Heston Blumenthal: The mad chef

By Nici Wickes

Viva talks to superstar chef Heston Blumenthal ahead of his upcoming visit to find out what we can expect from the live show, and learn a little about his philosophy - and use of science - in the kitchen.

Experimental chef Heston Blumenthal believes in the multi-sensory experiences of food. Photo / Supplied
Experimental chef Heston Blumenthal believes in the multi-sensory experiences of food. Photo / Supplied

It is close to midnight and I'm deep in conversation. With Heston Blumenthal, creative genius, mad scientist, perfectionist. All are apt descriptors for this superstar from Britain who is arguably the most innovative chef of our times. This is the guy whose menus feature snail porridge, sardine on toast sorbet and an amuse bouche lickable icecream.

So nervous was I in the lead-up to our phone interview that I had spent much of the week madly swotting up on his feats and feasts. Given that my own cooking philosophy is to keep it simple and practical, the more I researched the more nervous I'd became that he would be so intelligent, so science-y, so fervent that I would not be able to keep up.

This was the man who'd taken his restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, established in 1995, to three Michelin stars in just five years, faster than any other kitchen in Britain. His cache of restaurants keeps growing with four at last count - Dinner, The Hinds Head and The Crown, as well as The Fat Duck. He has written seven cookbooks and stars in a number of his own successful TV food shows that have him performing his culinary alchemy.

Heck, he's even cooked for the Queen, so down-to-earth was not a characteristic I was expecting to bestow upon him. Yet here I was, laughing with him and furiously scribbling notes as he talked me through how to boil an egg to perfection and what makes a good burger. His childlike enthusiasm and glorious ability to get side-tracked made our conversation both a joy and a little frustrating. Especially when you only have a limited time to talk to such a hero.

I don't know many chefs who regularly collude with cognitive psychologists when developing recipes, but for Heston it's all in a day's work. An encounter in 1997 was what opened his mind to the multi-sensory experience of food. At this time his menu at The Fat Duck featured a crab icecream with risotto. Let's just say it wasn't that popular. He re-branded it as "frozen crab bisque" and it ran off the menu. This intrigued him and so began his fascination with what preconceived notions we hold and how these can impact on how we experience food.

"It still surprises me that more people are not focusing on this area because it's so obvious - eating is a complete sensory experience. It's the only thing we do that engages all of our senses. What I try to do is play with this idea to extend and deepen one's interaction with food."

He's heading our way for a one-night only live show and I wanted to know what the audience could expect. Would we learn anything practical that we could use in our own cooking and kitchens? I was asking because I'd flicked on the TV one night a while back to find his show, Heston's Feasts, with Heston creating a dinner party themed with food from the 1970s. It included one course arriving via hovering flying saucers, remotely controlled by the mad chef himself. This was no ordinary cooking show. As the show progressed and the guests began emoting about their experiences - the taste, the textures, the nostalgia and the way it took them back to their childhoods in the 70s - and Heston talked of the historical aspects to the menu and where his reinventions had come from, I realised this was as much about science, travel and history as it was about food.

"I see science and technology as just one tool that can be used in the kitchen but it's not an end in itself. It has to deepen the experience for the diner."

Heston denounced "molecular gastronomy" claiming it "explains nothing and sounds elitist. I like exploring the sensations of eating and there's nothing faddish about that. When I introduced the Sounds of the Sea, one of the dishes we serve at The Fat Duck where diners listen to an iPod placed in a shell that plays the sound of the waves lapping up against the shore, along with the occasional call of gulls, while eating edible sand, foam, and various food from the sea." Excuse me, did you say it was served to the table with an iPod in a sea shell? "Yes. I did it because it made perfect sense to me to serve it that way. We encounter food in context and if you were to eat this dish listening to, say, the sound of farmyard animals, your experience would be quite different. I want to enhance the diner's pleasure of eating and to deepen their memory of it."

He believes that food memories are laid down very early and that they're linked to the pain and reward paradigm. He cites a simple example of having to peel your own pistachios and how eating these will be a more intense, more memorable encounter than if we have them supplied already shelled. He recalls having to go to the bric-a-brac market with his gran as a young boy: "Frankly, that was a pain, but on the way home we would always stop by the Regent Snack Bar for an icecream and it tasted so good - it was the pay-off if you like, and the deliciousness of that icecream grew in my mind as the morning wore on! So I learned that food can taste different depending on the context.

"Another time I was drinking wine in the Loire Valley and it was so startlingly good that I ordered a case of it but when I drank it back home it wasn't nearly the wine of my memory. Some may say that the wine hadn't travelled well, but it wasn't that at all. It was that nothing else had travelled."

It's this thinking outside of the usual parameters that leads him to develop creative inventions such as the Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding for Waitrose stores. Where most of us know that candied peel is a key ingredient in Christmas puddings, Heston took it a step further and hid an entire candied orange in the centre which served to infuse the whole pudding with a sweet citrusy scent. Next he created Christmas mince pies that filled the house with the aroma of pine needles to remind us of a Christmas tree.

