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The Duck flies south

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Currently jetting between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres as he prepares to initiate Australia into the Fat Duck experience, Heston Blumenthal talks to Nick Harman about his craft and his love of showmanship

Crazed scientist, insane genius, very smart restaurateur and entrepreneur – Heston Blumenthal has been called all these things and more.

The 48-year-old Londoner is certainly one of the most innovative, popular and well-loved celebrity chefs, equalled only perhaps by Jamie Oliver. Blumenthal is someone who, with sometimes child-like excitement, continues to seek out new challenges whether at home or abroad. He definitely seems to need no help when it comes to the creation of ideas – away from the hard and fast business of serving up food that sits at the very forefront of taste-bud science, he has a kitchenware range and even his own eyewear sub-brand (for Vision Express), but this isn’t someone afraid to let others do the talking when it comes to striving to perfect his art. Certainly, in the sense of foodservice consultants – FCSI members SeftonHornWinch, headquartered in the UK, in his case – design and consultancy work on new and refitted kitchen projects is put into the hands of those who know best, and Blumenthal has no problem in admitting it.

“I think foodservice consultants are a crucial part of the process, and they represent a part of the ‘team’ in the same way as anyone else,” he says when quizzed on the subject. “My business philosophy has always been to do as much as I can myself, but there comes a point where you draw a line and either delegate downwards or upscale a project using the expertise of someone who can do what you can’t… or what you can, but quicker.”

He is absolutely convinced of a consultant’s value to his business. “It’s all about pre-empting problems. You get to the point where you have to accept that it’s better to eliminate the problem at the start of the process rather than jump in with both feet then find you have a major obstacle in your structuring or design. I’ve made that mistake in the past.”

Pressed to list his mistakes, he laughs off the question but he is happy to talk about the restaurant he recently set up at Heathrow Airport, the wittily named The Perfectionists’ Café, a place that boasts the sorts of unique logistical problems that the celebrated chef had never encountered before. Such as the fact that no gas-fired cooking equipment is allowed. The set-up also comes with an understandably heavy burden of security that wouldn’t look out of place during a visit to cook for the Queen (he’s done that as well, incidentally).

And what of waste? “Yes, definitely,” he replies. “At Heathrow in particular there are strict guidelines in relation to the amount of waste and the nature of that waste. There’s also a moral obligation to be responsible for what we use and what we don’t. That’s not always the easiest thing in the food business, which is notorious for some of its wastage, particularly at travel locations such as airports.”

And as he points out, a lot of the efficiency these days has been helped by the use of digital systems, such as Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) and computer-monitored stock management and ordering. “At any one time we’ll know what we’ve got and what we need to order and that in itself reduces wastage. It’s all come a long way from where we were a couple of decades ago.”

Blumenthal would have had even more of an uphill struggle in the uncharted water of airports without the help of FCSI foodservice consultants, he cheerfully admits. “The footfall is huge, and trying to keep a frantic operation moving without the expertise of design, kitchen efficiency and a flawless front of house would be a near impossible task.

“In somewhere like The Fat Duck the footfall was such that you could disguise the foibles of an old building that wasn’t designed for the purpose of being that sort of restaurant, but not at Heathrow,” says Blumenthal.

Of course he’s seen the inside of the world’s third busiest airport quite a bit recently as he jets back and forth to Australia. “Oh yes, I’ve come to know a lot about airport restaurants,” he laughs. “And, actually, I really enjoy long-haul flights. But no matter where you’re going, airports offer a totally unique buzz, an excitement. People are on the move.”

The three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Bray is closing for a “much needed” kitchen refit and resize, and never one to stand idle, Heston has decided to recreate the entire operation in Melbourne for six months, including taking all of his trusted staff with him. He’s been out there finding suppliers and is enjoying his experience Down Under. “There is such uniqueness about Australia,” he enthuses.

The Australian press, in turn, have been practically falling over themselves for Blumenthal. The chef has also landed a judging spot on the Australian MasterChef franchise. “And that’s what makes it so exciting for someone like me – it’s like having a blank canvas and starting over again from scratch; not being held back by the preconceptions or limitations I may encounter in the UK.

