A miniature underwater world is placed on the table. It is like gazing into a rock-pool: meticulously positioned on glass over a bed of sand is tiger abalone, glistening kelp, and delicate slices of wild yellowtail.
Handed out with the dish is an indecently curvaceous conch that nestles a hidden iPod in its chamber. It emits the hiss of the sea and the caw of seagulls circling. This, if there ever was one, is a taste of the ocean.
But the young Chinese couple show scarcely a cursory interest in their food, the seashell, or the sparkling view over Melbourne’s Yarra River. They are too busy looking at their phones.
Heston Blumenthal would be appalled. The celebrity chef and founder of The Fat Duck, once voted Best Restaurant in the World and now coming to the end of a six-month relocation to Australia, is a crusader of paying attention. To the here and now.
Blumenthal’s seventeen-course set menu is not only a fetishisation of food; it is a performance of sensory debauchery, a playful unfolding narrative designed to whip up nostalgia. Being hostage to one’s smartphone is certainly not okay.
‘They,’ Blumenthal tells me, jabbing his iPhone ferociously, ‘reduce our patience levels and make us scared of being by ourselves, of that connection with nature, food.’
‘What these,’ another jab, ‘have done is tapped into a part of our psyche. Narcissism. They make you feel like you can be somebody.’
Blumenthal, of course, is somebody – and not because of social media. Born in London to a Jewish family, in the late 1990s he transformed a run-down, poky pub in the rural English village of Bray into a global culinary hotspot, earning himself an OBE in the process.
Now Blumenthal is out to conquer Australia. In February, taking advantage of a much-needed refurbishment of his early 17th century three-Michelin starred restaurant, he moved his core team, some fifty people, to the Crown Towers Hotel in Melbourne to open a ‘pop-up’ Fat Duck.
Such was the demand that diners could only win a table to sample the $525 set-menu through a ballot system. In October, after the team has relocated back to Bray, an outpost of Blumenthal’s two-Michelin starred London restaurant Dinner will open permanently in the same spot.
It is early afternoon and Blumenthal orders a glass of chardonnay, telling me that he better get his ‘sound-bites’ of his Australian venture out the way. But he is quickly sidelined by something far more interesting: mindfulness. Meditation is his new personal calling and he wants to teach himself to be ‘right in the moment. Now.’
‘Notice the vapour on your breath, a beam of ray of light coming through the branches of a tree, twigs crunching under your foot – mindfulness is just getting your brain to be in the moment,’ he extols.
This seems somewhat incongruous. The chef’s culinary concepts may be meticulous in execution but in person Blumenthal is a frenzied rag-tag of enthusiastic, jumpy energy. He leaps from one topic to another, barely pausing for breath, bursting with ideas. One feels that he might combust at any moment.
Yet, sporting his trademark square geek-chic glasses, he also exercises a child-like charm. Blumenthal, 39, gushes about the meditative appeal of table tennis, telling me he has lessons whenever he can and keeps a table in his hotel room where a robot fires balls at him. ‘He’s exhausted everybody and nobody can play him anymore,’ his publicist leans over to confide.
It is an apt metaphor for Blumenthal: racing ahead of the curve, leaving others in the dust. Part Mad Hatter, part Willy Wonka, he has used pure imagination – and a fair dose of science – to create his edible kingdoms, only a few steps down from the running chocolate river, cream-filled toadstools, and buttercup yellow teacup flowers of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He laughs at the comparison. Blumenthal recently saw the Sam Mendes musical revival of the children’s classic with his daughter in London. In the show they described an ice cream that doesn’t melt when set on fire – ‘and my daughter turned around to me and said, “That’s yours!” [It] wasn’t in the original [book].’
For Blumenthal, though, Alice in Wonderland wins his heart every time. Aged sixteen his parents took him to a Michelin-starred restaurant in France. It was the 1970s when food in Britain was a lumpy leaden mess (olive oil, he remembers, was available only in the chemist). The teenage Blumenthal had never seen so much as seen an oyster.
He was entranced. ‘The sound of the gravel, the waiter’s feet crunching on it, the fountain of running water in the background, the sunset, the crickets, the smell of lavender. It was just… Oh my god. That was me falling down the rabbit hole. I felt really aware [for the first time] of the sounds, the sights, the smells of food.’
Alice in Wonderland is a major influence on the Fat Duck; one course, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, consists of a delicate mock-turtle soup (which first started to make an appearance in the mid 1700s and became popular with the Victorians) served in a glass see-through teapot with a pocket watch and a toast sandwich.
Blumenthal’s coat of arms – the invitation was a mark of just how far he has come in the eyes of the British establishment – contains his personal motto ‘Question Everything’. ‘So many people don’t ask questions because they don’t want to feel stupid – if you don’t ask questions you deny yourself,’ he explains. The motto fits. Blumenthal left school at sixteen and his only formal training in kitchens amounted to three weeks. To the chef the rigour, rules, and assumptions of cookery school seemed silly. He determined to make his own way, free from convention, experimenting with food at night while he worked a series of odd jobs, including photocopier salesman and debt collector, by day.
Such unorthodoxy gave him the space to experiment. And on a larger scale Blumenthal believes society must move away from seeing life in terms of success and failure towards creativity for creativity’s sake. ‘Hang on a second, that didn’t work but I learnt something about it – that’s how discovery happened,’ he insists. ‘If it’s only failure, you’re not seeing an opportunity to grow.’
In terms of food Blumenthal was the first to take instruction from a psychologist, a physicist, and a perfumer – and then to ram them together with a dish. The result is a menu that is not just about taste but sound, memory and ‘the ebb and flow of stories; contextual theatrical narrative-driven dishes that have layers and layers and layers.’
It is also about delving into the subconscious of taste. In one experiment Blumenthal gave his signature egg-and-bacon ice cream to two sets of patrons. One ate it listening to the sound of chickens clucking, the other to bacon sizzling. The latter group reported a more intense experience – showing how sound affects flavour (as does name; Blumenthal discovered that diners responded more favourably to ‘frozen crab bisque’ rather than ‘crab ice cream’ even though they were the exact same dish).
In Australia there are small local twists. A savoury lolly, fashioned from chicken liver parfait in a fig gel with chopped almonds and coco nibs, looks exactly like the beach favourite Golden Gaytime. All the protein ingredients (save a New Zealand salmon) are from Australia and the Fat Duck chefs spent two months in the kitchen experimenting on the new ingredients to see how they’d behave.
I venture that Blumenthal must be hard to cook for. ‘I’ve got some great mates who we go to dinner at sometimes and for me it’s such a treat, that someone has actually made something and prepared it for you,’ he says, adding that friends are often disappointed when they come to his house for a good old-fashioned carbonara to find that they cannot eat the spoon.
Then again food, from the humble shepherd pie to Blumenthal’s snail porridge or his ‘Sound of the Sea’, is the ‘most unbelievable jigsaw puzzle’. What differentiates us from other animals is that humans invented the concept of cooking. ‘Imagine when somebody first made fire. Flipping hell, you’d think is this a god, a wizard, a witch!’
Back in The Fat Duck, Blumenthal is showing off his own sorcery. On the wall a vast brass clock counts down the days, hours, and minutes until the restaurant will return home next month. It only makes the Chinese couple, seeing this all through their screens, seem sadder. Because in front of them a magical sphere is unfolding.
Right here. Right now.
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