starred restaurant on a family family to France, he decided to become a chef. He did variety of day jobs - photocopier salesman, debt collector, credit controller , at night read every book on French cooking he could, and cooked and re-cooked dishes time and again... until they were perfect.

Aged 29, in 1995, he bought a 450-year-old pub, The Ringers, with a cramped kitchen, an outside toilet and a reputation for trouble, re-named it and opened a French bistro.

Ten years later it was the best restaurant in the world, according to Restaurant magazine. In the 2010 Good Food Guide, the Fat Duck scores a perfect 10.

He became so obsessed with the restaurant (of which more later) that, until now, or at least until January, he has not opened a second one.

“We’re pitching it between the Hinds Head and the Fat Duck,” says Blumenthal, dressed casually after a photoshoot in the hotel ballroom for Conde Nast’s Traveller magazine. “It’s a brasserie, quite a smart one, but it’s still a brasserie, so the idea is you come in and have three courses – you might have two – but we will also do a tasting menu but it will be five courses; it won’t be a Fat Duck tasting menu [which has 14 courses and takes at least four hours].

“The dishes are more or less inspired by historic British ideas and recipes. Some of them loosely; some might just be the spice dish, or a dish like lamb and cucumber. There’s a dish of pigeon with artichokes. We’re looking desert wise at a Taffety Tart [a Stuart dish with apples, rose petals and fennel]”.

He shows a photograph of a white trolley laden with a metal bowl and a whisk (a “prototype”, he stresses), which will be wheeled to tables. Ice cream will be made in front of diner’s eyes in 45 seconds, with the aid of liquid nitrogen.

Another creation will be “meat fruit”, gelatine packages that resemble real fruit containing pate, and “chewets”, Medieval open pies. But, while the menu won’t exactly be ordinary, Blumenthal does not want it to be intimidating, setting a set lunch menu at £25, not least because he wants a busy, noisy dining room rather than a grand, austere one.

There will be “recognisable” dishes such as roast lamb as well as less recognisable ones such as pig’s ears on toast and, possibly, “toast sandwich.”

And the restaurant’s name is playful. “The restaurant is going to be called Dinner,” he says, “because the word dinner plots the changing habits of eating in Britain over the past couple of hundred years. Dinner used to at lunchtime, then it was in the evening, and then afternoon tea came along, so we still call school lunches school dinners. So dinners have moved.”

Laughing, he adds: “I also quite like the idea that you’re going to say to somebody: ‘Do you want to have to have lunch at Dinner?’”

It has taken Blumenthal so long to open a second restaurant because, until last year, he says, he wasn’t happy with his Duck.

He hasn’t been short of offers, though, and reveals that the Mandarin Oriental Group invited him to open a copycat Fat Duck in Tokyo five years ago, but he didn’t feel the time was right.

“No-one had ever offered me anything like this before,” he recalls, “and I’m thinking: ‘Ego massage, this is very exciting.’ And we did a whistlestop tour of Tokyo. It was the first time I had been to Tokyo and food-wise, it was the most amazing city in the world. But I don’t make rash decisions.

“I sometimes take a while to mull things over and the longer I sat with it the more I thought: I’m going to have to lose some key people, so sombody like Ash [Palmer-Watts, his head chef and stalwart, with whom he develops dishes] is going to have to go to Japan, which is going to mean the Duck staff gets weaker.”

Despite having the maximum three Michelin stars, he felt the Fat Duck could be better.

“I tell you it’s only probably from last year that I really felt comfortable with the quality of food and the service,” he says.

“I thought, even when we got our first star, we weren’t good enough. I knew we could get better and the team stronger.”

He adds: “I’d never leave the restaurant if I thought the food was going to go down one per cent cent if I wasn’t there. So for seven or eight years I didn’t miss a service at all.”

To put this in context, this would meant that he would have worked at least 850 consecutive six-hour lunch and dinner shifts.

Now, the cooks outnumber the guests: 47 chefs for 42 diners. He says he’s now happy with the food, the service and “the consistency.”

As an experiment he asked his phone company to log how many calls its booking line received on the last August bank holiday. There were 30,000.

“So my accountant is saying: ‘You’ve got to open on Mondays’. I said not only am I not opening on Mondays, in March we took a table of two out, just so we can put a bit more attention to detail. It seems silly, only a table of two. But in service it means that you can give just a little bit more time to spend on each person.”

Removing a table for two will cost £250,000 a year. As it is, the £165-a-head restaurant barely makes money. “As a standalone business the Hinds Head makes more sense than the Fat Duck. As a standalone, it barely washes its hands, but that’s a little bit confusing because it’s enabled the other things to happen; the importance of doing other things is to protect the Duck. Also, I could never have dreamed or imagined that what I would have ended up where I did with the Duck and the Duck ended up where it has done.”

With laughter, he says: “Someone handed my CV would think it’s a complete fabrication.”

The last five years have been eventful: two BBC series, three Channel 4 series including an attempt to turn round the Little Chef chain, the (controversial) acquisition of a third pub in Bray, an outbreak of noro-virus caused by infected oyters and, with Delia Smith, the high profile endorsement of Waitrose, for whom he has a food range. Vanilla mayonnaise and beef and kelp pie are two products.

Discussions for some of these projects had been going on for years.

“I would think all these things are really exciting and then I would go: ‘Hang on a second’ and then stop and then have another meeting about it and discuss it and discuss it. And then I would start going: ‘Well what happens if I do that, where’s the danger?’.”

His friend Thomas Keller, arguably America’s best chef, gave him a new perspective when they met at the Melbourne Food Festival two years ago. “We were having coffee and Thomas goes to me [adopts American accent]: ‘Hey Heston, what’s your exit strategy?’ And I kind of coughed and went: ‘What?’”

“He said: ‘what have you got as an exit strategy.. I said: ‘Hmm, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

“He’s got a batch of funders, who are all from the financial world and they were all going to him about ‘your name is linked to your restaurants and they’ve got value but what happens when your knees start to go?’

“And I started thinking: ‘We only got a mortgage three years ago.’

“We had a house years before that, but for the restaurant we just rented: every single penny was being poured back into the Duck. So we got to the point where we said, right what we’re doing now is shrinking and protecting the Duck and developing other areas of the business.”

“I probably shouldn’t say this now,” he says, almost checking himself, “because in 10 years time you’ll say: ‘You told me...’ - but I don’t think I’m ever going to do another Fat Duck.”

After giving diners a taste of the future, his next project is history.

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