This year the Fat Duck celebrates its 25th anniversary. Andy Lynes catches up with Heston Blumenthal to discover what he's learned over the years, what changes have been made and how the group plans to mark the occasion.
On 16 August 1995, Heston Blumenthal, an almost entirely self-taught chef with just four weeks' experience of working in a professional kitchen and no public profile, opened the Fat Duck, in what was the Bell pub in the Thames-side village of Bray, Berkshire.
In less than a decade he'd been awarded three Michelin stars, won the Chef Award at the Cateys, been named AA Chef's Chef of the Year, published his first cookbook, and made his first TV series. Along the way, he revolutionised fine dining with a scientific, multisensory approach, and created ground-breaking dishes like snail porridge and the Sound of the Sea, which made the Fat Duck and Blumenthal world famous.
On 15 August 2020, Blumenthal was back at the Fat Duck to celebrate its 25th anniversary and the launch of the first of four quarterly changing ‘anthology' menus that will mark the restaurant's quarter century. The inaugural selection (accompanied by an explanatory ‘World of Imagination: A Guidebook' and menu in the form of a map, designed to reduce the amount of time front of house staff need to stand tableside) includes some of Blumenthal's best-known dishes, including the famous snail porridge from 2003 and Sound of the Sea from 2007, which grabbed column inches for its accompanying iPod in a seashell, which diners used to listen to coastal sounds while eating the complex assembly of various seafood, seaweeds, edible ‘sand' and ‘sea' foam.
"I don't have a dish I'm most proud of – I have ones that I really think set the tone for big discoveries and the Sound of the Sea was humongous," says Blumenthal during a Zoom interview from the elegant and extensive gardens of his home in Les Baux-de-Provence on the south of France.
I don't have a dish I'm most proud of – I have ones that I really think set the tone for big discoveries
"What happened, and I never thought I would experience this with food, was some people started crying with the dish, but in a really wonderful way. It was such a powerful response, because you can argue that language in some respects is designed to hide emotions or, you know, block them, but your tears don't. They're just something that comes out. That happened by chance. It just so happened that that person who was moved to tears was with the right kind of people at the table, had the right type of day, was in the right moment, and that dish and that sound helped generate that, or gave them the opportunity to access that moment themselves. That's when I started thinking about personalisation."
The idea of personalising the dining experience for individual diners manifested itself at the Fat Duck in the form of customers completing online questionnaires and telephone interviews so that elements of the meal could be enhanced with one-off items that had meaning for the guests. For one reviewer that meant being served giant white chocolate sea shells with their dessert, as a nod to their favourite Guylian chocolates.
"I realised that I'm basically in the business of emotion – that's what I've been doing for the past 25 years. I express mine through my relationship with food, from ingredients to cooking techniques and dishes to the experience of the restaurant. We're looking at our emotional relationship with food, which really is something that will last forever."
We're looking at our emotional relationship with food, which really is something that will last forever
The research will take place in the lab/ development kitchen/research centre Blumenthal has set up at his home in France. Subjects currently on the agenda includes microbiomes, the microorganisms that live in the human gut ("We eat for them and they also drive our emotions and our emotions affect how they behave," says Blumenthal, who has coined the term ‘emotional seasoning' to refer to the phenomenon) and water: its viscosity, how the application of vibration to water can affect flavour and, Blumenthal says, transfer emotion.
Although Blumenthal has lived in France since 2018, he says he now feels more connected to the Fat Duck than ever. His house is located 15 minutes from L'Oustau de Baumanière, where, as a 16-year-old, he ate the life-changing three-Michelin-starred meal that would lead him to become a chef and where he continues to be a regular customer.
"The Fat Duck is my blood, sweat and tears in a way that none of the other restaurants are," he explains. "I'm emotionally connected to the other restaurants, of course – they're my concepts – but the Duck has shaped me, and vice versa, more than any other thing, including a person, on this planet.
I believe that there's a whole planet, a whole universe out there, waiting to be discovered, in our relationship with food
"I'm actually less removed from it now than I was. I had been, in periods of time in the past, like a hamster on a wheel. There were very few restaurants on the planet that had 75 staff for 35 guests. So as a standalone business, in order to not only be able to support that team, but to try and do anything, from getting working conditions up and working hours down, to getting new bits of kit to do the development, I had to go out and do outside stuff to bring in more revenue and resources. But then I needed more people to then do the outside stuff, so then I had to do more outside stuff.
"What being here has enabled me to do is actually reconnect with the things that are really valuable to me and that is generating emotions through cooking."
