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As we walk into the small garden of Heston Blumenthal’s squat new-build offices not too far from his famous restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, I struggle to keep pace, even though the chef’s swift stride is hampered by the after-effects of an overly energetic game of table-tennis.
The food scientist and founder of The Fat Duck restaurant is firing on all cylinders. His talk is energetic and jolly. He starts answering a question, wanders off on a tangent and changes route again to recall a food-related anecdote.
We sit down at a wooden picnic table and as I pour milk into his cup ahead of the Earl Grey tea, Mr Blumenthal gently chastises me: “You don’t know how strong it’s going to be though, do you,” he says, smiling. The man who dreamt up snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream has an opinion on everything.
I suspect his views, like his adventurous cooking, were born of his unconventional past. The 47-year-old London-born chef eschewed the traditional route of studying in a professional kitchen, instead working his own way through stacks of cookbooks and spending his holidays travelling around the south of France (his parents owned a flat near Montpellier), visiting suppliers and restaurants. To pay the bills, he sold photocopiers and did repossession work.
He credits On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee for opening his eyes to using science to create the sounds, flavours, aromas, colours and textures that now set him apart from the rest of the crowded field of gourmet chefs.
In 1998, within three years of opening day, The Fat Duck had its first Michelin star. Two more followed, along with books and TV shows and two pubs in Bray.
The popularity of The Fat Duck continued to grow. By 2011 it was fielding 30,000 calls a day from people wanting to try Mr Blumenthal’s zany take on food, which now includes historic British dishes such as mock turtle soup and the beef royal served at King James II’s coronation in 1685.
Not wanting to try to recreate his famous little restaurant – it seats only 44 – Mr Blumenthal opened Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. One prominent food critic called it the best restaurant in the world. In June, he will be opening The Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow airport.
I tear Mr Blumenthal away from a description of bathing a veal kidney to get back to my original question about team-building and the real reason I am here – to ask him how he persuaded his entire staff to agree to move half way round the world for him.
In January, his 70-strong Fat Duck crew will relocate to Melbourne for seven months while the Bray building is being renovated.
He recalls that he gathered them all in a room at the end of last month, plied them with champagne and music and told them via videoconference from Australia: “We’ll close as normal at Christmas but when you come back to work you won’t be coming back to Bray. You’ll be going to Melbourne.”
The announcement was met with a “terrifying silence”, he says, looking rather more mischievous than terrified.
Eventually, he recalls, a huge cheer went up and he realised the delay had been caused by the conferencing equipment.
The benefit for the business is simple, he says: “To close the Duck would have cost us in revenue and lost wages.”
Once The Fat Duck comes back home to Bray, he plans to open a Dinner in its place in Melbourne.
Creating the loyalty that allows for such stunts takes time and forethought. Promoting from within is one of the key ingredients, says Mr Blumenthal, “because it sends a signal to your team that you have put your trust in them”.
“It was just me and a pot washer” when The Fat Duck opened, he recalls. “Nobody had ever heard of us, the hours were long and I couldn’t afford to pay much, so I didn’t have a lot going for me. I basically got anyone walking past.
“You don’t realise how hard things are until you start looking back,” he says about his early days when he was learning how to build a team.
“We had a Michelin star but we kept on making mistakes and the mistakes wouldn’t just affect me, they would affect everything else,” he explains. “Overcooking something for the main course meant we’d have to do the whole table again. If you find out too late, then it’s even more stressful, so I’d always tell people to come and tell me immediately.”
He did not miss a service in the first 10 years, he says, working out that he had done 50,000 hours in the kitchen.
Mr Blumenthal likes statistics. He talks in minutes, hours, degrees and ounces and uses food to explain almost everything.
In answering a question about how he delegates authority by using a lemon tart, he gives away rather more about his tendency to be a perfectionist.
“For the lemon tart I used to make for The Fat Duck, I always did the wobble test,” he says. “To get the set absolutely right, approximately this much of the tart wobbles in a particular way,” he explains, displaying the combined width of his index and middle fingers.
“Obviously someone can tell me that they’ve done the test but how can I know it’s the same test? So I probed it every day for a week until I got it to within one degree.”
Initially, he says, an administration team was something he never imagined he would need.
“I was in Oddbins and the girl asked me who answered my letters and I said, ‘Erm, I do,’” he remembers. “She told me I needed a PA, so I gave her the job.”
At the time of the Duck’s first Michelin star, the assistant manager was still answering the phones herself. The person eventually hired to take reservations is now the group’s events manager.
His growing list of commitments has forced Mr Blumenthal to accept that he cannot do it all himself.
He is still learning to let go. A few years ago, “I came back after Christmas on crutches. I watched the food going out. It was brilliant and I realised I wasn’t quite as important as I thought I was,” he says.
Despite the pressure that has made other chefs as famous for their temper as their food, Mr Blumenthal says he has not raised his voice in 13 years.
He credits his therapist and a career coach and says that he “started to treat people like human beings”, after realising that the boss bore the ultimate responsibility.
“If someone makes a mistake, it’s your fault. You either haven’t trained them enough, or you’re expecting too much out of them.”
As our interview draws to a close, Mr Blumenthal accompanies me to the car park, continuing to speak nearly all the way to the taxi door.
I get the impression he could happily have carried on talking. I would have happily kept listening.
Who has been the single biggest influence on your career?
Harold McGee, who wrote a book called On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I wasn’t inquisitive before that book but I was certainly afterwards – I questioned everything.
What is the best career advice you have ever received?
After the third Michelin star I wanted to make everything grander and the head of Michelin said: “Don’t change.”
What is your most treasured work possession?
Where were you when you first realised that this was what you wanted to do?
In a restaurant in Provence, France called L’Oustau de Baumanière.
What profession would you really not like to try?
Cleaning portable loos at events.
Are you worth your pay?
Yes . . . no . . . yes. I technically don’t actually get paid that much, all the money gets put into the business.
. . .
On the Desk
On the stainless steel countertop of a small test kitchen in a low-slung building on a bland industrial estate off a main road near Bray, about an hour west of London along the river Thames, lies a folder of architectural plans belonging to Heston Blumenthal, writes Carola Hoyos.
They show the seating arrangements of a restaurant he will open in Melbourne next year when he shuts The Fat Duck, his three Michelin-starred restaurant located a few miles away from here, for refurbishment.
He plans to take much of his 70-strong team with him and recreate the Duck, bringing along the leather of its seats, possibly its front door and of course his signature dishes, including salmon dipped in liquorice, nitro poached aperitifs and red cabbage gazpacho with mustard ice cream.
A little like a two-bird roast, The Fat Duck will sit within the footprint of a larger restaurant opening at Melbourne’s Crown hotel after the Duck flies back to its renovated home in Bray. The bigger restaurant will be Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which already exists in London.
It is a bold migration for a Fat Duck and a man better known for his bold recipes.