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Heston Blumenthal on the Fat Duck, Dinner and nostalgia
Heston Blumenthal may be well-known for his three-Michelin-starred restaurants The Fat Duck, in Bray, alongside his London offering Heston Blumenthal Dinner, not to mention his recipe development with Waitrose and his TV shows, but there’s more to this celebrity chef than high-end cuisine. MSN Food caught up with Heston ahead of his new TV show for Channel 4 called Heston's Fantastical Food, which starts on 6 November. We discover why Heston is obsessed with nostalgia, why British food remains the best in the world and why running a McDonald’s is more profitable than The Fat Duck.
Tell us a bit more about your new show for Channel 4, Heston’s Fantastical Food
It looks at food experiences, eating experiences, almost rituals that have - for whatever reason - become less popular. So, for example, the ice-cream van and the whole nostalgia and childhood memory of it and how magical it was when we were kids. The ice-cream van is disappearing mainly because of cost and also things like health and safety. You can only play the chimes for four seconds or something stupid now. The notion of a van just driving around an estate, you can’t really do that anymore. You’ve got to get permission.
We love nostalgia about music, film, bad haircuts and I realised that actually, food is a really big area of that."
So we go into the history of the ice-cream van and also, in each show, we have an iconic food and that’s a food that we’ve all grown up with. When you talk about the ice-cream van, it’s got to be a Mr Whippy or a Soft Serve, and the idea is to engage a whole community to bring this experience back as a one-off event on a huge scale. And that brings its own challenges.
To make it big and taste good is really difficult. So we look at the challenges around that. We go back into the history of that particular food, how it grew in popularity. So you’ve got a big chunk of nostalgia.
Memory in food for you is very strong. Do you think that a lot of Brits have strong associations with the food that they ate as kids and how do you think that shapes what we eat as adults?
That whole thing started for me when, years ago, I walked in when my son was watching the old Pink Panther show. He drives up in the pink sports car, the door opens and the cartoon character walks out of the car. And that song was playing. I thought: ‘Oh my God’. I hadn’t seen that show or heard that tune for years and it took me straight back to remembering a chocolate bar. It was the Pink Panther chocolate bar and it was pink! And I thought: ‘I can hardly remember that being pink’. But I remember the taste.
I think when we eat, the pleasure we get from eating is about so much more than just the food."
We were working with one of the largest perfume-flavour houses in the world at the time and the guy who was the head of research for it almost became like a mentor figure for me. So I called him up and I said: ‘Do you remember the Pink Panther chocolate bar?’ and it just so happened that that company did the flavour for it and he sent me a little bottle with the aroma in it. It was kind of like synthetic strawberry. Smelling that aroma took me straight back to my childhood. From there I got really fascinated by the whole thing of memory and found out that smell is the biggest trigger of memory of the senses and it’s really, really powerful. I think as kids we have these food memories. Another one is packed lunch. Now, I only ever really had packed lunches when we went on a school trip, or when we used to go to Cornwall we ate sandwiches out of tinfoil on the beach, a windy beach on our summer holiday. It’s trying to bring those experiences back with a big chunk of surprise, and trigger all of that nostalgia. We love nostalgia. We love nostalgia about music, film, bad haircuts and I realised that actually, food is a really big area of that.
So then, from that moment (going back to The Pink Panther experience), I then put cards on the table at The Duck which said: ‘Think about the decade in which you grew up’ – I didn’t want to ask people to put down their age – and then for them to name the most nostalgic foods they can remember. We collected thousands of cards on this. My first idea was to take some of this as inspiration – I didn’t really think I’d be doing a television show around it about 10 or 12 years later. But what it did do, which worked so well, was it kind of broke the ice. At the beginning of the meal, you sit down and start getting nostalgic about stuff. I think when we eat, the pleasure we get from eating is about so much more than just the food.
And when you say ‘break the ice’ do you mean between the restaurant and diners or between the diners themselves?
Both – both the diners themselves and the restaurant and the diner. So it just means that it makes people more relaxed. And in fact, one of the best cards we had, this couple wrote that they were on the verge of divorcing. They wrote me a letter afterwards. It was on their card that they started talking about nostalgic things and then realised how much great stuff they had shared. And they said: ‘It saved our marriage.' I know that was an extreme example, but it was quite funny.
Congratulations on The Hinds Head and the Michelin star. Many of our audience feel a bit distanced from Michelin. How do you connect the great British public with Michelin and fine dining? How do you try and meet in the middle?
I think the single most important thing of all is the service. The chef’s looking at me a bit strangely as I say this but the service is more important than the food. Good food can’t cover up bad service or rude service. So you could go to a restaurant and the kitchen could be firing on all cylinders but if the service is indifferent or it’s rude or it’s just bad, you’re not really going to want to go back again. You could be in a restaurant and maybe your fish is overcooked and you have to send it back, but the service is so human and friendly, you’ll still want to go back. It’s that human element, and again, there are many reasons why people go to restaurants – it’s not just about the food.
Service is more important than the food. Good food can’t cover up bad service or rude service."
I think it’s the traditional, stereotyped image of a Michelin-starred restaurant, where you’ve got starched linen and very heavily suited waiting staff, standing stiff as anything, seemingly arrogant, that kind of thing, and I think that that was nothing to do with the Michelin guide themselves. That was an opinion, from the restaurant’s point of view as well as the general public, that that was the kind of thing you need to do to get a Michelin star. In fact, with the Michelin guide, the stars really are ratings for the food, not everything else.