As a French resident with businesses in the UK, Blumenthal is able to travel between the two countries and is exempt from the current requirement to quarantine. When I spoke to him, he had just returned from running sessions with the kitchen teams at both Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental in London's Knightsbridge and the Fat Duck. Dinner by Heston group head chef Tom Allen, who has worked in the Fat Duck Group for 14 years, says that he is in contact with Blumenthal via FaceTime, texts and emails on a weekly basis and has also visited him in France.
"He has his agenda, we have ours and it's just a case of right, we've got two or three days, let's maximise what we can get out of this," explains Allen. "We bounce ideas and we go for dinner and we sit in restaurants and we chat about what he's working on from his side and what we're working on from our side and how we have the crossover and how we bring things from the lab over there and incorporate it into what we're doing now."
During a visit earlier in the year, Allen had been discussing plans for an Alice in Wonderland menu at Dinner to tie in with an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, which, until the pandemic struck, had been due to launch in June this year. They now hope to continue the collaboration for when the exhibition opens in March 2021 and it's hoped that Blumenthal's famous Mock Turtle Soup will be featured in the exhibition.
Plans for a Fat Duck menu at Dinner, which would have featured dishes such as Hot and Iced Tea and Black Forest gâteau, have been shelved. Instead the restaurant team are concentrating on the à la carte, which includes signature items such as Meat Fruit and Tipsy Cake, which have been served since the restaurant opened in January 2011, and the Dinner at Home collection-only menu, which includes the Truffle, a vegetarian version of Meat Fruit, made with mushroom parfait rather than chicken liver parfait. In addition, the team are developing a new Sunday lunch menu and seasonal December menu.
There have been changes elsewhere in Blumenthal's group. Investor James Lee, director of Eximius Projects kitchen design, has swapped his shares in the Hind's Head for a share in the Crown pub. Blumenthal no longer has any involvement with the Crown, although it still falls under the remit of the Fat Duck Group's chief operating officer Nigel Sutcliffe, who returned to the fold last year after an 18-year absence (he first worked for Blumenthal in 1995).
Although the changes at the Crown have gone unremarked, the closure of Dinner by Heston in Melbourne's Crown Casino in February this year attracted headlines, after the business went into voluntary liquidation amid claims staff were owed more than AUS$4m (£2.26m) in wages and AUS$400,000 (£226,278) in employee entitlements. The restaurant had replaced a pop-up version of the Fat Duck, which relocated to Crown Casino for six months in 2015 while the Bray premises were refurbished.
"I had the pleasure of going to Australia at the end and meeting with the Crown team," says Sutcliffe. "I don't think both parties' ambitions were truly aligned. It was ‘run a restaurant in our space' and Crown [Casino] should have provided everything that an outsider should know in terms of how to play in that playing field.
"I think Australia has got a serious issue with its employment laws. Every single industry suffers – there isn't one that doesn't owe the government millions. I think if Crown had understood it better, then the relationship would have lasted longer. We have a debt to pay and Crown wasn't going to be part of the solution. It's not yet been resolved."
The group's other restaurant, the Perfectionist Café in Heathrow Terminal 2, has proved to be more resilient. Despite the impact of Covid-19 on the travel and aviation industry, Sutcliffe says that the restaurant, originally opened in 2014 and named after the TV series and book In Search of Perfection, remains profitable, despite departures dropping from about 24,000 to 6,000-8,000 people per day.
"Covid has had a massive impact and until people have the confidence to travel again, the restaurant will be significantly challenged," he explains. "But Heathrow allowed us to stop trading, to scrutinise travel numbers and to not reopen until we'd worked out numbers efficiently to be able to deliver it. We remodelled what we did – reduced the menu to a streamlined offer with a streamlined team."
A life in food
The Fat Duck's Anthology menu series, drawing on a shortlist of more than 60 dishes from the restaurant's repertoire, will run until August 2021. For Blumenthal, the process of revisiting the dishes (which was partly captured in the BBC 2019 documentary Heston's Marvellous Menu) has been revelatory.
"I'm tasting dishes from 20 years ago, 15 years ago, but with my palate and awareness of today. I've got a completely different perspective, so just going through that process has been amazing. It's been slightly frustrating at times, but it's also been an amazing thing to revisit and be able to reflect on the whys – on some of the things that drove me to do this. I'm getting a much greater understanding of all of that.
