Heston Blumenthal and his appliance of science at Bray Village
PUBLISHED: 11:55 21 March 2014 | UPDATED: 15:35 07 November 2017
Heston loves his home comforts and is somehow fitting it all in with a 'molecular gastronomy' struggle and a project with The Royal Berkshire Hospital
Heston first made his mark on Berkshire back in 1995 - his flagship pub/restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray boasted an outside toilet and little else. Since then, the renowned culinary innovator has become globally recognised for serving dishes using molecular gastronomic principles – though the chef disputes the use of that terminology.
“I have a real issue with the phrase ‘molecular gastronomy’,” he begins. “Molecular gastronomy says that an egg white sets at a different temperature to an egg yolk, and if you know that, it can improve your egg cooking. If you cook meat over a certain temperature for a certain period of time it will eventually squeeze all the juices out. Knowing this helps the cooking process. But these days molecular gastronomy has become associated with pipettes and test tubes – that’s not really what it is.”
Have we kicked off with a contentious subject here? Is our date with one of the county’s celebrity forerunners about to go sour? Possibly not – what Heston is talking about here is a passion for precision, for detail. He’s not offended by the layman’s complications over gastro science terms, he’s entertained by them... to a point. After all, seven years ago he wrote a Statement of New Cooking with author Harold McGee to solidify his beliefs.
“We got Ferran Adria of restaurant El Bulli and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry to sign up for the Statement. It’s a set of principles that define not only my cooking but the ethos of the barista trying to get the perfect crema on a cup of coffee, or the baker aiming to make the perfect sourdough. It’s modern cooking - the molecular gastronomy thing is completely misunderstood. What it’s come to be associated with now is so distanced from what it was meant to be.”
Call it molecular gastronomy or otherwise, it’s clear that Heston takes the science behind his food seriously. A research laboratory where Blumenthal and his team develop new food concepts stands just two doors from The Fat Duck.
Magic of the Fat Duck
With a ratio of one kitchen staff member to every customer, the restaurant has secured three Michelin stars, and with it, worldwide acclaim. Offering tantalising delicacies such as Jelly of Quail and Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (c.1892), Heston takes pleasure in playing tricks on diners’ perceptions. But can he think of a memorable creation that didn’t make it to the menu?
“I made a Big Mac ice cream once. But it wasn’t for public consumption. I used to work with a perfume flavour who had McDonalds as a client, and they asked me to do it. I just took the whole thing and whacked it in the Pacojet and it tasted exactly of a Big Mac… it was really weird.”
How it all started
Heston was sold to the world of fine dining after experiencing a five-star restaurant in Provence, aged 16. Having managed to persuade Raymond Blanc to let him work for a week at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Heston determined he would earn enough money to buy his own restaurant rather than work his way up. A decade on, he succeeded in his mission, now claiming a staggering six Michelin stars in a dining portfolio that also includes The Crown and The Hinds Head in Bray, as well as London base Dinner at the hotel Mandarin Oriental.
Bray became home
“When I’m not filming most of time is spent in Bray, probably 80 per cent of my week. We’ve got a couple of hundred people working between the three establishments, and they take care of all the development work, the restaurants, the books, the television, the supermarkets... all of that kind of stuff.
“The Fat Duck will be two decades old next year, and Dinner was my first restaurant outside of Bray, so let’s say I’ve been taking my time!”
Indeed, the “mad scientist” retains a genuine passion for local relevance. He’s a rare breed of chef who has, if anything, moved closer to his community as fame has increased.
The Royal Berkshire Hospital project
“I don’t think you should ever forget what got you started, and for me that was the people of Bray and Berkshire. So I’m doing a project with the NHS and the Royal Berkshire Hospital to get older people more interested in eating sensibly. And this isn’t just about greens – it’s about appreciating all foods, and knowing what really goes into them. So, as an example, we obviously can’t put any more salt into our food, but the thresholds for monosodium glutamate are much higher than with salt. Some bloke in the 1960s called MSG ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ and it stuck, but scientifically it’s completely and utterly wrong.”
When Heston dines out…
For a chef of Heston’s calibre, dining out becomes calorific for a rather different reason.
