At around 2 AM last Wednesday Heston Blumenthal was sitting at a corner table of San Sebastian's El Museo del Whisky with Wylie Dufresne; people around them, mostly other chefs and journalists, drank gin-and-tonics and danced. Blumenthal had just gotten into town for Gastronomika, which already was two days in and gearing up for his closing night presentation.
Not many hours later, the intensely bespectacled chef had set up shop in the back of Ni Neu, the cafeteria of the Kursaal. In the interview we conducted there, Blumenthal talked about his presentation, the Fat Duck's future, and how he handles being a fixture of the British tabloids. He also cleared up why he wasn't involved with the Lima Open Letter.
What are you presenting tonight? I'm specifically interested in this: would you agree that seeing demo after demo of modern techniques at these festivals can get somewhat monotonous? How do you deal with that?
[Gasps, then smiles] How dare you! It's a good point. These congresses, and this is one of the best ones in the world, are brilliant at bringing new ideas and the work of chefs to other chefs. It's also great in terms of attracting coverage for chefs that might not get much attention.
I don't really do many of these anymore, but I think there is a tendency, especially with young chefs, of getting invited to these things, seeing that they are going to be speaking in front of the great names of creative cooking, and saying to themselves, "Well, I can't just boil a bit of fish or roast meat and fry potatoes. I have to do something else." So I think that there has been a tendency for these chefs to get so obsessed with the techniques and what is going to be on screen that they forget what the food will taste like. The crazier, the better, some young chefs seem to believe.
Having said that, I'm doing another technique [giggles].
What is it?
I first had the idea five years ago, when I started to focus on the "like a kid in a sweetshop" metaphor. If there is any emotion I would like to have a guest leave The Fat Duck with, it's a sense of fun. To a certain extent, it depends on the service, the food, the interaction, and that kind of stuff. But it also has to do with the mood of the customer when they arrive at the restaurant. I was thinking, "How can I generate excitement before they arrive? How can I make people approach it as the glass already being half full?"
So, as a first step, a few years ago we got a sweetshop bell and stuck it on the door of our development kitchen. The idea is, every time you enter, the bell rings and you enter the metaphorical sweetshop for creativity and excitement. It was great for the first half hour.
I love the idea of approaching a problem and making something great out of it — ending up with something better than not having the problem in the first place. And in 2005/2006, when The Fat Duck went ballistic, it was our reservations system. We were getting 30,000 calls a day for bookings. We tried to see about how to make it easier to get through, but ultimately the question became, "How can I make it so that if someone does get through, they start the experience the moment they put down the phone?" It doesn't have to start at the moment you turn up at the restaurant. We've done an animation, after having done several other versions, and it's not a sweetshop [per se].
Why not? What is it?
I thought that was too literal. What you end up seeing are elements of dishes from the menu — some are obvious and some are not — and you go through this journey where you see things that you might spot during your meal. The interesting thing is that we can alter what comes up in the animation in the future. And you have a four-minute audio experience — you're supposed to listen to it with headphones, as it's recorded in binaural — of the actor John Hurt with the music from Willy Wonka. You see the animation, and then he welcomes you into the stereotypical shop and speaks to you. You can see it three times before you come in, and one time after. You have to use it wisely. It's about having a sense of discovery.
The techniques we're showing are for two of the sweets you get in the bag at the end of the meal. One for aerating chocolate, which we did years ago, and another for "playing cards," which use the thinnest pastry in the world. I don't know how the laws work in America, but we give the sweets before the bill. It can get complicated if they are given after.
You've had trouble with such things before.
Yes, exactly. We've decided it's much safer that way.
Grant Achatz has been talking about "thinking off the plate" and focusing heavily on the elements of a meal that surround the food. Is that what you're mainly interested in now?
Fat Duck started down that route about ten years ago. It's nice to hear that now. I remember the first presentation at Madrid Fusion 2004 was "Eating as a Multi-sensory Experience." People didn't get it; it wasn't getting through at all. For me, the most important ingredient is this [points to head]. It's the brain. We eat for two things: to survive, for health and then for pleasure. The pleasure part needs the brain. The context of eating — the shape of the knife, the people you're with, the smell in the room — makes a difference. Whether you like it or not, it matters.
When you talk about engaging the brain, is it more about the intellect or just enjoying yourself?
For me, it should be fun. I don't want to over-intellectualize it. We're currently working with an experimental psychologist from Oxford University, a cognitive scientists and neurologists, musicians, a script writer. This is all great and exciting, but at the end of the day, what matters is that the customer comes in, has some fantastic food, and has a great time — a sense of fun. It's not just about the food on the plate, but you have to approach that in a seamless and relaxed way, no matter how much work or thought goes into a dish or concept. I think too often people over-intellectualize these things.
You mentioned before that you don't do too many congresses these days. Add to that what happened with the G9, where you told Jay Rayner that you were just "a bloody chef," and it seems like you consciously are trying to step back and avoid attracting attention. Is that true?
Not really. That quote I gave Jay Rayner was not printed exactly the way it was said. I was in America working, and I was never going to go to Peru. That trip had been booked for like two years, and I just couldn't do those dates. It's not like I mysteriously didn't go. I know Jay, and his number comes up on my phone, and I pick it up, because it's Jay. He goes, "What the hell is that you're going to save the world from starvation?" I said, "What?" He told me I had signed a document in Peru, and I told him I wasn't even there. I'm involved in the Basque Culinary Center, which is something I'm proud of. But I'm not going to save the world, I told Jay. I'm a chef.
Then, the way it got worded made it seem like I was trying to distance myself and criticize them. I've been friends with Andoni and Jose Mari of the Basque Culinary Center for years, and that's not the way I would speak about them. But Jose Mari did tell me, "Well, maybe I should have told you we were going to do that." We had all given our recommendations last year, but I didn't know that a document was being produced, let alone what was in it, so of course I'm going to say, "What are you talking about?" Then, like it or not now, I generate some media interest in the UK. I drop a potato and it's in a tabloid.
That's the last thing I wanted to talk about. How does the gossip and controversy affect you and the restaurants?
There's no media on the planet like the British media. None. These other chefs don't have attention of that nature. I was talking to Andoni about this yesterday: a restaurant like The Fat Duck needs funding. To take a table for two out and pay more attention to detail, for example, costs the best part of 300,000 pounds revenue in a year. We have one hundred staff just for the Duck. So you have to build the other parts of the business, unfortunately.
And become a full-fledged celebrity.
Yeah, but I'm very careful with what I do and don't do. What's this show you have... Dancing With The Stars. They've asked me to do it the last three years in the UK. Big Brother, you name it. But I don't do them. You end up being in a position where you are in a celebrity culture that is unlike anywhere else in the world. In the States, the laws governing privacy are much tighter than in the UK, where papers get away with murder. You have to be so careful. They can literally lie and get away with it. In the States, you just slap a writ on them.
But does it affect you or the restaurants?
No. It's just part of it. You have to deal with it.