Having said that, I still believe that we’re all humans, and if you go somewhere that’s all very grand, that’s something that can mask the food in a lot of people’s eyes. You have that traditional image of a stiff, pompous and uncomfortable setting. In terms of approachability, it’s really all about the service, the welcome that you get and the feeling that you get from the staff.
And I’d also say about the Michelin guide having been through it, is that the thing that I was most excited about was all the guys in the kitchen and front of house at The Hind’s Head, what it did for them. It’s that sense of achievement you get from an operator’s point of view.
The Fat Duck
Did you see Hotel GB on Channel 4? Do you think that reality TV doesn’t take the business of cooking seriously enough?
I think it’s a double-edged sword because I think that cooking now, the world of gastronomy and chefs has become really quite glamorous. If you think about the amount of cooking shows on TV, the diversity and popularity of them, and the hunger that the general public has to watch them, I think that that means that the subject of cooking and restaurants can then go into different genres from a television point of view. I haven’t seen the show so I’m speaking a bit blind but I don’t think that was ever something that was considered to be or designed as a cooking show, I think it’s just subject matter for reality TV.
There is a hunger for watching people struggle and there is a hunger in television for jeopardy. TV channels generally will always try to create jeopardy because they think that the viewer would like to see people struggle, suffer and then come through at the end. I think it’s more an entertainment show as opposed to one that one with a culinary point of view.
Jamie Oliver said a couple of days ago that he’d had about 30,000 napkins stolen from his restaurant. Do you get a lot of things swiped from The Fat Duck? Do you think diners are entitled to take the odd souvenir?
I think, and I felt this even before I had a restaurant, nobody is entitled to take anything from anywhere – it’s stealing. You wouldn’t go into somebody’s home and take something. If you go to a restaurant, unless it’s something that they give you to take away with you, it doesn’t mean that the cutlery is available. What you’re paying for is the ingredients and the staff to cook it and you’re paying for the cost of those things that are used to make the restaurant more comfortable and napkins and cutlery are part of that. You’re paying for the use of it, you’re not paying to keep it. So if you take that away, it’s theft, it’s stealing.
In a restaurant, if you make 15% profit at the end of the month, you’re doing really well."
The same goes with hotels. I think that anything that’s disposable, ok, it’s like taking a light, a nice little bedside lamp. We have had a couple of people take – it hasn’t happened for a long time – we did this dish with the sound of the sea and you got an iPod tucked into a seashell, we had a couple of people take the iPods. I think what people don’t realise is that in a restaurant, if you make 15% profit at the end of the month, you’re doing really well, that’s a successful restaurant. I think McDonald’s makes one of the highest profits listed of any restaurant or chain. People think: “God, I’ve just paid £50 for my food, if I add the ingredients up it only cost X amount of money, they must be making a fortune”. On a £50 bill, you’re lucky if you’re going to make £7, most restaurants would maybe make £5 on it. So if you take a knife, basically that’s it, you’ve just dropped the rest of any profit they make.
A. Palmer Watts
Duck-themed cutlery decorates the exterior of Heston's The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray.
What do you normally eat when you’re at home? Do you like to pare it back, nice and relaxed, or do you experiment?
I eat like anybody else. Actually, that’s a complete and utter load of nonsense. In some areas I do, but I certainly don’t experiment. There’s a massive difference between cooking at home and cooking at the restaurant, if you take the fact that we have 50 chefs and we cook for 42-44 people. At the Duck, the ingredients come in, and it’s like an orchestra, different sections prepare different elements. We have the veg section, sauce, fish, meat, pastry, it’s broken down into different sections.
I’d say I’m having the happiest time of my life right now."
Whereas at home, you go out, you buy ingredients, you cook and then you eat the food. So you cook the dish from start to finish whereas a Michelin-starred chef will almost never prepare a dish from start to finish. So when I cook at home it’s very, very, very different from what I do at the Duck. It’s much more intuitive and spontaneous. I cook something just by touch, feel and that’s what I do but you can’t do that if you’ve got a three-Michelin-starred restaurant at that level of consistency and with a team of 50 people. You can’t have 50 people just cooking the way that they feel every day because it would be a car crash. You have to keep the consistency. So it’s a very, very different thing. I love cooking, I absolutely love it.
You’ve achieved a lot with your restaurants, you’re very busy with TV. What is there left to achieve? Are you happy with where you are?
I’d say I’m having the happiest time of my life right now. There’s stuff at work that’s a bit of a pain in the arse but I think you have to do those things to appreciate the other stuff. A question people ask me a lot is ‘What would you do if you didn’t cook?’ To be honest, there’s nothing. Anything else and I’d be less happy. There’s such a diversity now in what I do. I love the whole creative process.
For me, the television [work] allows me to do the creative stuff that you could never do in a restaurant. And at the end of the day, for me the reason for cooking is quite selfish: it’s to give pleasure to other people. So when we went for the largest Mr Whippy ice-cream in the world, we served it and 3,500 people turned up at Gloucester Park. Their reaction was just amazing… the fact that food can actually have that effect on people. So it’s the happiest time of my life to be honest.
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He's known as Heston Blooming'eck in our house!
I suppose that if I'd got the £s available then I may try and book a zillion years in advance to eat in his restaurant. Then again, I could just get a life.