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Interview with Michelin-starred Heston Blumenthal on The Big Fat Duck Cookbook

06 November 2008 by

He's produced a book that looks distinctly El Bulli - large, expensive and with elaborate recipes - but it's meant as the definitive last word on the Fat Duck. Heston Blumenthal is keen to make a mark, yet his A-list celebrity status is more likely to be enhanced by two new TV series to run next year. Joanna Wood asks the questions of a man treading carefully towards superstardom

It's a hot, lazy sunny afternoon in Bray. The River Thames is just at the end of the lane and Heston Blumenthal is a tad late. It would be easy to drift off to sleep with the sun spilling carelessly through an upper window of his pub, the Hinds Head, while I wait for our interview to begin. It's the England of Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland et al, one that, amid all the test tubes and syringes, strongly appeals to Blumenthal. Finally, he bounces into the room clutching a very large book.

It's his new work, bigger in dimensions even than those emanating from El Bulli, and one that is going to make a serious dent in the wallet as well as the arm muscles. The Big Fat Duck Cookbook may not be nearly £200, as with its El Bulli equivalents, but, at half that, it is still out of the reach of many readers.

"I make no apologies for it not being the ‘Fat Duck at Home'", says Blumenthal. "It's not intended to be a book that turns Fat Duck dishes into domestic kitchen fare. The recipes are down-to-the-milligram Fat Duck recipes. All the secrets are given away. There's no ‘if you can't get foie gras, go and buy yourself chicken livers'. Some of these dishes have taken several years to get right - and there may be an ingredient in there without which they will not be the same."

It's the fact that Blumenthal is giving away his culinary knowledge that will draw chefs to the book. However, there's no doubt that some of the techniques, and the theories behind them, will require several readings before they are understood.

For many people, too, the scientific essays that form the third section of the book will be daunting. As for professional chefs, the size means they are more likely to photocopy recipes for taking into the kitchen. There are also continual references to Alice in Wonderland throughout the book, echoed in new rabbit-hole designs on the Fat Duck website. This all begs the question: who is the book for, exactly?

"Me," admits Blumenthal, with a sheepish laugh. "If I'm brutally honest, this is a selfish piece of work. Of course I want to sell as many copies as possible, but it does have its own barriers built in. The idea is that because there's so much information in there, you'll still be discovering new things in it in five years' time. We all have the ability to leave a legacy in some shape or form. The whole aesthetic of the book was to encapsulate my approach to food."

As for Alice in Wonderland: "I love the fact that she tries to put logic into a completely surreal situation," says Blumenthal.

But Blumenthal has other things on his mind now his tome is finished. There are two new television series for Channel 4, plans for the Fat Duck, and a book for the Royal Society of Chemistry. The first, Kitchen Chemistry, published in 2005, was the organisation's best-selling educational book.

Blumenthal has probably the highest customer-to-chef ratio in the industry at his flagship restaurant: 44 chefs for 42 customers - which he'd like to reduce. That's not a recipe for business profit, and Blumenthal now sees the Fat Duck as only part of his empire. "It's the golden egg thing," he admits. "The bigger bubble is the other businesses. The Fat Duck enables me to do other things - publishing, TV, consulting - and by allowing those to expand I can allow the Fat Duck to shrink."

Not only that, peripheral sources of income have funded the acquisition, six months ago, of another set of offices (to house the reservations and training teams) and a second laboratory in Bray, for researching and developing historic British food to feed into both the Fat Duck and the Hinds Head.

In a deepening economic downturn, Blumenthal's extracurricular earnings might also help to carry the two restaurants through a sticky trading patch. There's still a two-month waiting list at the Fat Duck - but cancellations rose when the first US banks hit the buffers. "We lost three tables the day Lehman's went down," he says.

One obvious way to increase income would be to extend Brand Blumenthal and open another restaurant. The Even Fatter Duck? "I'm never going to do another one of these it would just undermine what we're doing in Bray. I'm not saying that I'm not going to open other restaurants, but there's a lot I still want to do here," he says firmly.

