Until recently, Heston Blumenthal was best known for the molecular gastronomy (but don't call it that) at the award-winning Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, in Britain. But with the opening of Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental in London's Hyde Park, his cooking has taken a historic turn.
The brasserie has wowed diners with historical British dishes such as Meat Fruit, a chicken liver parfait that's served in a perfectly formed mandarin, and Savoury Porridge - cod cheeks, pickled beetroot, garlic and parsley, a dish that sounds a bit like congee but was actually taken from The Whole Body of Cookery, a British recipe book published in 1661.
With Dinner in the capable hands of the man frequently referred to as Blumenthal's protege, Ashley Palmer-Watts, Blumenthal confirms plans to roll out the resoundingly popular concept in different locations.
'Basically, we've created a model, a brasserie based on historical British cooking, so the whole idea is that it can be replicated,' he says.
'There are no immediate plans to open one just yet, but right from the beginning, we planned it so it could be rolled out in the future.'
Where would he like to open his next restaurant? 'I don't know. I'd love to do something in New York, but it would probably be Asia,' Blumenthal says. 'Hong Kong, Singapore and India all appeal, as they all have British connections and display Brit influence. I think something like Dinner could work really well in Hong Kong, and I'd certainly consider it. But the point of this concept is to take inspiration from whichever location we would be in, so we'd need to adapt the menu accordingly.'
Blumenthal is heading to Asia next month for the Mandarin Oriental's annual conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with stopovers in Hong Kong and Singapore the week before for some corporate speaking engagements.
He has visited Asia before - Beijing, in fact. 'I did a short trip for [TV series] In Search of Perfection for the Peking duck episode and met Da Dong [the owner of two eponymous restaurants]', he says. 'The food was really memorable, as he's really thought about how to perfect the dish, from the size and shape and the ovens to the temperature of the meat. He has a system where he partially freezes then defrosts the duck, which bursts the cell walls in the fat, drains the moisture, and perfects the fat.'
Blumenthal's success story begins in Bray, about 10 kilometres west of Windsor Castle. It looks unprepossessing enough at first glance, with its rows of thatched cottages and a quaint 13th-century church, but with two of England's four restaurants that have been awarded three Michelin stars, it was named 'Small Village of the Year' in 2005 by the Britain in Bloom campaign. This culinary hot spot attracts thousands of gourmands from across the globe.
The two restaurants are markedly different from each other, with Alain Roux's Waterside Inn on the banks of the River Thames staunchly traditional - tronconnette of lobster and raspberry souffl?are two of its signature dishes - and unashamedly French in their inspiration. On Bray's main street, meanwhile, lies the Fat Duck, a four-century-old pub with sand-blasted beams and a copper bar where Blumenthal has stretched the taste buds of curious diners via eccentric creations such as parsnip cereal and bacon and egg ice cream. Priced at GBP160 (HK$2,000), the tasting menu has 14 courses, including 'Sound of the Sea', in which diners tuck into seafood and edible seaweed on a bed of tapioca sand while listening to breaking waves on an iPod provided by the restaurant to enhance the culinary experience.
Blumenthal was initially viewed with suspicion for daring to challenge the traditionally unadventurous British palate with food cooked in what he referred to as his 'lab' and using equipment such as vacuum jars to create his aerated chocolate souffle dessert, but the public has since taken to its bosom the reluctant figurehead of molecular gastronomy in Britain. Having won them over with his warm manner and down-to-earth attitude (he thinks 'molecular' sounds complicated and 'gastronomy' elitist), he made several successful television series with Britain's Channel 4, including, most recently, Heston's Mission Impossible, which saw him tackle the Royal Navy and British Airways' menus following his successful overhaul of the British motorway restaurant chain Little Chef.
I meet Blumenthal upstairs at the Hind's Head pub - a minute's stroll from the Fat Duck and whose menu (think chicken, ham and leek pie and banana Eton mess) is also under his jurisdiction. In his spotless chef whites with a monogrammed 'H' at the cuff and his trademark black-rimmed glasses, he is as genial in person as on television and, seven months after Dinner's opening, seems genuinely, and pleasantly, surprised by the hype surrounding his latest venture.
'It's a lovely spot, and I'm really pleased with how the design's come out,' he says. 'We wanted to have something with a sense of grandeur that was also relaxed, so you can go there for a big birthday event or just a steak and a bottle of wine.'
