Incredibly Terrible Food
This was how, speaking to a New York Audience in 2010, Heston Blumenthal described what it was like to eat in London in the 1970's,
"There was only one kind of pasta in the supermarkets (spaghetti that came in a blue bag) and the only place you could get olive oil was at a pharmacy because you used it to clean your ears out, not to cook with."
Heston Blumenthal, recipient of three Michelin stars for his restaurant The Fat Duck, was born May, 27 1966 in London, England. According to his own biography, his love affair with cooking was born while dining at Raymond Thuilier's three-star restaurant, Oustau de Baumanière at Les Baux, Provence, during a family vacation.
"None of them had experienced anything like it before-not just the extraordinary food but the beauty of the surroundings, the delightful smell of lavender in the air, the sounds of chirruping cicadas and splashing fountains, and the sheer theatre of waiters carving lamb at the table or pouring lobster sauce unto soufflés."
Claiming to be largely self taught, Heston spent a decade studying and practicing classical French cuisine by night in his own kitchen. Every summer he toured the wineries and restaurants of France for inspiration. During this time Heston discovered "the book that has had the greatest single impact on my cooking."
The Influence of Harold McGee
This ground breaking book was "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," written not by a chef at all but a physicist from California named Harold McGee. Unencumbered by the conventions of traditional cuisine, this exhaustive study tackled food from the perspective of the molecular structure and the physical properties of food in an inspirational voice.
"Foods are mostly built out of just four kinds of molecules-water, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. And their behavior can be pretty well described with a few simple principles. If you know that heat is a manifestation of the movements of the molecules, and that sufficiently energetic collisions disrupt the structures of molecules...then you are very close to understanding why heat solidifies eggs and makes food tastier...Food is an infinitely rich subject, and there's always something about it to understand better, something new to discover, a fresh source of interests, ideas and delights."
Harold McGee's work became influential to the molecular gastronomy movement which originated in a series of scientific workshops in Erice, Sicily. Heston Blumenthal attended and gave demonstrations to the last two of these workshops. Although he did not identify personally with the term, he was inspired by Harold McGee's work and Heston became one of the chefs most associated with molecular gastronomy as did his own restaurant, The Fat Duck.
The Fat Duck
After a decade of self study in his own kitchen and a pair of brief stints working with acclaimed chefs Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc, Heston Blumenthal opened his own restaurant in a 450 year old inn called The Ringer in the village of Bray-on-Thames in Berkshire. In contrast to the neighboring Waterside Inn, a recipient of three Michelin stars founded by brothers Michel Roux and Albert Roux, The Fat Duck beginnings were inauspicious and challenging.
"The Fat Duck opened as a simple bistro serving French classics such as petit salé of duck, steak and chips, sauce à la moelle and tarte tatin with an impossibly cramped kitchen, only one door, no view, an outside toilet a reputation as the hotspot for every drinker banned from other pubs in the area...On the second day the oven exploded and Heston spent the rest of service with a bag of frozen peas strapped to his head. Inexperience and limited funds meant he was spending twenty hours a day in the kitchen, occasionally snatching fifteen minutes’ sleep curled up on a pile of dirty tea towels."
The Fat Duck was soon retrofitted with modern commercial facilities in the kitchen along with some other equipment more commonly found in a laboratory. Quickly expounding upon his expertise in classical French cuisine, Heston began to revolutionize his menu with radical techniques and a relentless drive to innovate.
Several of these techniques came to be regarded as iconic Heston, including; Sous-vide,vacuum sealing meats in bags and slow cooking them in a low temperature water bath to retain the juices; finishing the meat with a blow torch to give it a flavorful char; using a vacuum jar to increase the size of bubbles and create foams; atomizers to create aromatic sprays to enhance the senses of smell and nostalgia; liquid nitrogen to freeze unique flavor combinations into ice creams and gelatos. Much of this preparation was performed tableside and The Fat Duck's staff grew to outnumber the seats in the restaurant.
Critics and food enthusiasts quickly took notice of featured fare such as sardine on toast sorbet, snail porridge, parsnip cereal and bacon-and-egg ice cream with mango and Douglas fir purée. Within four years of opening, The Fat Duck won its first Michelin star.
Assault of The Food Bloggers
Heston's drive to push the envelope of the dining experience was not limited to the preparation and presentation of the food but to create a multi-sensory experience, and to link the dining experience with memory and emotions. Patrons came expecting to be challenged with the unimaginable and the bizarre. In addition to professional journalists, a new breed of amateur enthusiasts, the food bloggers began to pilgrimage to The Fat Duck and post course-by-course reviews on the internet replete with pictures of each dish.
"An incense box of moss is opened table-side, and liquid nitrogen poured over it, releasing a billowing forest-floor aroma. A strip of oak moss film is placed on the tongue, and melts to flood the mouth with an uncategorisable taste. The next mouthful - black truffle on toast - goes into high definition, the oak calling out all the dark complexity of the truffle. Then things go wide-screen and Technicolor for an amazing dish that layers pea purée, quail jelly, langoustine cream and foie gras ice cream, a tour de force of contrasting tastes, textures and temperatures."
Heston soon had to enforce a photography protocol: lenses trained only at the table and a ban on flash use. As Heston and his contemporaries gained notoriety, a backlash against molecular gastronomy followed. Some casual detractors who ate at The Fat Duck admitted that Heston was one of the few chefs to execute these new techniques successfully. Even as The Fat Duck was awarded its second Michelin star in 2001, the food world was polarizing with a wave of traditionalism scoffing at what was perceived to be needless gimmickry.
