Bionic Chef

Heston Blumenthal powers on in his mission for perfection, moving the fat duck to Melbourne while taking
on other projects at a bewildering rate, recovering from surgery, and still holding on to his sense of wonder

by Daven Wu

To say that these are busy times for Heston Blumenthal is to completely trivialize the state of his diary. He is still recovering from a hip operation he had earlier in the year. "I'm gradually trying to replace all my bones with metal," he says with a laugh, almost casually dismissing previous procedures to hand, shoulder, leg and back. He is filming four separate shows - including one which dives into the relationship between food and sex, and a Saturday morning Christmas special - while doing publicity for his new book, Historic Heston, an entertaining treatise on the best of British cooking stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages.

He is about to launch his own BBC 2 radio show.

He continues to develop his enormously popular product lines for British supermarket chain Waitrose and its Australian equivalent, Coles.

As if that's not enough, he is spearheading the UK Space Agency's Great British Space Food, a lofty project involving children aged 7-14 designing a balanced British meal for British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station. "Astronauts are spending around three to six months up there in space," Blumenthal says, "and it's lonely, so [good] food contributes significantly to their emotional state."

You don't say.

But here's the thing. This is a chef at the top of his game. He owns six Michelin stars. Fame and fortune are a given. He has, not to put too fine a point on it, a cult following. When he released his Christmas pudding at Waitrose a few years ago, the entire range sold out within days with more than a few puds showing up on eBay. Similarly, when he opened Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in 2011, within the first hour of the reservations line opening, the restaurant was solidly booked for the following three months.

In other words, this is a man who, really, should be sunning himself in the Bahamas. Instead, he takes on projects at a bewildering rate, never once, it seems, losing any of his easy-going equanimity and Gee-Whiz approach to food.

There is never a cynical sense either that he is milking his celebrity by merely plastering his name on anything that remotely resembles a food group. There remains a genuine sense of fun and enjoyment in everything that he does. He is, for lack of a better word, committed to the idea that food can, and should, bring comfort, happiness and a sense of wonder.

How else would you dream up a snail porridge or encase salmon into licorice jelly, both standards at The Fat Duck?

It's probably the same childlike wonder, no doubt, that inspired Blumenthal and his colleagues at the UK Space Agency to target young children for the Great British Space Food gig.

And in the midst of all this frenetic activity, Blumenthal is closing up his celebrated restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray and moving it - lock, stock and barrel, including the entire wait-staff and kitchen crew - to the Crown Melbourne Resort. There it will continue service from Feb 3 till Aug 15, 2015 before he brings The Fat Duck back to Bray.

The move - coming shortly after Rene Redzepi announced that in January 2015, he would be opening a month-long Noma pop-up in Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental - took the dining world by surprise. For Blumenthal, it was a timely one. Twenty years after it first opened, the restaurant space at Bray, a heritage-listed building dating back to 1640, has long been overdue for renovation. Running The Fat Duck from Melbourne allows the dusty overhaul to take place while allowing business to continue at the same time as it opens up an entirely new dining demographic.

However, Blumenthal insists that The Fat Duck's temporary Melbourne home is not a pop-up. "This is a massive project. What we are doing has never been done before and it was ten years in the making. We are actually building a new Fat Duck from scratch. All the unique and very expensive equipment will be there. We're even bringing the signage. The 'new' Fat Duck will be located inside what will, when we return to Bray, become our second permanent Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. It's a Babushka Doll effect."

Here again, Blumenthal's pulling power and marketability have an irresistibile momentum. Booking at the Melbourne outpost is strictly by online balloting and the response has been a PR dream.

Over the six months of The Fat Duck's residency at the Crown, around 14,000 diners will be walking through the door. At the time of going to press, in just over a week, there have been 80,000 requests for tables of two, four and six diners. This averages out to about a quarter of a million people, each a Heston groupie or foodie scrambling for one of the 14,000 spots, and each anxious for a dose of Blumenthal's unique brand of experimental cooking, or molecular gastronomy if one prefers the by-now dated moniker.

"The balloting system was the most fair way to go forward," Blumenthal says.

This kind of rapt response is a vindication of Blumenthal's idea that food is a democratic one - democratic in the sense that it will appeal to any age and any nationality. "I love the Australian approach to dining and having a good time. It may be the Masterchef influence, but Australians love food and dining out."

Equally, the professional accolades are gratifying, but he is also realistic enough to know how fleeting these moments can be. "I have never cooked for awards or rankings, though I am grateful for all of them."

In the end, it's all about the food. It always has been; a culinary equivalent of 'Field of Dreams'. Do it right, and they will come.

In this regard, Blumenthal is like the beaming father of a newborn child. "The Fat Duck is, without question, better now than it ever was, so I am very proud of it and the team now more than ever."

And as February approaches, he and his team continue to refine the dishes that made them famous, while hothousing new standouts that build on what has come before.

"The dishes that built The Fat Duck are the ones with narrative," he says in response to the challenge that the cornerstone of his restaurant has always been one of innovation. "They are multi-layered and experiential. They tell a story, and they continue to exist through evolution. I am constantly searching for perfection, but perfectionism is restless and perfection is unattainable. These dishes have undergone - and continue to undergo - a perpetual evolution in the endless search for perfection. They are the embodiment of everything we know and all we learn, and sometimes that exciting knowledge we gather spills over into brand new dishes."

But as the year draws to a close, and a stock-take is made of the year past, Blumenthal's restless imagination skips ahead to other projects, other possibilities of perfection. "I'd like to deepen my understanding of the neurology and psychology of eating," he says. "What are the triggers of nostalgia? I'd like to continue my research into historic recipes. And become fully bionic!" He laughs.

For now, Christmas approaches and he is prepping for a home-cooked meal with family and friends. "The best gift to a chef," he notes archly, "is to have someone else do the cooking. Or maybe some skiing? I'm sure I'll be fit to ski by then. That would be my perfect Christmas holiday."

And a very well deserved one.

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