He has been described as a culinary alchemist for his innovative approach to cooking. But Heston Blumenthal is also something of a cultural icon, especially in his home country of the United Kingdom. At his multi-award-winning Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England, his multi-sensory brand of molecular gastronomy brought the science of food into the public consciousness. His unusual flavour combinations, outlandish table props and dining room theatre thrust him into the spotlight as one of Britain’s most recognisable chefs. Perhaps most importantly of all, in a career that spans nearly a quarter of a century, he has helped to redefine British food.
The London-born chef had his first taste of fine dining at 15-years old, when he visited France on a family holiday. His parents took him to L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, and the food at the renowned Michelin-starred restaurant blew him away. It inspired him to teach himself the basics of French cuisine, and spent the next decade visiting France to conduct his own extensive research at restaurants, vineyards, cheese makers and artisan producers. Such thorough dedication to learning would define Blumenthal’s illustrious career.
In 1995, Blumenthal bought a run-down pub in Bray and quickly turned it into The Fat Duck. By 2004 it had gained three Michelin stars. Blumenthal’s success was partly inspired by a book he had read in those early days. On Food And Cooking by Harold McGee taught the young chef to question the very fundamentals of cooking, and so set him upon a journey exploring the science of smell and taste, and their effects on our senses, emotions and memory.
Some of Blumenthal’s signature dishes at The Fat Duck have become legendary. Take, for example, his bacon and egg ice cream, which takes an egg-custard mixture that is instantly made into ice cream at the table with the help of a little liquid nitrogen. Another standout dish, called Sounds Of The Sea, allows the diner to listen to crashing waves via an iPod hidden inside a conch shell. The dish itself comprises cured fillets of yellow fin tuna in bergamot zest, on a ‘sand’ bed of tapioca, miso oil, panko breadcrumbs and grape nuts. Then there’s the aerated beetroot macaroon that’s as light as air, and the Botrytis Cinerea dessert with 20 components, which aims to recreate the flavour of grapes infested with a beneficial kind of fungus known as the noble rot.
The Fat Duck was named the World’s Best Restaurant in 2005, but it didn’t take long for Blumenthal to venture outside of Bray. In 2011, he opened Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, which aimed to recreate historic British recipes, with a twist. Another iteration of Dinner opened in Melbourne, Australia, but for Blumenthal, simply owning restaurants was never enough. He has been the star of a number of TV shows in the UK, including How To Cook Like Heston, and has written several cookbooks. He has also written research papers with the University of Reading, and in 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science. To seal his place in the pantheon of great Britons, he was awarded an OBE for his contribution to British Gastronomy by Her Majesty the Queen.
Heston has become one of those rare personalities, recognisable by only his first name. But it is his pioneering work as a chef that will linger longest in the culture of food and restaurants. He was the first chef to use liquid nitrogen in the kitchen, he paired wildly contrasting flavours and made them work, and he explored the relationship between taste and memory, and the way we perceive food in relation to the world around us.
He might be famous for his Snail Porridge, Edible Fairly Lights and Meat Fruit. But perhaps, for most Britons at least, he will forever be celebrated for one culinary breakthrough that every man, woman and child can enjoy: triple cooked chips. Heston Blumenthal, we salute you.