Heston Blumenthal looks back on nearly 20 years of The Fat Duck in Bray, before heading to Australia to open the three-Michelin starred restaurant there
What a difference nearly two decades of sweat, blood and frequent tears makes. Heston Blumenthal has certainly come a long way from the round faced ingénue who transformed a former run-down pub into a future three Michelin-starred restaurant, to today’s shaven-headed master of molecular gastronomy.
And when he shuts the door of The Fat Duck on Sunday he will be bringing to a close, albeit temporarily, a revolutionary chapter in British cuisine.
Since its opening in 1995 the restaurant, in the Berkshire village of Bray, has gone from refurbished pub to groundbreaking laboratory for cutting edge cooking, topped with what he calls a “typically British sense of humour”.
Now he is transferring the Fat Duck lock, stock and smoking pans 10,000 miles to Australia, bringing with him the wonders of snail porridge, salmon poached in liquorice gel and jelly of quail on oak moss and truffle toast.
While the 17th century cottage near the River Thames, which houses the original Fat Duck, undergoes a six-month programme of refurbishment and renovation, Blumenthal and his team will be running a reconstructed version of the restaurant at the award-winning Crowne Towers hotel in Melbourne.
But he says that while excited about the prospect of opening up down under, he is nevertheless apprehensive about shutting doors on Bray for such a long spell.
“I’m really looking forward to it because as well as great native produce the Australians have this enthusiastic, ‘rubbing their hands in anticipation’ attitude, which is what I like to see people come into a restaurant with. But it’s a big step,” said Blumenthal. “To lock the door behind me at Bray, after all the blood, sweat and tears of the last 20 years, is going to be very emotional.
“Preparing to do this has made me think back to the days when I just started out and all I wanted to do was cook as much as possible – not missing a service for the first eight years, getting two hours sleep then going back into the kitchen, levels of exhaustion I didn’t know existed.
“When we started I thought I might perhaps get a Michelin star one day, but to then get three I couldn’t have imagined.”
Blumenthal will be taking with him to Australia his team from Bray, along with the formula for a restaurant which introduced the world to mock turtle soup and scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, garnering praise from food critics for its marriage of the best ingredients and futuristic cooking techniques.
What he says he is most proud of now was being among the first contemporary chefs to break what he describes as the “shackles” of French cordon bleu cooking and reintroduce a long lost uniquely British identity to this country’s gastronomic cuisine.
“British gastronomy is now in the best shape its ever been,” he said. “Its last great period was the Georgian era, before the industrial revolution. After that, from the Victorians on, British gastronomy essentially became French. It was all about copying the French way of cooking. During the Eighties and Nineties we had a some great British chefs, but they were still cooking French food.
“We were shackled by French gastronomy and I like to think that what I’ve done is develop a British style, re-anglicising cooking with the historical British dishes we do at The Fat Duck. With that there’s also a typically British sense of humour that accompanies the dishes, such as the Alice in Wonderland feel of our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of mock turtle soup.”
He added: “I hope what I’ve done is give new British chefs a tool kit and a knowledge base to use in their own cooking. There’s a new generation of chefs now doing some fantastic cooking of their own. Instead of being perfect exponents of French cuisine they are expressing their own personalities and experiences in their food, and think I had a hand in that.”
Although The Fat Duck became one of the fastest restaurants to earn three Michelin stars – the first in 1999, followed by others in 2002 and 2004 – Blumenthal is the first to admit he has not enjoyed unalloyed success over the years.
In 2009 The Fat Duck was forced to shut for nearly two months after hundreds of diners fell ill from norovirus, thought to originate from oysters harvested from beds contaminated with sewage. The restaurant was criticised for its cleaning methods and its slow response to the incident.
But there have also been personal mishaps along the way for Blumenthal.
During one serving an oven blew open in his face, leaving him to carry on cooking with the remnants of the exploded dish on his face and hair.
On another occasion, exhausted after a day and evening in the kitchen, he went home and was puzzled when his key didn’t fit in the front door lock – only then remembering he had moved house a week earlier.
And there was the evening, in the early years of The Fat Duck, when he was preparing 40 covers for a 40th birthday party – his first booking that size.
Slamming a door shut with his heel – “a typical chef’s thing to do” – Blumenthal sent the elaborate chocolate cake he had just removed from the fridge crashing to the floor.
Revealing the incident for the first time he said: “The woman who had booked the party for her husband had rung me repeatedly in the preceding days to make sure the cake was just right. And there it was, all over the place.
“Fortunately I managed to go around to Michelle Roux’s place at The Waterside Inn and get a replacement cake from him, getting it back to the Fat Duck in a cardboard box in time for the celebrations.”
Blumenthal admits he never told the woman, or her husband, about the disaster, but points out that since he did not have a Michelin star at the time, and Roux did, she was getting a considerable upgrade on her original order.
The refurbishment of the Grade II listed building at Bray will see the building of a new kitchen with larger serving hatch, allowing faster service times and cutting an estimated half an hour off the current four and hour tasting menu, for which diners pay £220 a head.
There were plenty of people who doubted Blumenthal – whose interest in cooking was sparked at 16, during a family holiday trip to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Provence – would succeed when he set out to play his part in transforming British gastronomy.
Not least was one elderly lady who shouted over to him, as he was carting rubble out of the former pub which he converted into The Fat Duck in 1995: “We’ve shut down three landlords in three years in this village. We’ll shut you down as well.”
It’s a safe bet that, after 20 years of making headlines at Bray, the Australian incarnation of The Fat Duck is likely to get a friendlier reception.