Interview with Chef Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck - Bray, England

Februay 2007

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.

Will Blunt, What kind of ice cream was it?

HB: They only made about half a dozen flavors. I thought I remembered vanilla, and later in life, when I started looking at the mechanics of ice cream making, I wanted to make a vanilla ice cream that captured those memories from childhood. I’d read somewhere that adding just a couple whole coffee beans to the custard base added that certain something without giving it a coffee flavor. After I read that, thinking back, there was that coffee element in the vanilla ice cream I remembered.
In 2000, I did a series for the Discovery channel called Kitchen Chemistry and one of the programs was on ice cream. We found those ice cream chaps from my childhood – they had opened their own place on Cheswick High Road. We were so excited to go, but when we tasted the vanilla ice cream cones, it was nothing like I remembered it; nothing! We’re about to go and then I see a tub of coffee ice cream, and ask if I could taste it. When I tasted the coffee ice cream it all came back to me. I suddenly remembered I didn’t have the ice cream in a cone, but out of a tub, and it was half vanilla and half coffee. The memory was real, but I’d remembered it wrong. And this coffee ice cream, after the vanilla, was fantastic.

WB:Memories definitely get embellished over time.

HB: Oh yes, absolutely! The importance becomes bigger and bigger in your mind and it can be a let-down when you try to recreate them. But memory is a useful inspiration.

MO: If you had a time machine, would you go forward or back? Where to?

HB: Back. I met two historians that run the kitchen at Hampton Court Palace – it’s the most historically important palace in England, and the kitchen is the oldest part. They found letters from Cardinal Woolsey describing a spit-roasted pig he had seen in Italy, and they tried to recreate it in their kitchen… Speaking with them, I realized that in the 18th century, Britain was one of the leading areas of gastronomy in the world! They cooked with everything they had. Some dishes were really extreme – a pheasant dish, for example, where you roast the pheasant then sew the skin and the feathers back onto the bird and rig up a gear system so it moves when you put it on the table. No wonder the life expectancy was 25, what with the raw skin on the cooked meat.

In another example, the French would pluck a live chicken, brush the skin with saffron, wheat germ and drippings, then put the head under the belly, and rock the chicken to sleep. The live chicken was then placed on a platter with two cooked chickens, carried to the table and the cooked chickens carved as the live one ran wildly around – theater on the table.

The most disturbing recipe I've ever seen is for "how to roast a goose alive" from The Cook's Oracle from the late 1800s. It's written almost in biblical style, and it's really disturbing. The idea is that you've cooked the goose’s skin but the vital organs are still working, and you carve the goose while it can still scream. You just don't know if anyone ever actually made that dish – not that it’s one I’d specifically like to see. But I would like to go back to see some of the creativity. There was a lot of stuff going on 300 years ago and that, for me, is really fascinating.

MO: Are you offended when you hear that the British cuisine is the worst in the world?

HB: Oh yeah, right, the worst in the world, second to Norway. Or is it Finland? Admittedly, in the 70s, it was awful. I remember when I was a kid, you couldn’t buy olive oil – you had to go to the pharmacy to buy it! And there was only one kind of pasta you could buy, and it was spaghetti. But in the last 10 years, the food of Britain has just rocketed. The really top-end restaurants are not as varied, nor are there as many of them, as in New York, but the average restaurant in London has food as good as anywhere. Historically the French bought bread everyday; in England they’d buy it once a week, but the mentality is changing. Farmer’s markets are booming outside of London, and of course there’s Borough Market [in the city], which is really good.

WB: What’s your creative process? How do you develop a menu? What inspires you?

HB: It could be anything. It could come from anywhere.

WB: Is there a model you use?

HB: I’m trying to work on one – it’s nice to have at least a loose framework so you’re working in the same direction with your team. One thing that’s happened to me in the last 5, 6, 7 years or so is an interest in how the brain interprets messages sent to it from the various senses, and what kind of emotional response you’ll then get from an eating experience. Why does one person like something and another hates it? It’s like my friend who worked for a big flavor company once said: there’s no food on the planet that’s intrinsically disgusting. If there was, no one would eat it! I’ve had live soft shell crab in Japan.

WB: Live octopus is all over You Tube right now.

