Migration of the Fat Duck
If you have gastronomic tendencies, you would have known that Heston Blumenthal migrated his Fat Duck restaurant, staff, cutlery, crockery, lock, stock and barrel to Melbourne earlier this year. Most restaurateurs would say that the whole idea is too big, too costly and just plain crazy!
But accepting limitations is not part of Heston’s DNA. As a teenager with no background or training in cooking, he decided food was to be his focus and at 18, after a truncated probation week at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire (then considered one of Britain’s finest), decided he was going to teach himself and obsessively began reading, deconstructing, reconstructing and experimenting.
“If you obsess over failure then you become scared, you don’t take risks and work becomes a tireless chore,” he says. “Failure does not exist in a truly creative world – failure is the opportunity to learn and discover.”
A brave start
In 1995, he opened The Fat Duck with only a month’s commercial kitchen experience and the result was a unique, multi-sensory experience that bent flavour and infused it with whimsy, alchemy and nostalgia that challenged tradition, technique and dining in general.
Since then, Heston has gone on to rule the food world: The Fat Duck has held three Michelin stars for a decade; he opened Dinner By Heston that now has two stars; the one-starred The Hinds Head; The Crown at Bray village pub and The Perfectionists’ Café. Outside the Michelin system, his restaurants have been voted best in the world and have remained in the upper echelons of the globe’s best 50 restaurants.
He has created eight cookbooks, seven TV series, has been awarded an O.B.E. for his services to British gastronomy and been admitted to The Royal British Society of Chemistry as a fellow.
A gentleman of the kitchen
Blumenthal is one the most celebrated people of our time, but face to face, you get the sense that the trappings of fame hold no interest. He is warm, polite, respectful and engaging.
So why does he have such an obsession with food? A clue to this riddle might lie in the fact that he has synaesthesia; a neurological anomaly in which the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary stimulation of a second. In simple terms, Heston associates colours with letters and sounds with tastes. In Heston’s world, food and everything that comes with it, is something quite different and may explain why every dish at the Fat Duck is designed to go beyond sight, taste and smell.
His Sounds of the Sea signature dish is a perfect example. It comes on a piece of glass suspended over sand and broken shells. A cloud of salt-water foam sits beside edible seaweed, abalone, clams, cockles and tapioca. It is served with a shell that contains an iPod and headphones that play the sound of waves crashing on a beach.
It may sound like a strange thing to do; eat a lecithin-infused saltwater foam with seaweed while listening to the ocean. But the smells, the sound, the tastes and the interaction of each sense drags up memories and smells long forgotten. It’s almost like looking through a family photo album for the first time in 15 years.
There is little doubt that Heston has changed the way we think about food and Australians love him for it. In the two months after the Fat Duck’s move to Australia was announced, 40,000 booking enquires were received and when a random ballot system was created at $525 per head, 250,000 punched their credit card details into the system, vying for just over 16,000 seats.
So why Australia?
“I love it here,” he says. “If I was going to open my first restaurant outside the UK, it had to be somewhere I actually wanted to go. Every time I land here, I feel like I can breathe.
“And Aussies, when it comes to food, are incredibly open minded.”
Heston’s affection for Australia extends beyond the people and the place to the quality of our ingredients.
“I subsequently started discovering how much great produce there is here,” he says. “My favourite ingredients are definitely the truffles and the beef, but I’ve also been really lucky to try some of the indigenous ingredients, which can be quite tricky to work with because they have to deal with such extreme heat conditions. Also, some of the fish is amazing; fish and chips made from bass grouper are just fantastic – very gelatinous flavours.
“One of my last trips was with a man called Josh who takes food tours. We picked abalone and rock oysters, cooking them straight from the water. That was fantastic and a great example of how food is so rooted in a time and place and how it has a strong connection with the land.”
A vibrant future
What also excites Mr Blumenthal is the future of food in Australia and how our multicultural diversity will allow our cuisine to evolve and develop without the boundaries that exist elsewhere.
“Australian culture is certainly young enough for fresh innovation, it’s very multi-cultural, very modern, very open minded and inquisitive.
“These are all the things needed for creativity. I believe Australians have a real sense of pride in their past, a knowledge of their heritage, but Australia’s food history is too young to slip backwards.
“One thing is for sure, it’s vibrant and exciting and completely delicious!”
On the subject of dining and who he would like to have dinner with, dead or alive, his answer provides an insight into the depth of his inquisitive nature.
“It would have to be the pre-human ape who was the first being to cook food on a fire,” he answers. “Eating cooked food has developed the human mind and made us who we are. There was almost a million years between discovering fire and cooking, after those million years, what happened? What did it taste like? I’d love to know, I’d like to have dinner with them and ask them.”
The Australian version of the Fat Duck is now over, with the staff winging their way back for the northern hemisphere spring and the vacated space being prepped for a permanent version of the highly successful and more accessible Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
So if you missed out on getting a seat at the Fat Duck and want to experience and taste the world of Heston, then a trip to the Crown complex in Melbourne should be part of your next migration.
Watch Selector’s exclusive video interview with Heston: