Heston Blumenthal: on passion, power, and perfection in cooking

Jack Whitehead 8 June 2016

Although familiar from his TV programme Feast, and his restaurants Dinner and The Fat Duck (double and triple Michelin-starred respectively), it is perhaps his own innovative attitude to food, and his approach to eating as a multi-sensory experience, for which Blumenthal is best known. His insistence on scientific basis in cooking has earned him a series of honorary degrees and a fellowship at the Royal Society of Chemistry.

In discussing his approach to food and the ideology behind the menus at his restaurants, he pinpoints the creation of one dish in particular as the moment the way he thought about food changed entirely – his crab ice cream. He recalls with irritation how the diners didn’t care for it when he called it an ice cream, but found the same dish delightful when he changed the name to crab bisque instead. His aim is to challenge the expectation that the names of particular dishes sets up. Surely the most famous example of this is the ‘Meat Fruit’ dish at Dinner.  

Recently, he’s begun working on a GCSE in Food and Nutrition with the OCR, and it’s clear that, ever since he was at school, the education is something he’s struggled to come to terms with. 'We’re still working off the education system created in Victorian era, and that was all about language and mathematics', he points out in exasperation.

'Perfection is the enemy of creativity. In perfection, you succeed or you fail. Failure is considered bad. And in that environment, people are then scared of failure. We’re all creative, but they’re too scared to say anything because "I’m too scared I’m going to look stupid. Someone might laugh at me". And the next stage from that is that I need to protect myself – I’m actually going to start judging other people.' He despairs of the fact that 25% of children go to school 'thinking they have a brain defect' and never realise their own potential.

'I don’t like the word perfect anyway because happiness, for me, is a much nicer word. Isaac’s Newton’s law of gravity is perfect. His idea – where it came from – wasn’t perfection. A lot of things happened between [the two].' Just as he views eating as a multi-sensory experience, so too does he want the recognition that Food Technology is a multi-disciplinary subject, describing himself as 'really psyched' about it. “You take plant matter, you chop it, squash it, mix it, eat it – that’s physics. Reactions happen that change the texture and the flavour of that food, and it’s cooked. That’s chemistry. We eat it. That’s biology. We evolve. That’s history.'

I find his attitude towards recipes surprising, although consistent with what he’s said before. He thinks recipes create an over-dependence on someone else’s set of rules and preferences. The aim of his GCSE, therefore, is to allow students 'to understand what happens when we eat, how we eat; to look at our senses, feel, and be. And not be a slave to a recipe. A recipe should be a guideline. You’ve got twenty odd techniques, you can use some of them. Then you can create your own recipes.'

I strongly agree with a lot of what Blumenthal says about how we need more creativity and a sense of fun in our approach to food. 'Eating brings people together – that connection is so powerful. And it should be fun.' However, I can’t help but feel a bit wary when he voices disparagement at those who get ‘highbrow’ about their food. The price (per person) of a meal at The Fat Duck is around £250 (over £400 if you include wine), and while Dinner is certainly cheaper, it’s nonetheless an experience many can’t afford.

Because of this, I asked him how we can take his ideas about communicating and experimenting with food, and apply them to our own cooking and dining experiences. He said it links into what he was saying about recipes, and dispensed a few tips to start with. 'The way you carve a piece of meat can make it more or less tender. If you want to bring a pot of water to the boil, put a bloody lid on it! It boils so much quicker. A bit of star anise in onion if you’re going to roast some meat. For every large onion, half a star anise, maybe two thirds. The sulphur compounds will react, and when you put the anise in, they boost the meatiness.' Alternatively, he says, 'If you’re a theatrical one, start playing around with stuff. Try it! Ask questions.'

I’m not sure I got a completely satisfactory answer to my question. This advice (ranging from very specific to very general) is all very well, but the proof of the pudding is in eating it, and in Blumenthal’s case, it’ll be a while before I can afford to do so. However, I appreciate his passion when he talks about cooking, whether it’s in his home or his restaurant (“I love cooking…even just poaching an egg!”), and his comments about perfection versus happiness particularly struck home, particularly this term when everyone is so focused on achieving. He uses his TV show as a way to highlight this: 'The BBC wanted me to cook the perfect this, the perfect that, I said, "No".' The focus should be, not on perfection, but on 'the search for it'.