The Fat Duck at 25 – how Heston Blumenthal defined modern gastronomy

Mark Sansom - 17/08/2020

Named The World’s Best Restaurant in 2005 and now a Best of the Best hall of famer, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck changed the course of restaurants and our understanding of food forever. As the iconic venue turns 25, 50 Best takes the rare opportunity to speak with the polymath British chef and look back at the key milestones of his extraordinary career as part of the Visions of Recovery series, supported by S.Pellegrino. Stay tuned for Part Two, which will explore his views on the future of cuisine

The 1990s marked a period of enlightenment in gastronomy. In the decade following the opening of The Fat Duck in 1995, a series of breakthroughs gave rise to freshly minted terms that are now liberally strewn across menus, cookery books and gastronomic discourse. Multi-sensory dining, triple-cooked chips, the application of liquid nitrogen, fresh theory behind menu semantics, ice clarification and centrifugal distillation all enjoyed a genesis with Heston Blumenthal. Science came into the kitchen in an original way and, for the first time in recent history, cooking influenced research that extended into medicine, neurology and the synthesis of new drugs.

The epicentre of these academic and gastronomic breakthroughs can be traced to a tiny, ramshackle kitchen in leafy Bray, southeast England. Heston Blumenthal purchased the site for his restaurant – then a down-at-heel pub called The Ringers – following a year working odd jobs to raise the necessary funds. After a short stint cooking in Oxfordshire with Raymond Blanc and an even shorter one with Marco Pierre-White, Blumenthal acknowledged that a career working for other chefs was not for him. His understanding of food and its potential did not chime with the approach of his contemporaries.

Blumenthal and his fellow Best of the Best luminaries at The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2019 ceremony in Singapore. Left to right: Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park); Blumenthal; Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca); Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana)

For this passage of time, Blumenthal’s name appeared in scientific journals almost as frequently as it did in newspapers’ reviews. In 2017, it culminated with Blumenthal receiving an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry. “I’d have to say that is my proudest achievement,” he says, speaking from his home in the south of France. “I still haven’t quite got my head around it. There are only 3,500 members and I’m listed among the 175 most influential scientists of all time with Einstein, Marie Curie and the like.”

Perhaps it was the lack of formal schooling in food that saw him adopt a different approach to cooking? “I guess I came at it with the attitude of a kid, not being scared to ask what might be considered dumb and to question everything,” he says. “We live in a world of judgement with an increasing fear of failure, but understanding the many reasons why something doesn’t work is the best tool for creativity.”

Blumenthal’s motto ‘question everything’ resonates so strongly, he had it emblazoned on his own coat of arms. “It was a really interesting process and I took it very seriously. The guys producing the coat of arms have been doing it for hundreds of years, yet they told me that mine took longer to design than any in history,” he laughs, referencing the seven years it took him to settle on the design. “But it was important to use the correct signifiers. The magnifying glass represents the sense of sight and perception, the apple is for taste, a connection with Isaac Newton and the Royal Society, and the hands for the sense of touch and connectivity. I describe what we do in my restaurants as applying a ‘trombone zoom’ to look at things – think of it like that scene in Jaws where the camera moves in and out on Roy Scheider at the same time. In my work, we thrive off questions without having to have the answer. You need to start at the beginning for pure creativity and to question everything is to look at the object from different perspectives.”

Blumenthal's coat of arms, which was seven years in the making

Indeed, this insatiable thirst for answers could have taken Blumenthal on any number of career paths. Fortunately for the world of cuisine, a meal at the Michelin three-star L’Oustau de Baumanière while on holiday in Provence in 1982 left the teenage Heston so inspired that he focused his fledgling inquisitive mind on the gastronomic sphere.

Asking questions, getting answers
“My mates went to the pub, but I stayed at home to work out how to make chips that weren’t soggy,” says Blumenthal. He is referring to his first gastronomic breakthrough, triple-cooked chips [fries], which took place in his home kitchen in west London two years before he opened The Fat Duck. “I just couldn’t get it out of my head, so I created a couple of experiments to limit the variables. Once I understood that it was the moisture from the middle of the chip evaporating and softening the crust, the rest was pretty easy.

“By chilling the parboiled potatoes before they go into hot fat, you can remove the moisture before they are cooked, so they stay crispy. It’s not rocket science.” Perhaps not – but considering the decades of flaccid chips that blighted the world before this revelation, Blumenthal was right to think that, with his unique application of process, he might be onto something.

Triple-cooked chips [fries], Blumenthal's first gastronomic discovery

The breakthroughs started arriving apace. “I think I first started playing around with liquid nitrogen in about ’97,” says Blumenthal. “I was looking at books from the early 20th and late 19th century and became particularly interested in a woman called Agnes Marshall. She had a cooking school, owned various properties and was the first woman to speak in the House of Lords. When you think that women weren’t even allowed to vote [until 1918], her achievements were amazingly impressive.

“She predicted refrigerated transport and in her book Ices Plain and Fancy [1885], she wrote about ‘liquid air’ or ‘liquid oxygen’. Now, liquid oxygen is very dangerous, but she was actually predicting liquid nitrogen. She suggested it was a wonderful thing that you could take on picnics to chill your Champagne and that one day she could see its use applied in hospitals.

