Heston Blumenthal could arguably be described as Britain’s most ambitious chef. A self-taught chef who has risen sharply to become one of the world’s foremost authorities on food and especially known for his fantastical creations, he finds inspiration for his experiments everywhere.
His flagship restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, with its three Michelin stars, his numerous books, television shows and appearances… despite all this success, it seems not too much of it has gone to his head. His humility in character apparently transfers easily over to his business ventures.
“It’s great that The Fat Duck has succeeded without being a grand venue itself,” he says. “It doesn’t have grounds, a lake at the front or a view of the ocean. It’s a little old cottage on the side of the road that has achieved what it has because of what goes on inside it.”
The restaurant continues to enjoy success despite the on-going recession putting a squeeze on people’s finances. People always need to eat – and they’re evidently not cutting back on eating out when the experience is so highly valued.
“No matter what kind of industry you’re in, I think there are business fundamentals that are particularly important during times of austerity,” he says. “For me, everything comes down to food, service and value for money. Value for money isn’t always to do with how much you pay; you can have value for money at a really expensive restaurant and be totally ripped off at a cheap one.”
“I think service might be even more important than food,” he continues. “If food goes out as it should do, then it’s the service that will make or break whether a customer will come back. For us, time has never been more important, and when we go to a restaurant we want to be relaxed; we want to have a good time. If food is served properly, friendly and humanly, then people will invariably have had a great experience.”
Blumenthal’s approach to food comes from the thrill of creation – taking inspiration from all sources, however unlikely, that he encounters wherever he goes and from the people he meets. He believes there is a misconception that food is all about taste – and the several hundred dishes in development at his lab could be seen as something of a mission statement.
“I think we’re all looking to change food, just at different levels,” he says. One of his earlier TV shows, Heston’s Michelin Impossible, was aimed at transforming offerings within various national institutions such as within the NHS and at the cinema. But for people watching at home their equivalent transformation could be preparing something in a different way, or turning a sauce on its head to re-invent vegetables or meat.
Reinventing vegetables seems to be something at the forefront of Blumenthal’s mind: “If you have ambition and versatility then what you can create in food becomes pretty much endless. Vegetables will always offer you that more than anything else because of the way you can prepare, blend and dress them.”
“For me, onions and potatoes represent entirely that versatility. They’re so simple yet the options are incredibly complex – the flavour, the texture… everything.”
Of course, such simplicity wouldn’t quite reflect Heston’s persona – that of a culinary magician who has inspired millions to experiment just like he has – and so dishes such as cucumber ketchup with roasted scallops bear his mark.
In his most recent TV series, Heston’s Fantastical Food, he created supersized versions of meals and treats, evoking the wonder of childhood food. This is all part of the feeling of excitement he aims to generate through his creations – the experience being the overriding factor.
“I think people do need to be more excited about fruit, vegetables, and meat for that matter,” he says. “I feel that public health campaigns have probably gone too far in that they only talk about nutrition. We need to get back to people enjoying their food for the smell, the flavour and the overall eating experience. If you turn people on to that within the right kinds of foods, then the health aspect will take care of itself.”