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Perfect(ing) Heston

What do you get when you mix science and food? A revolutionary dish that is bound to invigorate your senses. Heston Blumenthal is the creative genius and his playground is his kitchen. I was privileged to meet this culinary genius and learned what it takes to be a Michelin Star chef. 

Heston Blumenthal_by deborah chan

Described as a culinary alchemist, food scientist and perfectionist, Heston Blumenthal has definitely piqued the interest of chefs, gourmets and home cooks all over. His award winning TV series “In Search of Perfection” is mind blowing yet simple, which makes for an interesting watch. He makes poaching eggs and roasting potatoes somewhat of an experiment with meticulous instructions that entail specific temperature and precise technique. All of which results in a perfect dish – tried, tested and approved by the perfectionist himself.

Ironically, he looks less of a geek than I thought. Clad in a casual dark blue tank top, jeans and his famous thick framed glasses, Blumenthal, 47, exudes a childlike enthusiasm and perpetual chattiness when it comes to conversations about food. His excitement is contagious and his inquisitiveness is infectious. When describing how to make spaghetti bolognese, he chimes, “Did you know that whenever you’re making a meat-sauce using onions, you should add a hint of star anise? It reacts with the sulphur compounds and increases the flavour of meatiness?”

One would think a guy like him would have aced science in school, but that was the contrary. “I’d been intrigued with food from a young age but had failed science at school, though I got an A in Art so there was some creativity there.”

heston

Heston Blumenthal is often referred to as a culinary alchemist, food scientist and perfectionist. Credits: www.telegraph.co.uk

This enthusiasm coupled with creative genius and lots of hard work is what propelled him to culinary stardom. Blumenthal made his name when he bought over a 450 year old dilapidated pub in the small unsuspecting town of Bray, Berkshire. He transformed this teeny weeny, one door kitchen pub into a restaurant initially serving French bistro type dishes into a three star Michelin restaurant in just five years. This award winning restaurant is known as The Fat Duck and takes reservations up to two months in advance with a string of eager foodies on the waiting list.
Blumenthal is arguably Britain’s most innovative chef of all time. “We eat with our eyes and our ears and our noses. Eating is the only thing you do that involves all senses.” He recalls some unusual foods he has eaten and cringed adding “reindeer kneecap in Siberia, leeches fed on goose blood sautéed with parsley and garlic and freshly milked camel milk where you have to pick the hairs out of my mouth” to the list of nastiest food experiences.

Convinced that dining is a multi-sensory experience, Blumenthal toiled with the idea of creating food that stick in your memory. “Diners listen to an iPod placed in a shell that plays the sound of the waves lapping up against the shore, along with the occasional call of gulls, while eating edible sand, foam, and various food from the sea.” That’s ‘Sound of the Sea’, a sought after experiential treat on the tasting menu at The Fat Duck.

sound sea

The very famous “Sound of the Sea” served at The Fat Duck. Credits: www.cnn.com

As news caught on, Blumenthal’s list of credentials grew and so did his cache of restaurants including Dinner, The Hinds Head and The Crown. He has a number of very successful TV series that has fascinated viewers all over and gain growing followers. He has written seven cookbooks to date and even had the honour of cooking for the Queen of England, not once but numerous times.

“Naivety is one of the best friends of creativity. The first time you see something you get incredibly excited. When I first opened the Duck, I had no idea how hard it was going to be. There was good and bad. The naivety meant that I could question everything. The downside was that my organizational knowledge was rubbish.” He now looks back at the years spent establishing The Fat Duck as foundational years of his success.

“I was working 120 hours a week probably for the first 8 years. You get to levels of delirium that you never thought possible.” His creative gastronomical innovations are not plucked from the sky or fished out of a magician’s hat. Blumenthal is firmly rooted in tradition.

Garden salad

Heston Blumenthal’s (soil) garden salad with sauce gribiche recipe. Credits: www.theguardian.com

“You’ve seen all the crazy stuff that I’ve done, it is really heavily bedded in a technical foundation which starts off with classical French cooking and then from there you need a very deep understanding of classical French cooking in order to question it. And when you start questioning, that forms the building block for something new.”

“I’m basically a big kid and I ask lots of questions. I’m not a scientist, but I am endlessly curious. The best advice I can give to anyone is question everything. You have to respect tradition but prepared to question everything,” that was his advice to young emerging chefs and enthusiastic home cooks. His tenacious probing for the next new thing has kept him going.

His success did not come without sacrifice. In 2011, Blumenthal went through a rough patch having separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he has three grown up children. It was also around the same time that Blumenthal lost his father. Adding to the upheaval, he had to juggle the opening of Dinner, his newest restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London.

“Things like that, you have to deal with deep. Really deep. It’s much easier now, but of course, anything like that is going to affect focus,” he said in an interview with Good Food. Blumenthal’s persistence ploughed through.

When he was awarded the ‘Chef of a Decade’ Observer Food Monthly 2013 Award by The Guardian UK, Blumenthal humbly reflected on the last 10 years of his career and said, “With all the knowledge I have now, I still feel I’m just scratching the surface.”

Oak moss

Visually intriguing “Oak Moss” served at The Fat Duck Credits: www.londonfoodfreak.com

When asked what’s next in his culinary journey, the sought after VIP guest at the recent Margaret River Gourmet Escape, a gastronomical extravaganza in Western Australia’s food mecca cordially replied, “I have no fixed plans but hopefully, the next restaurant I open outside of the UK will be in Australia.” To which he received thunderous applauses from his passionate fans. There is no stopping a perfectionist who is (still) in search of perfection.

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