Molecular Gastronomy is Dead
In the press, Heston routinely downplayed the term molecular gastronomy, downplaying the technical innovations that he and his peers were gaining notoriety from. Along with his fellows, Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee, Heston went so far as to publically denounce the term,
"Molecular makes it sound complicated, and gastronomy makes it sound elitist, overemphasized and sensationalized...tradition is the base which all cooks who aspire to excellence must know and master. Our open approach builds upon the best that tradition has to offer...We do not pursue novelty for its own sake. We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous vide, dehydration and other non-traditional means but these do not define our cooking. They are a few of the many tools that we are fortunate to have available as we strive to make delicious and stimulating dishes. The danger is that technology overtakes the value of the dish. We can get too hung up on gadgetry. Once there was just the knife if you wanted to chop things. Then along came the food-processor. But that was still cooking. Now I use other tools - centrifuges, desiccators - which you might not associate with the kitchen. But that's cooking too...."
Far from avoiding the limelight, as Marco Pierre White as done, Heston was not at all shy about promoting a public face. His star was rising swiftly and he would soon join the ranks of a burgeoning class of celebrity chefs.
In search of Perfection
With the award of a second Michelin star, Heston was voted "Chef of The Year" in the 2001 Good Food Guide and was listed as "Chef of the Year" in the 2002 edition of The AA Restaurant Guide.
Heston began a tenure in November 2001 as a recipe writer for The Guardian newspaper. Where Heston had gained a sensationalized reputation as a "mad-scientist" in the kitchen, most of his recipes were aimed at using practical cooking techniques and the debunking of flawed conventions. During this time, Heston also hosted a BBC Radio 4 broadcast called "Kitchen Cornucopia"
For four concurrent years between 2001 and 2004, The Fat Duck won Five Rosettes from The AA Restaurant Guide.
In 2004 The Fat Duck became one of only three restaurants in England that year to win a highly coveted third Michelin star.
A flood of accolades followed, including GQ Magazine's "Chef of the Year Award", Restaurant Magazine's "Second Best Restaurant in the World Award", and Gourmand's "Best Cookbook of the Year Award" for Heston's first book "Family Food: A New Approach to Cooking"
That year Heston also began a weekly column for The Guardian called "The Appliance of Science," which ran until June 2005. Every weekend Heston hosted topics ranging from how long to hang meat to cure to the role that our ears play in eating.
2005 brought Heston to a worldwide cable audience on The Discovery Channel with six half hour programs called Kitchen Chemistryhosted by Heston. Each episode's focus examined the physics of a featured ingredient and its application employing Heston's signature methods of preparation. The featured recipes included a two part study of beef, bacon and egg ice cream and chocolate coulant.
The BBC aired Heston's next show "In search of Perfection" which ran for two seasons starting in 2006 on BBC channel 2. Employing a successful formula of many modern cooking programs, Heston first studied a popular recipe, and made an excursion of culinary anthropology to discover its history and essence in its native setting. Heston then considered and re-invented the recipe balancing traditional techniques of the recipe with that of his own. Features of this series included Indian Chicken Tikki Masala, Fish Pie, Peking Duck and Black Forest Cake.
To compliment the television show, Heston's second book was published that year, "In Search of Perfection".
In 2007 the second season of "In search of Perfection" aired on BBC 2 and culminated in a "Heston's Perfect Christmas" special with guests, Terry Wogan, Kirsty Wark, Dara O'Briain, Rob Brydon, Richard E Grant and Sue Perkins. The series won Heston GQ Glenfiddich's "Best Production Award."
Heston published his third book "Further Adventures in Search of Perfection" that year, followed by 'The Big Fat Duck Cookbook" in 2008, and "Total Perfection:In Search of Total Perfection" in 2009.
Heston Blumenthal's hard won success has brought him fame and considerable wealth to which he has committed to many investments.
Heston has purchased two other pubs in Bray, The Hinds Head and The Crown, to the chagrin of the locals, many of whom are have begun to call Bray, "Hestonworld." Featuring less expensive pub fare, the profits of The Hinds Head were sharply up while that of The Fat Duck have fallen.
This was partly attributable to a scandalous outbreak of food poisoning. In September of 2009, the reputation of The Fat Duck took a blow when over 500 diners were sickened by food poisoning attributed to contaminated shellfish and human waste. The Fat Duck was, for a short time, shut down by the regional health authorities.
Despite this, The Fat Duck won "Best Restaurant in the UK" and 10/10 score in three consecutive years from 2008 to 2010 from the Good Food Guide.
Having opened his own studio to produce TV work for BBC channel 4 and other advertising work, Heston returned to the BBC in 2010 with a more innovative and less conventional program called "Heston's Feasts." In this series our "gastronomic adventurer" uses his unconventional culinary skills to tackle unconventional culinary themes, preparing mad banquets for celebrity guests. Themes include a "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" theme with a psychedelic duck l'orange, and a "Gothic Horror" theme with blood risotto and an edible graveyard.
His fifth book "Fantastical Feasts" was published in 2010 to accompany the series.
After decades of hard work, Heston Blumenthal's impressive list of achievements continue to accumulate.
In addition to his coveted three Michelin Stars, Heston was inducted into The Order of The British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.
In 2006 Heston was named an Honorary Doctor of Science by Reading University "in recognition for his unique scientific approach to food and long-standing relationship with the University’s School of Food Biosciences."
That same year he earned a Fellowship in The Royal Society of Chemistry as a “…distinguished person whose activities have been of significant development to the chemical community.”
Heston Blumenthal currently writes for The Times newspaper, is on Facebook, and on January 31, 2011 has just opened his fourth restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, in London.
Oolong has sent me a link for Heston's recipe for triple cooked chips. Thank you, Oolong!