Nevertheless, it's a sure bet there are many hotel chains that would give their eyeteeth to team up with Blumenthal, following the business model established by chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse. Surely he's been approached? "There are lots of things that I am talking about, but there's nothing definite," is his only comment.

Historical banquets

Fair enough. He's more forthcoming about his Channel 4 television series. Feast is a new programme centred on historical banquets, set for February and March next year. "Feast is ticking all the boxes for me, because it's the type of research that I want to do for the restaurants anyway. The meals aren't strictly historical, but my interpretations of historical banquets from Victorian, Tudor, Roman and medieval times."

Then there's Big Chef Little Chef, a fly-on-the-wall three-episode documentary series following Blumenthal's efforts to rebrand the Little Chef chain, set to air in January 2009. "I have three months and a tiny budget to rebrand and rethink Little Chef and hand the model over to the company to possibly roll out. I haven't done anything like this before and I'm thinking at the moment that I've bitten off more than I can chew.

"I imagined I could say, ‘Let's get some proper cooking done.' But with a 7am-10pm trading time, seven days a week, on a 40-hour week with holidays - if you want three chefs in the kitchen and three chefs prepping back of house, you'll need 18-20 chefs per site. There are 180 sites, so that's 3,500 people. They've got enough people already, and I've got to use them, but they're not cooks. I wish I could be like Alice, drink a potion, or fall down a rabbit hole and wake up back in Bray!"

Apparently, the Romans used to stuff a pig with sausages to make it look like the animal's entrails. After checking out what a pig's entrails looked like, Blumenthal and his team had a go at making two sausages to replicate the appearance of the small and large intestines, ending up with lighter and darker coloured bangers. But it didn't stop there. Pea purée, to represent a porcine diet of grass, was also stuffed in the unfortunate animal's belly.

"We had to gut it through its back end so that the stomach looks whole, then, with a tube, insert sausages up its backside using an endoscope and a computer screen. We then had to vac-pac it - but you can't get a vac-pac big enough to cook a pig in, so we ended up fork-lifting the pig into a Jacuzzi to cook it."

For his Victorian feast Blumenthal is back to Alice in Wonderland references. One dish reâ€'creates Alice's shrinking drink - made from buttered toast, roast turkey, cherry pie, toffee, pineapple and custard. Blumenthal worked out the optimum volume of liquid it is possible to suck through a straw in one go - and each mouthful a diner sucks. "You'll have to wait and see how we do it," he says, with schoolboy glee.

Filming has taken up a lot of his time, but Blumenthal is still experimenting in the test kitchens, working on an ultrasound bath for rapid cooking at low temperatures.

He's also turned down offers to appear on celebrity versions of Big Brother, Mr & Mrs and Strictly Come Dancing. It shows Blumenthal's increasing fame outside the culinary world. But not all of his hesitancy is down to a wish to maintain culinary integrity. "You haven't seen me dance," he says.

•For more on Heston Blumenthal and the Fat Duck visit www.caterersearch.com/heston.

Book offer

We're offering 40 copies of Heston Blumenthal's new book at a 45% discount (plus p&p) on the normal retail price. To order a copy call Macmillan Distribution on 01256 302699 quoting reference 1LR. Alternatively, send a cheque (payable to Macmillan Distribution) quoting the same reference, to Macmillan Direct, Houndmills, Basingstoke RG21 6XS. Offer ends 30 November. (The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is published by Bloomsbury at £100.)

Recipe: Flaming Sorbet 2007

This is one of the simplest of Blumenthal's recipes in a book littered with six-page combinations. It's still complex for a published mixture, however.

