Heston Blumenthal is known for making crazy ideas come to life on the plate. So it should be no surprise that the chef who is a global sensation now has his sights set on the universe. DAN STOCK spoke with the culinary wizard
He’s created giant lollipops and lickable wallpaper, championed bacon ice cream and snail porridge, and dreamed up supersized versions of classic treats. So is it any wonder that Heston Blumenthal, the world’s most wildly innovative chef, harbours culinary obsessions that take him to a galaxy far, far, away? The leap from gastronomy to astronomy is an obvious one for the brainiac Blumenthal. “I think there’s a thread that runs from the Big Bang, the planets and Milky Way, through life on Earth and how that evolved, to our senses and emotions,” he says. “I’m devoting my whole life to this research.” From almost any other chef, this might sound bonkers. But Blumenthal, 50, does things differently. And if you think that his fascinations have nothing to do with food, well, you’ve probably never watched one of his television shows (
or dined at one of his restaurants. It’s at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, at Crown Melbourne, where we meet. The hyperactive chef is here for the restaurant’s first anniversary. But he has bigger fish to fry. “I’ve been working with an evolutionary geneticist, anthropologist, cosmologist, a professor of touch, building this team to research,” he says. “I’m desperately trying to tie the dots together, to pull them into a language that people understand. My next book will touch on all this stuff.” Within Heston Inc. they call it “playing in the sandpit”. It’s where Blumenthal is free to go off on
Heston Blumenthal ( left), and with right- hand man Ashley Palmer- Watts ( top right), and ( bottom right) meat fruit, one of the chef’s dishes consisting of chicken liver parfait in a mandarin jelly “peel”.
whichever tangents his insatiable curiosity take him, but where the research always contains an element that will, eventually, lead back to food.
For it is food – and our relationship with it – that Blumenthal believes defines us as being human. “It’s the one thing we consciously have to do to survive,” he says, peering through his trademark glasses. “Discovering fire and eating things cooked on it are the two main reasons we became homo sapiens. I want to find a way to show people the beauty of being human.”
So for the first time in a long time, Blumenthal has freed up his diary to ponder these lofty, existential questions.
It’s been a frantic couple of years for the chef who moved The Fat Duck restaurant to the other side of the world – from Bray, 50km outside London, to Melbourne, furniture, staff and all – only to move it back six months later. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal took its place.
If there’s one thing the chef can’t be accused of, it’s doing things by halves.
“I wouldn’t say it was the easiest couple of years of my life,” he says. “There was a lot going on.”
As he was opening two of the world’s most talked-about restaurants, he was also going through a divorce from his wife of more than two decades, Zanna. Though the two separated in 2011, the divorce and the complications of splitting the business they built together has only recently been finalised. (While Blumenthal was then seeing American cookery writer, Suzanne Pirret, the British tabloids are now gleefully covering his public displays of affection with French real estate agent Stephanie Gouveia.)
But that stress aside, The Fat Duck reopened to universally rave reviews, and regained its three Michelin stars in October.
“I don’t think anyone’s done that before,” Blumenthal says of closing and reopening a restaurant to equal acclaim. The Fat Duck is now one of just four three Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK.
At the same time, the GCSE (a UK high school qualification) he created in home economics was rolled out this year to praise from educators and students.
“Cooking and eating – it’s the only thing you can apply to all the main subjects across the curriculum,” he says.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, where historical British recipes are reinterpreted as modern dishes, such as the famous “meat fruit” – parfait that’s disguised as a mandarin – has cemented itself as one of Australia’s leading restaurants. Last month, it was named number one in the inaugural delicious.100 ranking of Victoria’s best 100 restaurants.
And while it’s Heston’s name on the door, it’s very much a partnership with right-hand man, Ashley Palmer-watts. The duo have worked together for more than 20 years, first at The Fat Duck, then with Palmer-watts heading the kitchen at the original Dinner in London and, now, at the second restaurant in Australia.
“Fat Duck and Dinner are like brother and sister. They’re kind of the same, but they’re very different,” Palmer-watts says. “I work with Heston, and we have this innate trust in each other. It’s like being married. I’ve worked with him for so long, it just works.”
And though the crazy idea to move The Fat Duck to Australia and then open Dinner has been a success, the process took a toll on Blumenthal.
“I hadn’t thought through the detail the move needed,” he admits. “But once the guys were here, the Duck needed more stuff and better equipment, so the running costs went up and up. That cycle continues; it just doesn’t stop.”
It’s almost incomprehensible that the $525 a head (food only) at The Fat Duck in Australia didn’t cover costs, but such is the level of research and development that goes into the creation of each Blumenthal dish. For the pleasure of trying the multi-sensory Sound of the Sea dish, nitrogen-poached cocktails, and bacon and eggs for dessert, more than 250,000 people entered a ballot for one of the coveted tables over The Fat Duck’s six-month residency.
But that level of fame brings with it ever-growing expectations, so the selftaught experiential chef has pared back commitments to allow his curiosity space to travel down those tangents.
And if there’s one thing we can be sure of from the chef that conceives the impossible and then transforms it into mind-bendingly delicious food, it’s that the unexpected is possible. If anyone can tie the Big Bang theory into cooking to then create the very best biscuit in the world, it’s him.
“If I can leave this world, even if it’s naught point naught naught naught 1 per cent, a happier place, I would’ve done something I’d be pretty pleased about. But even if I don’t, I’ll have a bloody good go at it.”