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When The Fat Duck in Bray regained its three star status in the 2017 Michelin Guide to the UK and Ireland, having been closed for major refurbishment work for many months, it didn’t come as a surprise to many. But the team, in the run-up, weren’t so self-assured.
“I know this isn’t the only reason we do this, by any stretch, but we weren’t in the Michelin Guide anymore,” says Executive Head Chef Jonny Lake, who’s been at the Duck for 12 years. “When we did get three stars back, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, but you knew that was going to happen’ – no way! I don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not like we talk to them, pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, how’re we doing?’”
It came off the back of what was a challenging relocation of the restaurant to Melbourne for six months, as the original underwent a £2.7million refit, its first major overhaul since Heston Blumenthal decided to purchase a run-down pub in a tiny Berkshire village with a little help from his dad and the bank back in 1995. What’s striking when you enter The Fat Duck for the first time, is just how small it is – 40 covers in a space not much bigger than a large living room; it feels homely too. And the kitchen, which extends from the back of the dining room, isn’t huge either, with additional development kitchens across the road at a second site. The space in Melbourne, at the Crown Towers Casino, which is now occupied by Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, was much, much bigger.
“We quickly realised how much the food that we serve is completely integral to this building,” says Lake. “Normally this food is made here and it goes to there. That’s it; it never goes further than that. There were a lot of challenges in the beginning. The kitchen was so big. It was designed for 20 people working and we had eight. The guy cooking the meat was so far away!” Restaurant manager Dimitri Bellos, who joined shortly before the trip, agrees: “You get to the point where you almost have it working to perfection. Then you go somewhere else. The room, the space, the building it plays a big part of what a place is, not only physically in the service, but also romantically. It was a major change.”
Melbourne was, however, an unbelievable experience they say, and there was an electric atmosphere in the dining room every single day, largely because those who had managed to nab a reservation through the highly oversubscribed online ballot were just so happy to be there. “I was overwhelmed by how much people appreciated the fact we were there. People were thanking us for being there!” says Bellos.
So, reinvigorated, the team returned to launch the new concept at The Fat Duck. But Blumenthal, it seemed had got a little carried away, “going round telling people it’s not a restaurant anymore,“ according to Lake. It most certainly is a restaurant though and the new concept has now, after months of tweaking, reached a stage of near clockwork precision, both in the dining room and the kitchen. It’s an exploration of nostalgia and memory, loosely based on some of Blumenthal’s childhood experiences of trips away, presented not as a menu as such, but a map.
We start, theoretically, the night before with appetisers of cocktail flavoured meringues dipped in liquid nitrogen, which release puffs of smoke from your nose. There’s a hotel breakfast of sorts, with a hot and cold rabbit tea, nay broth, and a mock variety pack of breakfast cereals that mimic perfectly the taste of a full English Breakfast. We go rockpooling and get lost in the woods with an umami bomb of mushroom and truffle. Then, just as hunger strikes, you’re transported to a “fancy restaurant,” for a three course meal of prime ingredients – langoustine or a play on coq au vin, wagyu beef or turbot (you have a choice), and a noble rot-inspired dessert that famously involves over 50 stages of preparation. Finally, a doll’s house with a sweet shop front, stuffed with petit fours is wheeled to the table, operated by a coin you win for completing a puzzle early on in the meal.
Through a more personalised booking process and aftercare service, the front of house team, which has now swelled to double the size it was pre-Melbourne, hopes to take the customer experience to a whole new level. They’ll personalise dishes for you, slipping in little nods to long cherished memories, or even allow you to play host to whoever joins you on a return visit. “Every day we have the opportunity to hopefully change someone’s life,” says Bellos. “We’re not neuroscientists, we’re not doctors, we’re not saving lives, but if you can come into this restaurant and take something with you that you could possibly cherish for the rest of your life that’s major.”
Which, teases the possibility, how far could you take this? How far are we away from a fully customisable dining experience here? “We almost want it to be smarter than that. What we don’t want to do is: tell me what you want, I’ll make it and then you’ll be happy. In a way that’s easy,” says Lake. There are a handful of self-reverential classics still on the menu, like Sound of the Sea, a sashimi dish with headphones playing atmospheric beach sounds – kids playing, the surf lapping at the shore – which packs an almighty emotional punch, still, and the famous Alice In Wonderland-inspired mock turtle soup, complete with dissolving pocket watch. But none are shoehorned in: they had to fit in with the concept, assures Lake.
There’s also no snail porridge, which Blumenthal has previously called “the bane of my life.” At time of writing, he’s back in Melbourne to receive The World’s 50 Best Lifetime Achievement Award 2017 (you can live-stream the ceremony on Fine Dining Lovers here), which regardless of what you think about The Fat Duck and the cuisine it serves, and at what prices, it’s difficult to begrudge him. So, continuing in that reflective vein, what’s the lasting impression The Fat Duck team wants to leave with every diner? How would they want to be described? “For me it’s – and this was the same before, as it is now – 'I’ve never been anywhere like that.' That’s it,” says Lake. “To steal something from what Heston says, it made me feel like a child. Authentic fun,” says Bellos.
Like a kid in a sweetshop perhaps?