“Because the nitrogen is so cold, the vapour goes down, so you don’t need to put a lid on it in the way you do a hot pan – you need to make the sides insulated so there’s a vacuum. She had basically given the idea to Thermos to create the first flask [invented in Germany, 1904].”

It is not as if the chefs before Blumenthal were not well-read in their field. Ask many of his contemporaries and they would be able to recount Escoffier’s detailed approach to the five mother sauces. But Blumenthal established his ideas by reading around the processes linked to cooking: thermogenesis, evaporation, convection – and combined these to take a view of food on a molecular level.

“Ice cream always interested me. After my experience at the restaurant in Provence aged 15, I bought a lot of top French chefs’ cookbooks and the majority of them had a method for vanilla ice cream,” he says. “I looked at the recipes and ratios and every single one of them was different. Some used double cream, some used whipping; some called for UHT milk. Some used whole eggs, some used yolks, some glucose and some sugar. I thought to myself: ‘Why is there so much variation? Do these guys know why they’re using the ingredients they are, or are they just passing on what they’ve been told? Do these ingredients have an effect and if they do, why?’

“What I discovered from setting up some simple experiments is that you need to get very small ice crystals for the smoothness of the ice cream. The best way to achieve this was with liquid nitrogen, so I started using it in the restaurant and was the first person to work with it in a restaurant kitchen.”
Bacon and Egg Ice Cream at The Fat Duck

Breaking rules in the name of progress

Early on in Blumenthal’s career as a cook, a research trip to Italy saw his desire to ask questions set off a domino effect of discovery. “We were at lunch and I’d ordered the seafood risotto,” he recounts. “I asked for Parmesan to be added and by the way the waiter looked at me, I realised I’d blasphemed quite badly and that Italians would never dream of putting the cheese on seafood.

“But I didn’t get it. To me it made sense to add a bit of Parmesan to the crab – there’s a group of compounds called ribonucleotides that make up the umami environment. They’re present on pizza, in tomatoes where Italians intuitively add Parmesan, but they’re also in the crab, making them all complementary ingredients. It immediately occurred to me that we were making a mistake by sticking to the rigidity of food and that we should be able to eat what we want – basically, to listen to our guts.”

Back in the UK and still in 1997, Blumenthal set about proving his theory through flavour. “I started to design my own crab ‘risotto’, by making a crab ice cream with a sheet of passionfruit jelly, some red pepper juice and lots of other stuff that was molecularly compatible. It proved to be a major thing.”

Sure, the dish was delicious, but it also became the touchpoint for a new discovery that sent shockwaves far beyond gastronomy and initiated what we now refer to the science of flavour pairing. “We were thinking what to call the dish and someone mentioned that it sounded weird to call it crab ice cream,” he says. “If someone was a bit squeamish or less adventurous, maybe we should tell them it was a frozen crab bisque.”

So ensued Blumenthal’s study into the semantics of food. He linked up with Martin Yeomans, an expert in the field, at Sussex University and the pair co-published their first paper, The role of expectancy in sensory and hedonic evaluation: The case of smoked salmon ice-cream. In essence, the experiment sought to ascertain whether what you label a foodstuff has an effect on its perceived flavour. Blumenthal made a smoked salmon ice and gave it to two testing groups: one was told it was smoked salmon ice cream; the other, frozen smoked salmon mousse.

“My god!” exclaimed Blumenthal on recounting the results. “We discovered that people found it to be 15% more salty when it was called mousse. Just by changing the name, you can change the perceived saltiness of the food. Since then, I’ve discovered that changing the font colour, the font size, the music, the surrounding smells and even the things that you can’t see can alter our relationship with food.” With this revelation, multi-sensory dining was, if not born, then unveiled.

Around the same time, the personalisation of restaurant meals was playing on the chef’s mind. “The Sound of the Sea was the first dish where I really started to try and play with the personal triggers around memory,” says Blumenthal. “Restaurants are in the business of emotion, so I would look to play on nostalgia: not the old-fashioned notion of melancholic nostalgia, but rather draw upon those wonderful, warm moments that you will treasure for the rest of your life.

“Around 2000, I started speaking with Jon Prinz of The Centre for Food Sciences at Wageningen University In the Netherlands. He had a sizeable budget to assess how the mouth behaves and its role in eating. He showed me a test by giving me chewing gum, but playing the noise of an apple crunching on headphones. It was the first time I had food and sound combined and it really opened my mind.”

For The Sound of the Sea, diners at The Fat Duck receive a dish of sashimi, tapioca ‘sand’ and sea foam. Next to the dish is a conch shell containing an iPod. Guests listen to the sound of waves crashing and seagulls flying overhead as they eat the dish.

“By playing something that is congruent with what you’re eating, it enhances the emotion of that dish,” Blumenthal explains. “The brain doesn’t need the missing pieces of the puzzle to complete the picture and it means that emotions are just flooded. I couldn’t believe the response. There were diners in floods of tears, people arguing about where they were; some saying they were in Boston, some in Cornwall. One guest just grabbed his plate and flipped it over, because of his memories of running along the beach.” Blumenthal reports that watching this unfold was one of the momentous moments of his career. The seeds of personalisation were sown.
The Sound of the Sea, one of Blumenthal's first multi-sensory dishes, which is on The Fat Duck's current Anthology menu

Kitchen or lab?

