A Sensory Wonderland
In 1982, when Heston was sixteen, he and his family went to a three-star restaurant situated beneath towering cliffs in Provence. None of them had experienced anything like it before-not just the extraordinary food but the beauty of the surroundings, the delightful smell of lavender in the air, the sounds of chirruping cicadas and splashing fountains, and the sheer theatre of waiters carving lamb at the table or pouring lobster sauce unto soufflés.
At that moment, Heston fell in love with cooking and the idea of being a chef.
An Experimental Education
It took more than a decade to realise this dream. By day he worked in a variety of jobs – photocopier salesman, debt collector, credit controller – while at night he worked his way through the classical repertoire of French cuisine, cooking the same dishes over and over, perfecting the techniques and seeking out the best ways to harness flavour. Every summer he spent two weeks crisscrossing France, visiting restaurants, suppliers and wine estates, learning about every aspect of gastronomy and banking flavour memories for the future. This formed Heston’s culinary apprenticeship. Apart from three weeks in a couple of professional kitchens, he is entirely self-taught.
After four years of reading, cooking and researching, however, he bought a book that made him look at cooking in a completely different way. During a discussion of meat’s physical properties, it declared:
We do know for a fact that searing does not seal…
The book was On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. It encouraged Heston's natural curiosity, showing him the benefits of taking nothing for granted and using a scientific approach to cooking. For if the notion that searing = sealing was untrue, despite being presented as fact in countless cookbooks and TV shows, then how many other ‘rules’ of the kitchen could be bent, broken or ignored? From then on, the precise questioning and testing of culinary ideas became a key part of his approach, alongside the more traditional kitchen skills.
The Fat Duck Takes Its First Steps
In 1995, after more than two years of searching, Heston bought a 450-year-old pub in Bray. Small, with an impossibly cramped kitchen, only one door, no view, an outside toilet and a reputation as the hotspot for every drinker banned from other pubs in the area, it was hardly the ideal choice for a restaurant, but it was all he could afford.
At this stage, there was no thought of Michelin stars. With its beams sandblasted and a U-shaped copper bar installed, The Fat Duck opened as a simple bistro serving French classics such as petit salé of duck, steak and chips, sauce à la moelle and tarte tatin. On the second day the oven exploded and Heston spent the rest of service with a bag of frozen peas strapped to his head. Inexperience and limited funds meant he was spending twenty hours a day in the kitchen, occasionally snatching fifteen minutes’ sleep curled up on a pile of dirty tea towels.
The Appliance of Science
Despite the chaos, the restaurant started to get good reviews. And even the kitchen’s drawbacks were turned to advantage. The gas pipes were domestic rather than commercial and provided insufficient heat to bring a large pot of water to the boil. Green beans had to be blanched in batches of eight! Trying to find ways round the problem brought Heston into contact with a physicist at Bristol University, Dr Peter Barham, who introduced him to Professor Tony Blake, and these two became the first of a loose network of scientists and academics that have played a part in the restaurant’s development, including several from the flavour and fragrance company Firmenich, which, with its shelves full of stoppered bottles containing every aroma imaginable, has proved an invaluable source of inspiration ever since.
A Taste of Things to Come
At about the same time, The Fat Duck received its first Michelin star. Heston’s cooking had long since moved on from bistro classics, and it became essential for the restaurant to be redesigned to cope with the increasing demands put on it. In 2000 the place was refurbished and re-opened with its first multi-course tasting menu.
The tasting menu offered the opportunity to present all kinds of dishes that didn’t fit easily into a more conventional format. All sorts of ideas that Heston was exploring, and all manner of techniques he had developed, could be presented in the right gastronomic setting. Water baths were used to cook with exceptional precision and consistency. In two years, the newfound freedom to explore and create resulted in Heston's second Michelin star. And, two years after that, he received a third.
A Matter of Perception
Among other things, that third star gave Heston even greater freedom to explore the interests that have become a central part of his approach to cooking: multisensory perception and how the brain influences our appreciation of food. Increasingly this meant seeking out new ways to harmoniously stimulate all of the senses during the eating experience -orchestrating a succession of bursts of flavour in a dish or using smell to generate emotion or headphones to introduce the dimension of sound.
Since the late 1990s', when he discovered that diners actually tasted crab ice cream differently depending on what it was called, Heston has been fascinated by how we perceive flavour, and by how subjective it is. This has led to an exploration of how nostalgia triggers, learned preferences and reward mechanisms can enhance the enjoyment of a dish. Some of the fruits of that research have already found their way into unique dishes on the menu, such as Sound of the Sea and Flaming Sorbet.
The Fat Duck menu is, however, one of balance and contrasts - of old and new, of modern and historic. Heston has become deeply interested in the history of British gastronomy, and the menu is beginning to feature the results of his exploration and reinterpretation of traditional British dishes, such as Powdered Anjou Pigeon, Mock Turtle Soup and the Beef Royal served at King James II's coronation in 1685.