In late 2013 Heston Blumenthal made national headlines with the news that he was to open a restaurant in the newly refurbished Heathrow Terminal 2. Five months on, Tom Vaughan pays a visit to find out how the project is developing
Ashley Palmer-Watts is standing in the Fat Duck experimental kitchen in Bray. "It would have been really easy for us to take these books and just put the recipes straight into the Perfectionists' Café," says the group executive chef of Heston Blumenthal's restaurants, while staring at his boss's second cookbook, 2006's In Search of Perfection.
"This book represents a massive amount of work by a lot of people, but we just used it as a starting point. That is how much we want to get this right."
To his left sits a mood board for the Perfectionists' Café, the restaurant the group is launching at Heathrow's brand new £2.5b Terminal 2 this summer. To his right is a selection of prototype staff uniforms. And ahead, the ingredients for the perfect pizza, perfect burger and perfect fish and chips. On 2 June all these components are set to come together in a 125-seat restaurant that promises to offer customers a "perfect" version of popular casual dining dishes.
"The amount of work and research that has gone into this is perhaps, commercially speaking, not the best way of going about things," muses Palmer-Watts. "But the results will be perfect."
"Perfect" is a word that crops up a lot over the course of the morning. And while none would argue with Blumenthal and his team's exacting standards, the Perfectionists' Café represents something of a leap into the unknown for the restaurant group. After growing from the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck (90 daily covers), to the two-starred Dinner (300 daily covers) - plus the group's two pubs - the sheer scale of the Perfectionists' Café, with its estimated 1,300-2,000 daily covers, makes it a whole new beast.
However, the opportunity proved too good to resist. "Heston had the chance to open a restaurant in the airport, somewhere he's never been before, and decided to do a concise offering that has its lineage in In Search of â¨Perfection," says Palmer-Watts. "We wanted to strip every dish back as far as we could and understand what makes it perfect - which is how we cook anyway."
The site itself looks full of promise, at least from a quick view of the concept boards. Situated overlooking the terminal on one side and the runway on the other, it is a swish hodgepodge of different seating styles around a central kitchen boasting a wood-fired oven.
Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts realised they needed a chef who had experience with the kind of numbers they expect at the restaurant. Enter O'Neill, who as executive chef of the Wolseley and head chef at Bank bar and restaurant (both in London), is something of a specialist at turning out top-end food at high volume.
Immediately, he got under way figuring out the logistics of opening in T2.
"There was an enormous amount of data available about passengers, footfall and so on - there will be 10 million people going through the new terminal every year," says O'Neill.
Aside from the sheer numbers, dining at an airport is a completely different experience to, say, the Fat Duck, where it is recommended that diners take three-and-a-half hours to enjoy the tasting menu. "At the airport, you sort one or two things out then work out how much time you have to eat," says Palmer-Watts. "Typically, people want to have their drinks within five minutes and food within 10."
All of this makes the team's plans even more ambitious - not only will the kitchen be churning out burgers, wood-fired pizzas and rôtisserie chickens, but there will also be a Willy Wonka-esque ice-cream parlour where kids of all ages can create bespoke sundaes made with liquid nitrogen, in edible wafer bowls.
Most importantly, it will give international travellers a taste of what Blumenthal does, but with accessible price points - pizzas start at £9, while fish and chips is £14.
It's not going to be £10 more expensive than anywhere else," says Palmer-Watts. "It's got to be competitive. The detail in everything and the sheer amount of research that has gone in is where the USP is."
The perfect pizza "When I sat down with Heston, I told him that I know it sounds like a jolly, but Julian and I have to go back to Naples," recalls Palmer-Watts. Flying out to the home of pizza was, of course, a fun work jaunt for Palmer-Watts and O'Neill but perfecting a dish that Neapolitans had themselves, well, perfected also made it a daunting challenge for the duo.
The pair ate their way around Naples. After consuming 15 pizzas each across two days, they realised that the best oven possible was essential - and the team had one shipped over from Italy - but that the key to nailing the dish was the base.
"The secret is the dough. With the toppings you can only buy the best you can. We thought about having the dough made by our baker and transported to the restaurant but very quickly realised it would be easier to do it ourselves," says Palmer-Watts. "We bought in four different types of flour from Italy and the exact machine they use to mix the dough."
Key to getting the right texture on the dough is to copy the Neapolitan way of making it - which is to add the water first to the mixer and then pour in the flour slowly. "It means you really saturate the gluten," says Palmer-Watts. "You get this light dough with low yeast and â¨a slow fermentation." From start to finish, â¨the dough takes anything up to 14 hours to â¨ferment at 25Â°C.
But even nine months of research is nothing in the pizza game. "The difference between what we know now and what we will know in a year is so huge, just from working with this dough every day," says Palmer-Watts. For the toppings, the most intriguing is the home-made smoked ricotta - which the restaurant will make every evening when service is slowing by gently heating full-fat milk in the pizza oven to 92Â°C, adding acid and letting it do its thing. The result is ricotta with a subtle smoky flavour.
However, the biggest challenge has been getting this oven installed in an airport, and the details of the in-dome sprinkler system are just being finalised. "The Heathrow team have been very helpful in making it happen. They'll walk you to the hoops and then help you through them," says O'Neill. "And there are a lot of hoops," adds Palmer-Watts.