Did he ever imagine he'd end up such a superstar of the culinary world? "No way. In 1995 when I opened The Fat Duck, I had no goals of making money or becoming well-known. I just wanted to cook. I'd been intrigued with food from a young age but had failed science at school, though I got an A in Art so there was some creativity there. At a stretch I might have thought about one Michelin star but never more than that."

I ask him what he eats on a typical day. "Well, that depends. With the restaurants, Waitrose relationship, TV shows, cookbooks and now developing menus for British Airways, some days I could be tasked with tasting 70-90 different dishes and that's a brutal day of eating. But if the sun is shining, which happens so infrequently here, ha ha, I like to cook at home."

So does a man, who is so bent on bending the rules, ever prepare simple food at home? "Oh yes, at home I cook intuitively. I love porridge and blueberries. Or eggs on the weekend." And before he can stop himself, he's off telling me how the perfect soft-boiled egg takes precisely six minutes, how the water level must be exactly 1mm, no more, no less, above the egg. I tune back in when he says, "or spaghetti bolognaise, that's a great simple meal. Did you know that whenever you're making a meat-sauce using onions, you should add a hint of star anise? It reacts with the sulphur compounds and increases the flavour of meatiness."

I remind him that I'd asked him if he ever just cooked a simple meal and that he'd gotten all technical on me. "When you cook in a restaurant environment it is better to give precise, accurate instructions to people so that they can succeed in the process."

He gives me a great example to prove his point: "If you're baking a lemon tart, most people will use the wobble test - baking it until the lemon custard filling is cooked on the outside while the middle few inches still has a slight wobble. But this can be difficult to judge; too long and the custard will be grainy, not enough cooking time and it won't be set and will run when sliced. Each person who approaches the task will have a different view of what the 'wobble' should look like. I found that it was much better to base the cooking time on an exact measurement and to use a digital thermometer for this. When the temperature in the centre of the tart reaches 62C, it is done. This means that every time you get the same, perfect consistency and who doesn't want that?"

Before I can stop him though, he's back to burgers. "I want to get the whole thing in my mouth without hurting my jaw. The key is to use a super soft bun. People use ciabatta or focaccia-type bread which has the effect of squeezing all the filling out as you try to bite through it. Hopeless. Oh, and the burger pattie - salt the meat, mince it and then let it rest. Easy as that. Of course it's important to use the right meat cuts. I prefer a mix of brisket, sirloin and chuck. And the only thing added is the salt. That's all you need to bind it as it will draw the moisture out, binding the proteins, so there's no need for egg or other binding ingredients." He takes a breath and I think he's finished with burger lesson 101 but no, more words tumble out. "When you mince the meat, it comes out in those tubes, right. Don't then roll it into balls to flatten into patties. Instead, line up all the tubes facing the same way, until you have a thick sausage shape, rest it, then slice it through to make your patties. That way the grain is all running in the same direction and it'll be more tender. Oh, and when you cook them ..."

I manage to get a word in to ask him if these are the sort of practical hints he'll be demonstrating in his live show.

"Well, the show is in two parts; the first is like a journey of where my ideas have come from, a fantasia of food ideas, experiments and demonstrations of some famous Fat Duck dishes. The second part is where I'll show some of the ideas that are helpful back in the home kitchen, like how to cook the perfect steak and why, if you insist on storing your eggs in the fridge, the door is the worst possible place for them." He laughs and adds, "I promise it will be practical, Nici." I'm sure his version of that and mine are quite different but I can't wait to find out nonetheless.

So where is it all heading for him?

"It's just evolution really. Last year was the first year that I can say I was truly happy with where the Fat Duck is at, so from here who knows? I'd like a James Bond type laboratory with doors that make that cool noise as they open and shut; a place for creatives, scientists, script writers, mad people, all set on playing and having fun, experimenting with toys and techniques. Now that would be so much fun."

It's the early hours when we finish talking but instead of feeling tired, I'm invigorated and inspired. I can't resist trialling his recipe for the perfect boiled egg before going to bed.

Three trials later, three perfectly soft-boiled eggs. Heston Blumenthal, through food, has shown me that science really does have a place in the home kitchen. Amazing.

How to boil an egg

Heston: "My method for cooking soft-boiled eggs is so simple but it works perfectly every time. The trick is to use fresh eggs and to let the residual heat do all the work."

Serves 4

4 large eggs
Salt and black pepper

1 Place the eggs in the smallest saucepan available and only add enough cold water to cover them by 1mm (be precise with this bit). Put the lid on and place over the highest heat possible.

2 When the water comes to the boil, remove from the heat and leave for six minutes.

3 After the time has elapsed, remove the lid and carefully remove each egg. Cut the top of each egg before seasoning with salt and pepper and serving in egg cups.

Heston Blumenthal Live! 8pm, Saturday May 5, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland. Visit buytickets.co.nz or (09) 357 3355 or 0800 buy tickets (0800 289 842.)

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- NZ Herald

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