Ashley Palmer-Watts is speaking on Zoom in his family home, his chef whites are off, and he's surrounded by tasting profiles, chocolate discs and packaging samples. He's relaxed and armed with a very good cup of coffee.
It's been 18 months since the 43-year-old left the Fat Duck Group after two decades as Heston Blumenthal’s head chef at three-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Bray and Dinner in London, a relationship that was "longer than most marriages". And while he doesn't miss feeling knackered, life has never been busier.
He has taken on a brand-new project of passion, after plans to open his own place folded with the arrival of the pandemic. Instead, he spent months immersed in the world of coffee, and co-founded Artisan Coffee, a small UK e-commerce company that's developing a coffee range in a different way.
It's been a big learning curve, but Palmer-Watts has applied the 'Heston side' of his upbringing, as he calls it - "looking at how science and cooking join together" - and applying that philosophy to creating new and accessible coffee blends. “It's more about understanding what's happening. Applying more measurement and understanding that can allow you to achieve something and move things forward in quality,” he explains. "It’s been great to work with marketeers and understanding what goes into a product on the shelf. It’s extraordinary."
The chef has dedicated himself to the science, leafing through pages of research on coffee drinking habits, getting a handle on high-level scientific data from a professor of coffee freshness at Zurich University, working with one of the world’s few Q Graders (coffee sommeliers), and trying not to get rumbled whilst scooping up armloads of coffee samples at his local supermarket.
But he’s taken that chef tenacity that kept him at the top of his game and channelled it into trying to make the best coffee around. “I’ve probably tasted over 1000 blends over the past year in different formats. It’s all documented and scored, it’s been quite an amazing process,” he says. These days he's just as happy geeking out on coffee-to-water ratios as talking de-gassing, nitro flushing and aroma molecules.
“Obviously, I’ve learnt a lot more since I started, I’ve got more back into the science of what’s happening, really getting into the nitty gritty. Rationalising through a conversation. Distilling information into logic.”
But the new project is not a million miles away from the kitchen. “It’s actually bringing our industry and the way we think as chefs to a different industry. Working with Heston and the Fat Duck Group company, we took a different approach," he says. In fact, coffee was something the chef took seriously at the Fat Duck, having absorbed some of Australia's game-changing coffee culture from close on 50 trips in seven years, resulting in a whole new coffee programme at the restaurant. He’s looking forward to the day more restaurants get coffee right. “I think also not all chefs really understand coffee. The coffee at the end of a meal is a let-down sometimes. It’s just a bit of an oversight.”
The same chef-perfectionism comes into play with developing the coffee ranges, where commercial pressure and deadlines are always at play. "In kitchens, if the food's not right, it doesn't leave the pass." His business partner, Grant Tromans, told him to apply that same methodology to the coffee development process. "With the coffee, it doesn't matter how much pressure you get, if it isn't ready, it doesn’t get signed off."
By stripping back the coffee development process, and thinking about it like someone who admits to not being a boffin, but has 3 to 4 coffees to choose from at home depending on his mood, he says: “I thought, do you know what, let's take it all apart and come to the market solving a few problems, bring some innovation, talk to people in a level way.”
"What I wanted to do was champion blending. If you really want to influence how something tastes, why not take the best from here and there, put it together and you are building your own."
By applying blending techniques, which he likens to some of the big champagne houses, in what he describes as a "ballsy" move in the coffee industry, he decided to reverse things and build the coffees to achieve the flavour profile he sought.
Using 12 different coffees and 60 different recipes, he has created six distinct characters of coffee, from 'challenging' to 'friendly'. The 'heroine' character contains hints of chocolate, caramel and roasted hazelnut, while 'smart cookie' is intensely fragrant. He’s still hard-pressed to pick a favourite: “I love them all. It’s like picking your’ favourite child, what I try not to do is eat chocolate every time I drink, that’s really hard."
Palmer-Watts has also made six types of chocolates to mirror the intensity of the coffees - from fruity to malty, rich to floral - to encourage non-coffee experts to have an ‘aha’ moment. Like a milk chocolate with caramelised pecans and raisin oil to match the Genius coffee. "It elevates the experience you're perceiving to a different level. It's like a catalyst for people that say they can't taste. Actually, you can, and you go 'bloody hell I get it now, this has blown my mind'." Much like memorable wine and food pairings.
Then the rest is about storytelling, he explains, which is what chefs do in our restaurants all the time. "We’ve been telling stories for 20 odd years, that are very groundbreaking in many ways."
"Trying to manage stock has been a bit nerve-wracking," he admits. “But it’s like the kitchen, how much fish do you order for the weekend, don’t want to run out but don’t want to be left with loads.” He also admits to being "pretty nervous" about the launch. "It’s all great until you come to launch. But then you go, well, actually I’m putting my neck out there in a different sphere. I’m not a barista, I can’t do latte art, but I don’t need that at home. I just want to bring better coffee to people at home in a way that they feel comfortable and the coffee tastes as it says on the packet."
So far, the noises have been resoundingly positive and people have been really receptive, from principal ballet dancers, to chefs and racing drivers, his neighbours and his parents.
He’s still waiting for Heston to pop over to Bray, where he’ll make him a cup as they catch up. “I hope to bring more people over to the bright side.”