Times were tough in the early years at The Fat Duck. Blumenthal re-mortgaged his house to keep it afloat and the kitchen “was something from the 1970s - everything was falling apart”. The gas supplying the stove was not strong enough to support a rolling boil, so Blumenthal and his team had to think of increasingly innovative methods to get quality food into the dining room.

“I was always interested in how scientific kit could be applied,” says Blumenthal. “So I went to see Peter Barham at the University of Bristol. On his shelf he had a Fisher Scientific catalogue with about a million pages. I asked to borrow it and would take it to bed at night. I became totally obsessed and would flick through the pages with huge excitement about what was coming next. I had no idea what the majority of these wonderful machines did, but it was exciting because I didn’t know. I came across this water bath. At the same time in the restaurant we were playing around with low-temperature cooking, so I ordered one to see what might happen.

“As soon as it arrived, we started cooking salmon in it. On the first couple of goes the machine cracked, which was weird as it was only at 60 degrees or something. They refused to replace it as they said it wasn’t how they were meant to be used and sent another with a minimal discount. I’ve had one in my kitchen ever since.

“A couple of years later, I got a phone call asking me how to cook salmon in the water bath. It turned out it was the secretary of the director of Fisher Scientific as they were about to launch a new product for the home. I thought it was amazing at the time. Lots of my first discoveries started in Peter’s laboratory, with him explaining to me how these machines worked: vacuum distillation, rotary evaporators and fracturing bases like they do in the perfume industry.”
Blumenthal at the pass in the late 1990s

Wake up and smell the molecules
As his understanding of the component parts of food began to grow, Blumenthal drilled deeper into their core. “I started looking into the molecular arrangement of flavour,” he begins. “Everything has a formula. You can look up what goes into an apple, for example, and they can tell you its constituent parts. When you apply that trombone zoom, a whole new world opens up. The apple contains hundreds of ingredients that give it its taste. Some have non-flavour, some are sweet, sour, bitter, aromatic and so on. I looked into hexanols, and the ‘green’ aroma – cut grass, green apple, kiwi. And these hexanols vary in size: the more dense, such as banana and pear drops, have a smell which will hang around, but the more volatile ones, such as cut grass, don’t last for long.

“I created a dish based on this thinking with benzaldehyde, which is like the bitter almond smell and flavour you get with marzipan. I presented the idea at Madrid Fusión [gastronomic conference] in 2004 and it really seemed to resonate with the world.”

Following this presentation, the cultural currency around ‘molecular gastronomy’ really began to gather pace. It was a label journalists and writers would apply to anything in gastronomy that seemed modern, avant-garde, or beyond their limit of conventional understanding. To Blumenthal and his peers, it was a misnomer.

At their restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Spain, brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià were experiencing similar revelations to Blumenthal through a deep dive into ingredients’ construction. The trajectory of the restaurants is markedly similar and the two tussled for the title of The World’s Best Restaurant between 2004 and 2009. “Albert and I used to be very close friends,” says Blumenthal. “He once came to stay with me and spent a week at The Duck. He kept making reference to the impact that our restaurants were having on the world and said that the main difference between us were that ‘El Bulli is the elbow which does the minimum work for the maximum effect, but The Fat Duck does the opposite in terms of its complexity’.

“You could write a book about the processes and elements involved in just one dish at The Fat Duck. It used to frustrate me because I was so caught up in it, but now I realise it can all be extracted in a process of reverse engineering, which is exactly what I’m doing right now as I look back at what it all means.”

Inside the dining room at The Fat Duck

So unsatisfied were the Adriàs and Blumenthal with the labels being applied to their food, they and others (including Thomas Keller) chose to do something about it. A Statement on the New Cookery was born after a trip the chefs took on their mutual friend Nathan Myhrvold’s boat, where they would debate their vision of food for hours on end. “ Nathan told us: ‘You know what hearing you talk reminds me of? It’s like the Modernist art movement’. It took us days to perfect what we were trying to say in the statement.”

It paved the way for The Modernist Cookbook – written by four chefs who worked at The Fat Duck – and Modernist Cuisine, penned by Myhrvold. “I’m certainly more comfortable with the title ‘modernist’, although it’s still not right. Back then, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to call myself an ‘artist’, but now, I have more confidence, which is paving the way for my next chapter.

“I’m moving into an area that is mind-blowingly exciting and big, which is bringing everything I’ve learnt to understand together…”

Part Two of the 50 Best interview with Heston Blumenthal will be published on Thursday, 27th August. Stay tuned to discover what the chef is doing next.

The Fat Duck reopened on 15th August, serving an Anthology menu of the restaurant’s classic dishes

Photography by John Carey and Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria

The Best of the Best group was created in 2019 and comprises all the venues that have topped the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants over its history. Members of the Best of the Best are no longer eligible to be voted in the annual lists.