The perfect fish and chips While O'Neill and Palmer-Watts are anticipating that the burger will be one of the best sellers at the Perfectionists' Café, they are quietly hopeful that the fish and chips will match it for popularity.
"I reckon I've made more than 50 batter mixes and tasted more than 50 fish," says O'Neill, "which is a lot when you consider that, to taste it properly, you've got to eat everything, from the first bite to the last - and not just have a morsel."
"So often fish and chips in the UK is disappointing, which is why we want ours to be perfect," adds Palmer-Watts. "We've got sustainably caught dayboat fish - we're taking all of one boat's fish. Haddock is our preference, but it could be pollock or ling, depending on availability. And then there's the key to it - the batter."
The team worked with different companies to try to find the right batter mix with the right natural starches. The secret is to then run this through an espuma gun before coating the fish. "It creates thousands of air bubbles in the batter that expand when they hit the oil and protect the flesh of the fish," says Palmer-Watts. "There are certain challenges when doing that at home, but when you are doing that for thousands of covers you really need to work on the stability of the batter, which is why we've spent so long getting it right. The result is a light, crunchy batter and perfectly cooked fish."
Sadly, Blumenthal's famous triple-cooked chips look like being a step too far. "We'd need a whole factory to make the volume we'll be serving," says Palmer-Watts. But the pair â¨hope that a home-made tartare and excellent home-made mushy peas will make up for any disappointment from diners. And their â¨normal chips, as you might expect, aren't half bad either.
The perfect burger "Everything about a burger is the way it breaks and eats in your mouth," says Palmer-Watts. A lot has been written about burgers these past few years, and every other person seems to have an opinion on how to make the perfect one. For Palmer-Watts and O'Neill, it was about the mixture of cuts used and, more geekily, the alignment of the minced strands.
"We use brisket, rib cap and chuck," says Palmer-Watts. "When it comes out of the mincing plate it goes straight into a burger bag like a long sausage, with all the minced strands running in parallel. When it's chilled and sliced you get all those strands sitting perfectly, and it means when you eat it you get these little pockets of fat."
Then, of course, there is the bun. "People think a brioche bun is best," says O'Neill. "We looked at one using whipping cream and one using butter, but version 17, which was made with both, was the best. We developed it with our baker but it is definitely our bun."
Throw in Iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced tomato, cornichon, onion (a person's bite is the size of their middle three fingers, so a perfect burger is no thicker than this when squeezed together) and a sauce made from ketchup, mayonnaise and Frenchie's mustard and you have another competitor scrapping it out in one of the most hotly contested culinary battles of the past few years - the fight for the perfect burger.
Julian O'Neill Head chef, Perfectionists' Cafe "When we started this project we needed someone who had serious experience in restaurants of this size," says Palmer-Watts.
"Where do you find someone with the necessary experience to do something like this? So when Heston and I spoke with Julian it was almost too good to be true."
O'Neill's brief at the Perfectionists' Café was to hone the perfect versions of popular casual-dining dishes. "I had the luxury of nine months to do research into the recipes," he explains. "I've never had that kind of time before to get things right. I must have cooked 50 chickens over those nine months. The food might just be roast chicken and fish and chips, but it is done the Heston way."
O'Neill has also had to deal with the huge amount of red tape surrounding operations at the airport. "Every member of staff has to have a four-hour security test. You have to prove where you've lived for five years, and if you've had more than a four-week break you need a reference. We've done 11 interview days up there so far," he explains.
Also, he has had to oversee a first for Heathrow: a restaurant using many different suppliers. "It's a whole new ball game for them. They've treated it more like a boutique offering. We've got 30 suppliers - the likes of Pret A Manger and Eat have one central one. We even have liquid nitrogen deliveries that we have to do risk assessments for. All of it is blowing their minds."
Recruiting the right staff
So thick was the veil of secrecy around the Perfectionists' Café that even O'Neill's father didn't know what he was working on, and when he did a stage at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental, the air was thick with rumour about what he was up to.
"Some of them thought it was a project to develop food for a Richard Branson space hotel," laughs O'Neill.
However, this secrecy also made it impossible to recruit staff - and Palmer-Watts and O'Neill have made it no secret that they are now recruiting.
"We just want the right staff," says Palmer-Watts. "People don't yet realise what the restaurant is. But every chef in that kitchen will be there to learn - as much as in
our other restaurants."
Total staff numbers will be 45 in the kitchen and 70 front of house, and the pair have a strong vision of the sort of atmosphere they want. "We want a relaxed, quirky,
front-of-house feel," says Palmer-Watts. "We've shied away from uniforms that look like they come out of a book - no matching ties or waistcoats.
If you're comfortable then you are going to feel good, and that will reflect in your service."
What's on the menu
•Full English breakfast
•Spit-roast, free-range chicken, bread sauce & roasting juices
•30-day dry-aged Hereford ribeye steak with bearnaise sauce
•Hensons salt beef sourdough sandwich, mustard & dill pickle
•Day boat fish and chips, mushy peas & tartar sauce
•Enzo pizza - preserved cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh ricotta, rocket
•Black Forest nitro ice-cream sundae