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Heston Blumenthal: Chef, Artist, Food Memory Wrangler

Pete Wells and Heston Blumenthal
Pete Wells and Heston Blumenthal
Photo: Lia Bulaong

British chef Heston Blumenthal walked onto the TimesTalk stage on Saturday for his NYWFF talk on his restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England looking exactly what you'd expect a European mad scientist/artist/chef to look like: neatly-shaved head, incredibly pale, and dressed in a dark velvet jacket and tight jeans, with brown shoes.

Bonus: he arrived with a multimedia slideshow. Bonus redux: his slideshow had muzak. I-heard-you-like-bonuses-so-I-put-a-bonus-in-your-bonus bonus: his slideshow also had a screensaver slideshow of its own, that played when he was talking about other things. Clearly the man is a genius!

"Does anyone know the difference between taste and flavor?" he asked the crowd. No one raised a hand. A volunteer was solicited and many hands were raised, but at Heston Blumenthal talks, as with the Highlander, there can be only one. A lady was selected from the crowd and a declaration was made: "Taste is what happens in the mouth. Flavor is a combination of taste and aroma—the brain has the arduous task of joining those things together." A science lecture!

The volunteer was made to pinch her nose closed and was presented with a peanut M&M to eat. Et voila! Its flavor was different without the aroma; the peanut M&M was bitter instead of sweet when you can't smell it.

"Cooking," said Blumenthal, "is the only thing we do that involves all of the senses." He discusses what it was like to grow up in 1970s England, with its incredibly terrible food: there was only one kind of pasta in the supermarkets (spaghetti that came in a blue bag) and the only place you could get olive oil was at a pharmacy because you used it to clean your ears out, not to cook with. And then, a gift: he remembers distinctly the sound of gravel crunching underfoot, the smell of lavender, the sound of crickets, the big mustache of the sommelier at the first amazing dinner he had as a youth, in France, at a three Michelin star restaurant; the meal that changed his life and made him want to become a chef.

And so he calls bullshit on people who say they appreciate food in a pure way, just for the way it tastes. Because your experience of a dish is everything around you when you eat it: the sounds, the location. Blumenthal says that's the reason the bottle of wine you drink during dinner by a beautiful lake while you're on vacation blows your mind, but the case of it you bought and took home because you loved it so much tastes like crap when you open it for your friends.

The experience of food memory is why he created his (in)famous dish Sounds of the Sea, which takes the appearance of things washed up on sand, complete with sea foam. It is served with a seashell with an iPod inside that plays the sound of the sea lapping up against the shore and seagulls for you listen to while you eat it.

Video: Heston Blumenthal and The Sound of the Sea

Apparently it's not uncommon for people to start crying in the dining room, while eating Sounds of the Sea. Blumenthal says, "To have someone cry over your food—without giving them a backhander—is quite a thing."

New Yorkers who can't afford to travel to London and pay a meal at The Fat Duck, take heart: he said during the Q&A that if his newest restaurant, Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London works out, he'll consider opening restaurants in other cities... and that he's always looking for more reasons to be in New York. Metrocards will probably be even more expensive than they are now by the time The Fat Duck NYC happens, if it ever does, but they'll still be cheaper than airfare!

· All Heston Blumenthal Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All NYWFF Coverage [-E-]