The hotel chain approached Blumenthal about setting up a Fat Duck in Tokyo about five years ago. 'It was a proper ego massage and very exciting, as I think Japan is one of the most exciting food cities in the world,' he says. 'But I would have had to lose some of my key staff to do it, and it's a long way from Bray, so I eventually decided against it.'
By this point, too, Blumenthal's interest in historical British food had already been piqued after compiling the recipes for the cookery book Family Food, and he had already added dishes like Quaking Pudding, a wobbly Elizabethan dessert made from eggs and milk flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg, to the Hind's Head menu.
'Before the days of cinema and audio, food had to be much more theatrical; I found this outrageous recipe from the 1300s where you pluck the chicken while it's still alive and baste the skin so it looks like it's roasted. You then put the head of this live chicken under its stomach and rock it to sleep, roast two other chickens, then bring the three birds out on a tray to the table. While you carve, the one that's still alive runs off down the table and you stuff its neck with mercury to kill it,' he says in disbelief.
Now that Dinner is one of Europe's hottest tables, Blumenthal doesn't have to rely on feathery theatrics to pull the punters in.
'I didn't expect there to be this ridiculous expectation. It was crazy, and every review that came in, I was expecting it to be a kicking, but it didn't happen,' he says. 'Whenever you put something together, there's an element of luck - you do your hardest work on the food, the decor, the pricing - and sometimes it becomes more than the sum of its parts and presses all the right buttons with people. That seems to be what happened at Dinner. It's gone beyond anything I could have hoped for, but I wouldn't have opened it if it wasn't for Ashley [Palmer-Watts]. He's my longest-serving member of staff and rarely missed a service at the Duck. We have the same attitudes towards quality control: he can walk through a room and spot the same things as me.'
While In Search of Perfection focused on refining British favourites such as fish and chips and spaghetti Bolognese, Blumenthal is taking a more relaxed approach for his next series, Heston at Home, which starts filming this month. 'It'll be looking at things like how to cook a steak properly, stuff that you learn as a chef but no one ever tells you to do and isn't covered in cookbooks.' He enthusiastically shares a few top steak tips from the series. 'When you buy meat at the supermarket, it's often quite wet, so put it on a cake rack in the fridge and leave it a couple of days, let it shrink a bit, and the flavour of the meat will be stronger. The meat should be room temperature when you cook it and the pan needs to be smoking hot. Add pepper afterwards as it scorches in the pan, flip it every 15 seconds, almost like a rotisserie chicken, and let it rest on a cake rack.'
As soon as Heston at Home is finished, Blumenthal will work on a historical cookbook, but the project he's most excited about is another series to find the next Blumenthal. 'No cooking experience is required, and there's a possible job in the lab at the end of it.'
While he's passionate about recipe development, the chef readily admits that he's no longer as inquisitive as he used to be, and it's perhaps some of this former unbridled curiosity that he hopes to find in his successor. 'When I first opened the Duck, all these new avenues were opening up to me, and at 3am, I'd still be researching. For years, I slept for just two or three hours a night, but I can't do that now.'
With seven recipe books, six television series, four restaurants (another pub, The Crown at Bray in addition to the Fat Duck, Dinner and the Hind's Head) and three Michelin stars to his name, Blumenthal has accomplished an incredible amount in his 45 years. Does he remain ambitious? 'Actually, I don't know if it's ambition, but more fear of failure that I'm driven by - that's how I seem to respond to things. But I've achieved so much more than I ever set out to do, and I think we've all got something we're good at, it's a case of whether we're lucky enough to find it, and I have.'
Where to go
Some examples of innovative gastronomy in Hong Kong and around the world:
Shop 13, 2/F, J Residence
60 Johnston Road
Tel: 2850 8371
Chef: Alvin Leung
g.e (Gastronomy extra)
2/F, The Luxe Manor Hotel
39 Kimberley Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: 3763 8803
Chef: Gianluigi Bonelli
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
5 Connaught Road
Tel: 2825 4001
Chef: Pierre Gagnaire
1723 North Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois, US
Tel: + 1 312 867 0110
Chef: Grant Achatz
The Fat Duck
Tel: +44 1628 580 333
Chef: Heston Blumenthal