“When we go to a restaurant my missus and I have a technique - we like to share a starter, then share another starter and then a main course. It’s nice because you get a three-course meal but you’re not eating as much food. People should try that.
“Unfortunately, the experiment sometimes falls down because we have been known to have loads of extra dishes sent out by keen chefs. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but because most of my working time now is spent developing and eating, I actually don’t want another six plates of food. But it seems really rude if I don’t try what’s sent, so I eat it all and come out absolutely stuffed!” he laughs.
A way around this would be to eat somewhere where his face isn’t known – could a trip to south-east Asia be on the cards?!
“Well it’s funny you should say that, because from a purism point of view, Japanese food is my favourite for the sheer reverence chefs there give to their produce. The first time I went there most of the menus were written in Japanese and you needed a translator, which is exactly how it should be. It’s the first time I’ve been somewhere and had no idea what so much of the produce was, but the cuisine is always immaculate.”
So aside from mountains of other chefs’ offerings, what keeps Heston going? “A combination of a lot of tea, a lot of exercise and being able to enjoy my job... and the promise of coming back to the home comforts of Berkshire – surely that’s what all of us crave?”
Everyone should add this to their ‘bucket list’ and enjoy the £195 tasting menu. It’s going to keep you extraordinarily entertained for at least three and a half hours.
Fascinating dishes include Sound Of The Sea, which involves listening to an iPod while you eat. A box of what looks like sand and seashells arrives but it actually includes crushed and fried baby eels, langoustine oil topped with abalone, oysters, razor clams and shrimps, disguised in a tapioca and fried breadcrumb mix, with edible seaweed.
It’s all part of Heston’s fascination with how sound can change your appreciation of the food in your mouth. He’s had Professor Charles Spence feeding crunching sounds through headphones while he tries chewing gum – suddenly it feels crunchy – and tested people’s responses to oysters eaten while listening to farmyard, coastal or ambient noise – you’ve guessed it whooshing waves and seagulls made the oysters more pleasurable and, in some cases, seem saltier.
Heston also likes to experiment with sensory perception such as colours - some diners insist an orange-coloured jelly is made or oranges, until they manage to over-ride that and accept it’s a beetroot version.
The 14-course tasting menu also includes such treats as nitro poached aperitifs, snail porridge, Mad Hatters Tea Party (c.1892) with its mock turtle soup, pocket watch and toast sandwich, and salmon poached in a liquorice gel. Then there’s a real menu favourite for many, Botrytis Cinerea, which look like grapes and uses flavour molecules from Sauterne wine, which each little treat having a different taste.
Prepare to be amazed.
Reservations can be made for up to two months in advance, open for lunch Tuesday to Saturday, noon, last orders 2pm, dinner same days from 7pm, last orders 9pm. You’ll need reasonably deep pockets for the excellent wine list (whites start with a Sancerre at £32) and vintage choices go up into the £1,000 plus list if this is a lifetime treat.
Why not try Heston’s other Bray treats?
The Hinds Head
Specialising in British favourites, head chef Kevin Love oversees the menu at Heston’s 15th century Michelin star pub in Bray. Alongside the meals you’ll find locally sourced guest ales including Rebellion and Roasted Nuts from The Marlow Brewery and Conqueror from Windsor & Eton Brewery.
It’s a good choice if you can’t stretch to the Fat Duck experience. Mains include Fish Pie with ‘Sand and Sea’ (£17.95) and hearty steaks and roast dishes (from around £20 to £33).
Short on time? Snacks and starters include delicious Scotch Egg, hash of snails and treats featuring mackerel, salmon or venison. On Sundays the a la cartre extends to traditional roast specials, with smaller portions for children (from around £20 adults).
Heston’s little Bray empire was extended in 2010 when he took over the 16th century Crown. There’s something for everyone here, whether you’re looking for a top class sandwich or even hotdog lunch or evening meal, and vegetarians report they are well catered for.
Fascinating starters include potted rabbit, mussels and Jerusalem artichoke soup. Mains range from fish and chips with crushed peas to Crown Estate Whole Grey Leg partridge with superb vegetables, or a mouth-watering char-grilled Hereford sirloin steak with marrowbone sauce and fries (from around £14-£28).
The Crown is open seven days a week and has a lovely garden and courtyard area, so eat out here if the weather permits.