“My team is so passionate about flavour and texture and colour and vibrancy and people really enjoying and really being fascinated by what’s on their plates. And the more that new challenges can open those elements up, the more you embrace them. That’s a reason for going to Australia, as well.”

He won’t be cooking personally in the Fat Duck Melbourne; he will be there to oversee. He’s done 20 years in the kitchen and feels he’s served his time in the heat of live service, but he cooks in the relative peace of the development kitchen, always seeing where he can take new ideas.

But is there any place or sector that he thinks would just be a bad fit or which holds no interest for him? “Not really,” he answers, “because producing great food, innovative food, with the intention of making that food open and available to as wide an audience as possible, is what drives me on.” He says he’s not ruling out getting into high street casual dining either. “It’s an option,” he offers, cautiously. “I don’t see a reason not to at some point. If I turned away that opportunity I’d be turning away a philosophy of mine to get food into the hands of as many people as possible and to inspire the next generation of chefs. The more ways we can get people to savour and admire the intricacies of food and science, the better.

“I really enjoyed the Little Chef experience, too,” says Blumenthal, reflecting on an ultimately failed project where he worked in an advisory capacity to help revamp the menus of the popular British motorway service restaurant chain. “That was and is a mainstay of UK motorways and a brand that actually means so much to different generations of people. It’s forgivable that it got left behind a bit, with glamorous service stations and all that, but looking to re-energise a brand – however unfashionable in some people’s eyes – was a great thrill. Something I’d love to do again.”

There can’t be many multi-Michelin-starred chefs who would volunteer to spend several months filming a food series with the whiff of tanker fumes in the air, but Heston Blumenthal is a man who doesn’t buy into the pomposity of the industry. It’s not uncommon for some leading lights to find that the stars can be a burden, creating an obligation to constantly stay on guard and to ‘prove’ oneself, but not Blumenthal. “There are many chefs who win Michelin stars through being excellent at what they do, not necessarily by being innovative or new… just absolutely precise in everything they work with, and that’s to be admired. But for me the real pursuit is in making people happy. If you receive plaudits or recognition or awards as a result of that, then great, but it’s not the intention from the outset,” he states.

And what makes him happy, what’s his favourite food? He’s not to be easily drawn on that one. ‘‘People often ask me that question, but I don’t think you can have such a thing. Sometimes you fancy a burger, sometimes Chinese, sometimes a roast, a sandwich or a 15-course tasting menu. It really depends on where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing… your mood,” he answers diplomatically. “But sweet flavours have always been extra-special for me. And for intricacy you can’t really go wrong with Japanese food: there is such care and attention which I feel – whether subconsciously or not – I have translated into my own food. And never rule out the core culinary lessons that can be taken from French cuisine. You have to admire absolutely everything about the foundations because they influence so much of how we cook, whether that’s the right fat to make the crunchiest fries, a perfect sirloin steak or a succulent burger.”

Talking of burgers, he’s equally circumspect about the question of obesity, reckoning that a ‘fat tax’ on those foods said to contribute to the problem will only make those addicted to bad food poorer. “They’ll simply spend more to get their fix,” he suggests. “Basically we are hard-wired for fat and sugar. And if your diet is too boring you are never going to stick to it, are you?”

Food, for those lucky enough to eat at one of Blumenthal’s restaurants, has never been boring. Shocking, thrilling, yes, but never boring. “It’s good to entertain and to engage people in food. I think some commentators obsess with the whole science thing, but it’s more about exploration and perhaps a bit of showmanship. You need to remember that we’re still talking about food here – something we’re going to put into our mouths. It can’t be too outlandish. I do love the science of food, but I equally adore the appreciation of food.”

He’s happy to have been instrumental in what has become a bit of a food revolution, though, and you can see Blumenthal relishes the fact that cooking has become so mainstream. “Anyone can really start being adventurous with what they do,” he enthuses. “If you’re happy to accept that some of what you do might end up in the bin, then I’d encourage anyone to experiment in their kitchens – match flavours that shouldn’t work together, adjust cooking times to get different textures, read up on introducing ingredients that add something unusual. It really is fun, and the satisfaction you can get from it is immense. We’ve all got to keep reaching out, and if we do, the world of food will be an even more exciting place.”