Ingredients

(Serves 6-8)

For the sorbet
100g unfiltered pressed apple juice
500g water
6g malic acid
200g spray-dried apple granules
8g gellan F

For the whisky blend
50g Caol Ila 18-year-old whisky
25g Talisker 18-year-old whisky
25g Macallan 15-year-old whisky
10g Laphroaig 10-year-old whisky

For the caramelised apples and sultanas
3 Cox's apples
50g unfiltered pressed apple juice
100g fructose
40g large sultanas

For the crumble topping
50g hazelnuts
100g plain flour
2g ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and frozen
75g Demerara sugar
5g fleur de sel

For the diced raw apple 80g fructose
150g water
1g table salt
10g lemon juice
1g vitamin C
1 Granny Smith apple

To serve (per portion)
Reserved sorbet
Reserved caramelised apples
Reserved sultanas in syrup (at room temperature)
Spray-dried apple granules
Reserved crumble topping
Reserved diced raw apple
Dry ice pellets
Popping candy
Small wooden twigs, for serving nests
Reserved whisky blend
Perfume of leather, wood, fire, tobacco and whisky

METHOD
For the sorbet: put all the ingredients except the gellan in a saucepan and bring to 95°C. Add the gellan and mix well using a hand-held blender. Take the mixture to the boil, then remove from the heat. Cool over an ice bath while blitzing continuously with a hand-held blender. Pour the chilled base in to a Pacojet beaker and freeze until solid. Process the sorbet in the Pacojet, releasing the air valve continuously. Cover and store in the freezer.

To make the whisky blend, combine the whiskies, then cover and set aside until needed.

For the caramelised apples and sultanas: preheat a water bath to 90°C. Peel, core and quarter the apples. Combine the juice and fructose in a sous-vide bag and add the apples in a single layer. Seal at full pressure, then place in the water bath for 14 hours. Remove and cool to room temperature. Open the bag and strain off the liquid into a saucepan.

Add the sultanas to the pan of syrup and heat to 70°C. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until needed.

Place the apples in a single layer in a saucepan. Over a medium heat, evaporate the moisture from the apples, turning regularly with a spoon until the surface is lightly caramelised. Remove, and set aside to cool to room temperature.

For the crumble topping: preheat the oven to 150°C. Place the hazelnuts on a baking tray and toast for 10 minutes, shaking the tray regularly. Remove the nuts and peel off the skins with a cloth while still warm. Finely chop the nuts or blitz them in a food processor, but not to the point where they turn into a paste.

Combine the flour and the cinnamon in a bowl. Add the frozen butter and mix by hand until the texture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Fold in the hazelnuts, sugar and fleur de sel so that the mixture forms large clumps. Chill for at least one hour in the freezer.

Preheat the oven (preferably convection) to 200°C. Spread the mixture on to a baking tray and bake until golden brown. Cool to room temperature and store in an airtight container.

For the diced raw apple: combine the fructose, water and salt in a saucepan and heat until the fructose and salt have dissolved. Cool the syrup over an ice bath then add the lemon juice and vitamin C.

Peel and core the apple and chop into 5mm dice. Add the apple to the syrup and then refrigerate until needed, but no longer than two hours.

To serve: preheat the oven to 200°C and place an individual cast-iron cocotte dish and its lid inside to heat.

Place a rocher of sorbet on a baking tray lined with parchment and place in the freezer to harden.

Once the cocotte dish has heated through, remove from the oven and place on a work surface. Put a 50mm ring mould in the centre of the dish, spoon in the caramelised apples to a depth of 5mm and pack down with the back of a spoon. Drain the sultanas and spoon three on top of the apple. Cover the top completely with spray-dried apple granules and the crumble topping, then add three cubes of raw apple. Remove the ring mould.

Place a leather-bound bowl on a work surface and spoon in enough dry ice and popping candy to loosely cover the bottom of it. Make a nest of wooden twigs in the bowl and place the cocotte dish inside it. Working quickly, place the rocher of sorbet on top of the moulded garnish and cover with a hit lid.

Transfer the whisky blend to a container with a spout. Dilute the perfume with warm water (five parts perfume to 95 parts water) and place in another container with a spout. Take the cocotte dish to the table and, as the lids are removed, pour 8g of the whisky blend around each sorbet. Ignite using a cigar torch. At the same moment, pour the perfume on to the nest of twigs, allowing it to flow into the bottom of the bowl and release its aroma.

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