HB: Right – the feeling of something eaten while it’s still alive is something. Then there’s my friend who served rice pudding to a Japanese business associate visiting England. The thought of a Japanese person eating creamed, sweetened rice… It’s a great example of how your cultural training forges your tastes. I find that really fascinating

WB: On a mechanical level, in your kitchen, or in your organization, what do you do?

HB: Well, we brainstorm and research. We usually start with the product at hand. We get free samples from farmers and fisherman then we do blind tastings. The quality of meat can vary from day to day, but on the whole you want the most consistent product. Someone will roast pieces of the same cut of pork in exactly the same way and we’ll taste it, mapping out where the best one comes from. We start there then implement various cooking techniques; we build from the bottom up. The flavor combinations are almost the icing on the cake.

There are other principles we’re working on too. Like the idea that our whole existence is based on reward and punishment – if you’ve done some work to get something, you’ll enjoy it much more than if it’s just given to you. There are quite a few things we’re looking at on that front. If you drive miles to go to a restaurant, somehow it just makes the whole thing more enjoyable. Even that can trigger a reward mechanism. Pistachios – peeling them, opening them from the shell – are always more enjoyable to eat than just a packet of peeled pistachio nuts. And if you’ve gone for a big long walk, and you’ve gotten lost and you’re absolutely soaking wet and freezing cold, and somebody makes you a hot chocolate – and it could even be processed, Cadbury’s hot chocolate – that could be the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had!

WB: It’s like ballpark hot dogs in the United States. Lots of people would never even eat a hot dog unless they were at the ball park…but it’s the exact same hot dog you buy in the grocery store!

HB: It just isn’t the same! And that’s one of the other things – context. The example I always use is being in the Loire Valley, eating oysters and drinking Muscadet. The sun’s out and you’ve got a weekend away, and the Muscadet – I’ve never tasted Muscadet like this! Why it’s fantastic! Then you bring it over to England and invite all your mates over, and they think – what are you on? This wine is just horrible! And it’s because the context and the weather didn’t come with me.

WB: Have you toyed with changing climates in your restaurant?

HB: We’re working on it. We want to create triggers for response, for example a dish that looks like the sea, with sand and water and everything. We’re also working with Sony and iPods to add fitting music to the experience.

For food, I think there are contextual triggers you can use – multi-sensory ones. If you can put somebody in a state of excitement, all of your senses are heightened completely. And actually, the Journal of Neuroscience did an article in December that showed anxiety can lower your sense of sweet by 30 percent and increase your sense of bitterness and acidity by 50-something percent.

MO: Because of the stress hormones?

HB: Yeah, I suppose it’s a defense mechanism. You want to get people excited. But also, that’s the reason why things taste better when you’re on holiday. You’re in a different culture and you’re on holiday, so you’re less likely to have the day-to-day stresses. And if you think of the most memorable meals you’ve ever had, guaranteed half of them – the food will be good – but it’ll be the company, the occasion, and all the other things there to put you in that condition. So it’s a psychological-physiological mix.

WB: In the States we’re seeing a lot of “upscale-casual” restaurants making a killing. I think their success has to do with people’s comfort levels.

HB: Right, along those lines, for me it’s all about fun and excitement. Everyone is going to like something different, but people should be able to relax, talk, make a little noise, and have fun. We’re working on a concept that starts when you make a reservation – it involves going to our website and playing with animation, metaphor, smell, synesthesia, that sort of thing. 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, and having a positive emotional experience. Eating is a social thing, no matter how gastronomic the restaurant.

MO: Have there been studies on this kind of “encouraging” restaurant atmosphere?

HB: They’ve done studies on noise levels: if it’s too loud, your flavor perception and taste receptors are inhibited, so you don’t taste as much. Also, if you play fast music you can speed up people’s eating times by maybe 20 percent. So you’ve got a big busy restaurant and you want to turn tables, you play loud rock music and people are going to go much easier.

MO: What else are you working on now?

HB: One thing is looking at the chemical recipe for say, an apple: it has water and all these other things in it. Or better, if a wine has the smell of black currant, there’s some chemical causing that smell, the same chemical causing the smell in a black currant. There’s great potential for creativity in getting to know the chemical makeup of food and wine and pairing them off of each other with this knowledge.