Heston Blumenthal Constructs Contextual Cheer
Interviewwith Chef Heston Blumenthal
by Will Blunt and Marianna Orlinkova
Marianna Orlinkova, The Gastronome Magazine: When you’re remembering your childhood, from the point of view of scents, aromas, and feelings, what do you remember first?
Heston Blumenthal: I remember the smell of suntan lotion with olive oil and vinegar on a beach in Cornwall. You've seen the British on holiday – it's a major operation! We make sandwiches, they invariably get knocked over, and you get a mouthful of sand in each bite. There are flavors I remember – around the corner from where we used to live in London there's a Saturday morning market, and my sister and I would go with my Gran every week. It was awful, and the only thing that kept us going was this ice cream parlor down the street called Regents Snack Bar run by a couple of Sicilian blokes. I don’t know if it was because the reward was so great – after enduring the market – that made it so good, but it was my favorite ice cream.
It’s easy to imagine Heston Blumenthal as a kid in a candy store, reaching fingers into jars and asking for a taste with the same restlessly inquisitive and playful approach that distinguishes his kitchen today. So it’s apt that Blumenthal made a sweetshop the theme of his new project, an interactive website designed to engage, educate and excite The Fat Duck’s diners – all before they’ve even stepped foot in the restaurant.
At Madrid Fusion 2007, Blumenthal greeted attendees with 3-D glasses and an introduction to his philosophy, stating: “If there’s one thing I’d like a customer to say, it’s that they had fun – this is the emotion that counts.” The sweetshop is a contextual metaphor for what he hopes to achieve within the walls of his restaurant, and an explanation of the ways in which he does it. After making a reservation, a prospective diner will receive access to the Fat Duck Sweetshop, an interactive online world designed to introduce them to the restaurant by way of dishes and candies that play on the main tenants of Blumenthal’s philosophy – context, contrast and synesthesia.
“It’s using your time to generate excitement, because you’re much more likely to have fun if you’re excited. I want people rubbing their hands in glee.”
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which multiple senses overlap – letters and tones are perceived as colors, or words as palpable tastes. Blumenthal uses the term to refer to the inextricable connection of senses to experience. For years he has been interested in the external sensory triggers that shape a dining experience – from the multi-sensory process of flavor perception (he found that the sound of sizzling accentuates the bacon flavor perceived in bacon-egg ice cream) to the way context effects taste (a Muscadet tastes better on a picnic in the Loire Valley than back in one’s London flat). Blumenthal cites experiments that test the effects of sounds, colors and smells on the perception of flavor and texture; the findings of these experiments can be experienced firsthand on his restaurant’s tables. A current dish, for example, evokes the sea through multi-sensory clues – edible approximations of surf and sand are paired with seafood and sounds of the sea delivered to the guest via iPod.
But before the restaurant comes the Sweetshop, whose virtual shelves hold candies that represent the playful ways Blumenthal’s philosophies come to life. An apple pie caramel comes with a temptingly Alice in Wonderland-style tag (“eat all of me,” it demands), and an edible wrapper laced with malic acid that generates saliva and heightens the apple flavor. “Coconut Baccy,” a ubiquitous English sweet, is actually infused with Black Cavendish Tobacco. After the meal, the diner is presented with a pink and white-striped bag of the same candies they selected while browsing the shelves of the virtual sweetshop. And so the experience comes full circle, referencing the first moments of The Fat Duck adventure, which began not when the diner walked in the door, but when they made the reservation.