The Fat Duck: Bray on Thames: “A food fun park.” “…only visit if you take the preparation of interesting food seriously, it's an experience, not a meal. That's what you're paying for.” “…sublime,” “..simply wonderful.” and “…gastronomic delight.”
There is no doubt that Heston Blumenthal is a very clever man, who has worked hard for his accolades. And credit where credit is due. He has done the research, talked to the right people, experimented, played, spent hours, days, months and years perfecting his approach and in fact, creating a “new cookery” which celebrates scientific understanding, precision and technology to produce multi-sensory cooking.
That the 16-year-old Heston was inspired to strike out on a road less-travelled when he visited L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence is wonderful. I too, appreciated the wonderment of good French food when I was there and imagined all kind of things for myself amongst the heady scent of lavender, the sound of crickets chirping, the intoxicating aromas of well-cooked lamb, garlic and rosemary. And the sweeping Provençal landscape you can see from Les Baux de Provence, the tiny village cut into the rock that looks out over the Bouches-du-Rhone countryside, is breathtaking and soul-filling. I get it. But for Heston, it was so much more. For him, it was an extraordinary and pivotal experience. It was there that he experienced the epiphany that sent him on a career-long journey of discovery and invention to recreate, for this diners, that sensation he had had. I applaud that. But I’m not sure donning headphones to eat the Sound of the Sea dish is really the way to do it.
But back to Heston’s journey. Not content to learn from highly acclaimed Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir de Quat’ Saisons, 18 year old Heston, who had petitioned 40 chefs from top restaurants to allow him to work in their kitchens, heard back from 3 of them and chose Raymond Blanc, only lasted a week with him before deciding to strike out on his own. For the next ten years he worked a series of undemanding day jobs so that he could devote all of his free time and energy to experimenting with food.
He is most well known for his dishes involving ‘molecular gastronomy’, a term Heston, in fact rejects for its ‘complicated’ and ‘elitist’ associations. He prefers multi-sensory cooking or modernist cuisine. But following these principles has earned him three Michelin stars.
What exactly is molecular gastronomy or multi-sensory cooking? I think most people, who have even the slightest interest in foodie-type conversations, have probably heard of this food science-cum-alchemy. Molecular gastronomy first entered general vocabulary in 1988 when it was used by late Oxford physicist, Nicholas Kurti, and French INRA chemist, Hervé This.
Basically, this ‘science’ blends physics and chemistry to transform the tastes and textures of food to promote new and innovative dining experiences. Chefs adopting this approach use tools from the science lab and ingredients from the food industry.
In Heston's hands, this manifests in such dishes as toasted brioche loaf, covered in frozen bacon and liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream made from reindeer's milk. Or meat fruit, where a combination of chicken liver pâté and foe gras is moulded into a ball and covered with mandarin jelly so that it looks like a big mandarin. Or snail porridge. Which sounds a little like something out of Beatrix Potter, but is in fact a rich almost risotto dish with sautéed snails, fennel bulb and parma ham.
A lot of the chefs I have spoken to in Melbourne lately talk about just wanting to prepare ‘good’ food. They want to acknowledge the seasons and celebrate the textures and flavours of individual ingredients rather than overcomplicating a dish. Don’t get me wrong, they too are all about the experience. They too want a combination of friendly, good service, welcoming atmosphere, delicious food and atmosphere-creating music. They want their diners to leave having feeling satisfied and happy.
But they don’t charge $525 per person before alcohol for the privilege, aka. 12-15 courses of “pure food theatre”.
Heston Blumenthal’s iconic Bray restaurant, The Fat Duck, is coming to Melbourne. Heston has apparently long harboured a desire to open a restaurant in Australia. With his Bray building closing for renovation, and a Melbourne foodie crowd desperate for the latest and greatest, the timing seemed perfect for a ‘pop-up’ Fat Duck in the Crown Towers on Southbank.
Is Heston Blumenthal’s product all smoke and mirrors? Are we victims of some kind of emperor’s new clothes scenario? His announcement of the cost of his degustation menu was met with excitement and almost frothing at the mouth of many Melbourne foodies and also a certain amount of indignation from other quarters. He countered the indignation by explaining that he is moving his whole kitchen, equipment and staff over from England; he sources the very best of ingredients from around the world; and many of his dishes take a long time and particular care. That’s what you’re paying for.
And such is the popularity of The Fat Duck, that a ballot system has been set up for wannabe diners to secure one of the 14 000 seats available over the 280 services it will run.
It just really seems like a lot of money. There is so much need in Melbourne in terms of the homeless, the ill, and families not knowing where the next meal will come from. Organisations like FareShare who rescue food which would otherwise end up as landfill from supermarkets and farmers, cook it and redistribute it, need $30 000 a week to run. They are not government funded. That a couple can go out and pay over $1000 for dinner…I’m just not sure.
Heston did do the charitable thing though. Three charities, Magpie Nest, Starlight Foundation and Snowdome have each been given tickets to the chef’s table which they will be auctioning off to raise funds for their organisations.
And really, if I were given a ticket, would I go? Of course. Obscene on my part to make all this fuss and then say, actually I’d like to see it for myself. But also a moot point. And anyway, what on earth would I wear?