Of all of the world’s greatest chefs, Heston Blumenthal is the hardest to categorise. From scientific breakthroughs to recreating medieval cuisine, he has done it all
It is usually not that difficult to tell a great chef from a good one. A great chef will not just make delicious food, but he will also create dishes that linger in your memory. Some truly great chefs will change the way in which other chefs look at food. Michel Guérard taught the French that food could be light and did not need flour-thickened sauces. Ferran Adrià took many of the scientific techniques that the food production industry used and customised them for restaurant kitchens. Alice Waters taught Americans that fresh ingredients were as important as cooking techniques. The Troisgros brothers told French chefs that fish tasted better if you cooked it a little less. And so on.
But the thing about great chefs is that there is nearly always one thing you remember them for. A great Japanese chef will be famous for cooking the best rice in the world. Someone like Alain Passard will be remembered for giving vegetables pride of place in his kitchen. Massimo Bottura’s contribution was to take simple Italian food and elevate it at a time when other Italian chefs were Frenchifying their cuisine. Gaggan Anand took the central flavours of Indian cuisine and created dishes that we never imagined could exist, straddling the cuisines of the world, all the way from Japan to South America.
The surprising thing about Heston Blumenthal is that though he is one of the world’s most famous chefs and the greatest chef to come out of England in the last hundred years, it is impossible to say what his style is or to isolate any one contribution above all the others.
When he first sprang to fame two decades ago (he has had three Michelin stars for over a decade now), the popular press tried to link his food with the sorts of things that Ferran Adrià was doing at El Bulli. There were superficial similarities, to be sure.
Both men recognised that the very act of cooking was a scientific process and built on that realisation. But Adrià’s obsessions were with form. A seemingly solid olive would turn into a liquid in your mouth. A familiar flavour would become a cloud of smoke. A ‘soil’ (a powder) would turn out to taste of something you recognised (a vegetable perhaps).
Blumenthal, on the other hand, seemed less obsessed with the alchemy of form. His real passion seemed to be flavour. His most famous early success was Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, which played up the egg in the custard that went into the ice cream and then added nuggets of bacony flavour. There was some technology involved. Blumenthal, more than any other chef, popularised the use of liquid nitrogen to turn the custard into ice cream within seconds. But he did not do it to play with form – ice cream made that way is smoother and tastes more like an ice cream should.
And though the ‘molecular cuisine’ tag continued to dog him, it seemed to be less and less appropriate. Blumenthal’s real obsession appeared to be perfection. He did a TV show dedicated on finding out how to create the best fish and chips, the ideal steak and even a perfect chicken tikka masala.
Then, as the media were still writing about the food of the future and space age foams, Blumenthal went back a few centuries. His next big venture, a large restaurant called Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London, recreated British food from the medieval era. This time he did play with form. One of his signature dishes was Meat Fruit, a plate of fruit that looked so convincing that when you bit into it, you were shocked to find that the ‘fruit’ had been created from chicken liver mousse. The dish was historically authentic, but it always struck me as being a witty riposte to the claims of so-called molecular gastronomy. Yes it is clever to create a bogus olive from liquid juices but hey, they were doing the same sort of thing, in their own way, hundreds of years ago!
Dinner has become the restaurant Blumenthal is best known for, but even as people focused on his recreations of medieval food, one aspect of his quest for perfection suddenly became so famous that many of those who cook it now, don’t even realise he invented it.
The French are good with potatoes but most of their great potato dishes involve a lot of dairy and a lot of sieving. When it comes to the humble chip – the French Fry – the best they could do was cook it twice so that it crisped up nicely. Blumenthal went a step further, understood the mechanics of frying and created a triple cooked chip, perfectly, cooked on the outside but full of a rich potato taste on the inside. While all of these culinary marvels have been hugely influential, I got the sense, while talking to him last week that as proud as he was of them, they seemed to matter less and less.
Unlike many great chefs who are happy to ponce about declaring that they are artists, Blumenthal is much more obsessed with the guy who eats his food than he is with his art. His ambition seems to be to offer his guests a complete sensory experience, with taste being no more than the point of entry. At The Fat Duck, guests are famously given headphones and told to listen to the sounds of the seaside while eating seafood. But these days, even that has begun to worry him. No two people have the same seaside experience: going to the beach in St Tropez is nothing like going to Juhu. So how can he get the diner to cast his mind back to a personal seaside experience?
It is a complicated question to which there is no real answer. But, of all the great chefs I have interviewed he is the most willing to concede that our enjoyment of food or drink depends on many factors other than just taste.
At a dinner he cooked at the JW Marriott in Delhi’s Aerocity – he was here for the Marriott group’s Masters of Marriott programme – I did a chat with him at the end of the meal in front of an adoring audience.
When we were discussing how difficult it is to be objective about food, he suddenly asked the serving staff to give every diner a glass of red wine. Then he asked us to think of something happy and take a sip of wine. Next, he asked us to think of something sad or horrible and to try the same wine again. It tasted significantly worse, the audience conceded.
So that’s what food and drink are about, he told them. It is as much to do with your state of mind as it is with the quality of what you are eating and drinking. All your senses and your emotions come into play at the same time.
We had chatted for an hour before the dinner began and hadn’t even touched on food because I got the distinct sense that having achieved everything he possibly could in the food world before he was 50, he had begun to think beyond the kitchen.
He had studied Buddhist meditation, was fascinated by the kabbalah and was training his own senses to the extent that he sometimes feels he can smell the hormones (say melatonin) that human beings secrete.
I have no idea where life will take Heston Blumenthal next. At present he lives in idyllic surroundings in Provence and is enjoying a spell of late fatherhood. His current obsession – and perhaps his favourite cooking ingredient – is water. And though he will do what the business requires, I don’t think money matters too much to him.
My guess is that one day he will take all of his current, more thoughtful and wide-ranging interests and return to the kitchen. And just as he shook up the cuisine world two decades ago, the new Heston will lead a new gastronomic revolution, one that comes from deep inside his entire being.