"Some of these dishes, when they were being done, they were so radical. I didn't realise – they weren't intended to be radical. I was following my own journey of curiosity and discovery, both in terms of things that were happening in the pan or the way I chopped something, for example. But most importantly when I ate it. What was happening? Where was I feeling it? Where was I tasting it? If I stood on one leg, it seemed to taste different to me. So, I learned an awful lot about the way I was processing the food that I ate and smelled and touched and cooked and discovered. And I wanted to share that with others."
Blumenthal has already had a career that most chefs can only dream of, and his kitchen experiments (just don't call them ‘molecular gastronomy', a term he has long disliked and which led him to publish a ‘Statement on the New Cookery' in The Observer in 2006, written in collaboration with Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller and food scientist Harold McGee, which stated that "molecular gastronomy does not describe our cooking") have earned him a place in the history books alongside Escoffier, Fernand Point, and Adrià himself. So, is there anything left for the 53-year-old still to achieve?
Blumenthal talks excitedly about having got his ‘foot in the door of the education system', being involved in the rewriting of the GCSE in food preparation and nutrition and expresses his shock that what he sees as a crucial subject is optional at GCSE level and has been dropped from A Level.
And there will be more restaurants. The long talked-about Dinner by Heston Dubai is scheduled for next autumn and, according to Sutcliffe, there are opportunities to grow the brand further within the Mandarin Oriental group. There could also be a Hind's Head in Bangkok at some point. Although Blumenthal didn't give any firm indication of where his food might go next, he was unequivocal about where his main interest now lies.
"I'm not thinking of the techniques and all this stuff in the past. I will still be interested in that, but I think when it comes to the future, I believe that there's a whole planet, a whole universe out there, waiting to be discovered, in our relationship with food, but it's taken me 25 years to arrive at that point and realise it."
1984 One-week stage at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire
1984-1995 Working outside of the hospitality industry in various roles to fund annual culinary research trips to France
1986 Reads Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, which will go on to have a profound influence on his cooking and inform his scientific approach to the professional kitchen
1992 Plans to open a restaurant in an eight-bedroom thatched lodge in a vineyard in Franschhoek, South Africa, but the deal falls through
1993 Begins the recipe for triple-cooked chips
1995 Stage at Marco Pierre White's the Canteen in Chelsea Harbour, London. The Fat Duck opens in what was the Bell pub in Bray, Berkshire. The Caterer publishes a Menuwatch on the Fat Duck, its first piece on Blumenthal
1999 The Fat Duck is awarded its first Michelin star
2001 The Riverside Brasserie opens in Bray Marina. Wins the AA Guide's Chef's Chef of the Year Award
2002 The Fat Duck is awarded its second Michelin star. Family Food, Blumenthal's first cookbook, is published. Wins Restaurateur of the Year – Independent award at the Cateys. Kitchen Chemistry, Blumenthal's first TV series, is broadcast
2004 The Fat Duck is awarded its third Michelin star. Wins Chef Award at the Cateys. Acquires the Hind's Head in Bray
2005 The Fat Duck wins first place in the World's 50 Best Restaurants
2006 Awarded an OBE for services to British gastronomy
2008 Publishes The Fat Duck Cookbook
2009 The Fat Duck closes for two weeks in February and March after more than 500 diners are struck down by norovirus. The outbreak is eventually traced to contaminated shellfish
2010 Blumenthal acquires the Crown pub in Bray
2011 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opens in the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge, London
2012 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is awarded first Michelin star
2013 The Hind's Head is awarded one Michelin star
2014 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is awarded its second Michelin star. The Perfectionists Café opens in Terminal 2 at Heathrow
2015 The Fat Duck relocates to Melbourne for a six-month residency at the Crown Casino. The Fat Duck reopens in Bray in September, with the Melbourne restaurant being rebranded as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
2020 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal Melbourne closes amid controversy over staff payments. 25th anniversary of the Fat Duck
The Fat Duck Anthology Menu 2020
- Nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse (2001)
- Aerated beetroot (2011)
- Red cabbage gazpacho, Pommery mustard ice-cream (2001)
- Orange and beetroot jellies (2002)
- Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of chicken liver, truffle and oak toast, scented moss (1999)
- Snail porridge (2003)
- Crab ice-cream (1998)
- Sound of the Sea (2007)
- The coronation feast of James II and Queen Mary (1685), featuring Beef Royal (2007)
- Counting Sheep: malt, milk, vanilla, lavender, tonka bean, orange blossom (2015)
- Like a Kid in a Sweetshop (2006)
Photography by David Cotsworth
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