Chef, restauranteur, scientist, maverick; Rosalind Sack meets the giant of gastronomy, Heston Blumenthal.
Spending time with Heston Blumenthal is exhausting. In an intense, fascinating, inspiring and engaging way.
It’s hardly surprising considering that the incredible mind of this ‘mad scientist’ of food – now one of the most recognisable chefs in the world – has spawned the likes of ice cream pork pie, edible fairy lights and lickable wallpaper. Those sparks of creativity fizzing around in his brain are palpable as he veers from one topic to the next, at times gabbling his words as if his mouth is battling to keep up with his racing thoughts.
‘I’ll try not to talk about the cosmos and gravitational forces and magnetosphere,’ he grins as I settle down with him at a picnic table in the garden of his pub, The Crown, in the Berkshire village of Bray. ‘Or table tennis – I’m obsessed with table tennis!’
He’s wearing a simple black t-shirt and tailored grey trousers, with his trademark thick-rimmed black glasses. With all his fizz and pace, he’s also self-aware, honest – and very likeable.
It was at the age of 15, while at a restaurant on holiday in Provence with his parents, that Kensington-born Heston’s passion for food was awakened. Enamoured by the multi-sensory experience of the smell of lavender, sound of clinking glasses and taste of lamb, he was hooked.
‘I wasn’t the most confident kid growing up,’ he begins. ‘So of all the things I chose to do with my life, why did I go down a route in the food world that was possibly – perhaps not controversial – but as disruptive as I could have been? I could have just flipped burgers! But I realised I had a belief.’
That’s where his infamous crab ice cream comes in. It was in 1997 that Heston created a crab ice cream to accompany a crab risotto at his restaurant The Fat Duck, in Bray, which he’d bought two years earlier.
‘Some people loved it, some people couldn’t get their head around it,’ he recalls. ‘But as soon as we called it frozen crab bisque instead, they found it less sweet and were like “Oh I get it now!”’
This led to a research project at the University of Sussex in which test subjects were served Heston’s ice cream flavoured with smoked salmon. Despite being served identical food, one half of the group was told it was ice cream, the other was told it was savoury frozen mousse. Those who were told they were eating savoury mousse found the dish acceptable, while those told it was ice cream found the taste salty and unpalatable. It became apparent that one of the biggest influences on our perception of food is memory.
‘I realised, “Wow, just changing the name makes a difference to how the food tastes, so what other cues might change the perception of flavours?” So then the world opened up and, in terms of motivation, I found something I believed in, that was stronger than anything else… And it certainly wasn’t money!’ he says.
It’s easy to forget that Heston’s cookery qualifications boil down to an apprenticeship at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir in Oxfordshire when he was 18. He left after a week. Besides that, incredibly, he’s self-taught. On one hand a staggering achievement, on the other, a perpetual weight on his shoulders in the fledgling years of The Fat Duck.
‘For years I had a fear of failure, massively,’ he adds. ‘But I brushed it under the carpet or just punched my way out of everything. What I couldn’t do was unzip and be seen to be vulnerable. I couldn’t do it.
‘In some ways my naivety was a help to me; if I’d have known how hard I was going to have to work, I don’t think I would have done it! But I took on a lot of pressure with the amount of work I had to put in over and above the average chef because I was self-taught. I had to learn the hard way.’
There were several moments in the early days when he was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and Heston has since confessed to being ‘rubbish with money’.
‘Einstein said, “Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything”,’ he says. ‘All human beings are creative. Creativity led to education. Creativity led to everything, everything that we’ve made. We’re all born creative, we don’t need to learn it, we need to learn how to remove the fear of failure,’ he explains.
If anyone has proved that taking risks can pay off, then it’s surely Heston, who has revealed he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) only last year. He now has two gastropubs alongside his flagship three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Bray, as well as Dinner restaurants at the Mandarin Oriental in London and The Crown hotel in Melbourne, Australia. He’s been presented with an OBE, cooked for royalty, sent his food into space, fronted numerous TV series’, written books, achieved honourary degrees for his scientific approach to cooking, and his awards cabinet must be fit to burst.
Heston adds: ‘There’s a palliative care nurse who wrote about the most common things people said on their death bed and top of the list was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.” Imagine lying on your deathbed thinking that? You’ve just written your life off.’
Are you doing that, living true to yourself, I ask? Without hesitation, he replies: ‘Completely and utterly.’
Heston has designed Everdure by Heston Blumenthal, a range of barbeque combining the latest technology and design aesthetics with ease of use and attention to detail. For more visit everdurebyheston.co.uk