We caught up with Heston Blumenthal who, along with being a culinary guru of epic proportions, dishes out divine advice with as much finesse as he would to design his legendary food pairings. By Ananya Bahl
We’re at the JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar’s Romano’s—a bistro-like Italian restaurant oozing the homely charm of the Italian countryside. I stress on the location because of its calming effect on my nerves: I was about to meet a giant of the gourmet world, and someone whose work I’ve admired for years. However, as I was soon to find out, Heston Blumenthal, British celebrity chef, author and TV show host, belies any preconceived notion that one may have about his star status.
He immediately puts me at ease by involving me in a little experiment with red wine. First, he asks me to think of someone I love very much and take a sip, followed by another sip after I’ve thought of someone unpleasant. The same wine tastes smoother in the first instance and more acidic and tougher to swallow in the next. Similarly, he writes the word “wine” on a sheet of paper: first in a soft, bulbous-amoebic font and then in a jarring one that could work as the logo of a death metal band. The result of the tasting is similar to the first. “Oh, this is a little experiment that I’ve been working on. I find that it works for food and drink with a spectrum of flavour profiles. Vegetable juice could produce a similar result. It just shows that we always look at the things on the outside, instead, we don’t realise the difference our feelings make to the taste of things”—I realise just then how Heston Blumenthal’s gastronomic adventures boil down to one thing: “question everything” and he’s wearing a t-shirt with the same words to prove it!
1. Do you also question why you became a chef: was it a pre-ordained scenario or a conscious decision?
There’s a quote on the fireplace at my restaurant in Bray: “Fear knocked on the door, faith opened it” and honestly, I never thought about its poignancy until a year ago. Without The Joker, Batman wouldn’t be the hero he is! It was a conscious decision: I started my first restaurant in Bray, close to where I went to school, borrowed money from my father and the bank, and just began.
2. It’s almost as if one needs a child-like curiosity ability to question everything…
I’ve always said this: get kids into the kitchens! Let children learn from us and vice versa. Children have lesser defence mechanisms at play in their personalities. This makes it easier to question and come up with new flavour combinations that you didn’t think of earlier. It’s important to learn from their responses to taste.
3. Why is history so important to you? It features heavily in your menus and two of your restaurants are housed in regenerated historic venues.
In the process of being more self-aware, I can continually revisit the past to go forward. We think of time as being in a straight line, but we invented it. Sometimes, passing time doesn’t feel the same. When you’re in the kitchen, it feels like there isn’t enough time to make the perfect dish as opposed to when you’re in a state of bliss, time expands. I see cooking as a means of time travel in varying directions. The Fat Duck is in a building constructed in 1548 – it is tiny, all I could afford then. I feel like human beings perform well under pressure, in a restricted space. Of course, this is easier said in hindsight. Sometime after the Fat Duck opened, I walked into this bookstore in London called “Books for Cooks” and there was an old French recipe book from the 1200s, which spoke about taking a chicken when it was alive, sprinkling it with wheat germ and saffron, rocking it to sleep, putting it on a serving platter with two roasted chickens, taking it to your master’s table, and carving one of the roasted chickens. During that process, the other chicken wakes up and clucks. You then put this chicken out of its misery, stuff it with sulphur and mercury, roast it and it comes back “clucking.” I later discovered it was hogwash and the chef was trying to show off. But, that got me thinking about how history, creativity and imagination are important in the cooking process.
4. You’re in India for Masters of Marriott – what are some of the dishes that guests will be treated to here?
I’ve drawn up the menu in such a way that it showcases dishes from The Fat Duck and my historic menus. To mix savoury and sweet, there’s roasted scallops with caviar and white chocolate velouté. Drawing inspiration from the book, Queen-like Closet, I’ve used the historic technique of “powdering” or “brining” meat—traditionally, a skill important for professional and domestic cooks—to present the powdered duck with a beetroot risotto. I love when the taste and smell of food trigger happy memories: like the dessert on this menu—a coming together of macerated strawberries and black olives—the leathery hint of black olives remind me of the smell of the brand new wicket-keeping gloves I received on my eighth birthday!
5. Is there an Indian dish that you love? If you could design a sensory experience around it, what would its key aspects be?
Auditory perceptions have a huge impact on one’s taste buds. For example, once, we tried to bring the sound of the waves from the seaside town where our guests grew up to help them draw from their memories and heighten the tasting experience. I’ve grown up with Indian food and British curry, and I love eating with my fingers. I walked into Peshawari recently and the ambient music helped me go back to my childhood because going to get curry with my parents was considered a treat. I once put up a curry house in a townhouse in Bolton with Bollywood dancing, a huge elephant figurine, and all the guests were clapping away!
6. Any chance that we will see the Fat Duck in India soon?
Currently, I have a huge project on hand: it’s of mind-boggling proportions and I can’t talk about it. Think of it as a new and improved Fat Duck. So, once that’s up and running, hopefully, we can bring it here too!