When Heston Blumenthal talks, it’s almost as if you need to clear the room. Not because he’s nursing a cold – his first in, like, forever, he says, proving that even a culinary icon can succumb to the heat and humidity of Singapore, where he’s making a lightning-quick stopover. Rather, it’s because once his brain gets going, it’s like popping the cork of a champagne bottle, releasing its pent-up bubbles in a non-stop, effervescent stream of consciousness that’s in many ways off-the-chart brilliance. But once the fizz wears off, it reveals not the nutty professor of molecular cuisine you once watched on TV, but a man who just wants people to have a better relationship with their food.
The man and his ideas
If Blumenthal has been a little quiet in the past few years, it’s not because he’s packed up and gone to live a life of obscurity in a little village in Provence, France. Well, technically he does live there now – in the National Park in Alpilles – with his second wife and 18-month old daughter. But he’s not farming bees or anything. Instead, he’s busy setting up a brand new lab – “We’re starting next month – the furniture and kitchen kit have arrived” – says the chef who made his name with bacon-and-egg ice cream and a seafood dish you eat while plugged into headphones relaying The Sound of the Sea from a giant conch.
The lab, he says is there to study all kinds of things from microbiomes to his latest obsession, water.
As in drinking water?
“Yes, it’s something we take for granted but we don’t know what it is. There’s a lot of research done that water carries energy and it can be changed by putting crystals in it or by sound, or through electro-magnetic fields. When I first heard about it I thought it was weird but it makes sense because you can’t have life without water. Our bodies are 65 per cent to 90 percent water.”
What he will do at the lab is “play around with water in different infusions, activating it and looking at whether we can taste the difference. Then we’ll start making stocks and soups – it’s almost like going back to cooking from the beginning when we started 25 years ago, but this time with all the knowledge we’ve acquired during that time.”
A new chapter
It sounds like the old Heston Blumenthal is back to his old tricks, turning every set belief you have about food on its head and presenting some fantastical feast that only he can dream up.
But Blumenthal has been doing a lot of soul-searching lately, and that includes rethinking all the work he’s done for the past quarter century since he first took over a 16th century pub in Bray, England in 1995 and turned it into the now legendary Fat Duck.
“It’s about questioning, ‘Why did I do this?’ and ‘Why did I do that?’” He says.
He goes back to the restaurant that started it all. L’Oustau de Baumanière – the first three Michelin-starred restaurant he visited when he was 16, with his parents. Incidentally, the restaurant is just 15 minutes away from where he lives now.
But back then, it wasn’t so much the food but the memory of the place that made him want to be a chef. “The sound of the crickets; feet crunching on gravel; the smell of lavender; the sommelier with his handlebar moustache. It was like I had fallen down some rabbit hole into this multi-sensory wonderland.”
He spent the next 10 years surviving on 20 hours of sleep a week to fulfill his dream of cooking, but on reflection, “What I was doing was trying to recreate the memory, the emotion I had.” After all, he didn’t have the gravel or the lavender to replicate the experience. “All I had was a quaint building and my imagination.”
How the senses (smell, sound, sight), memory and emotion affect flavour and being able to crystallize all these thoughts have given his cuisine a new direction, but it’s the wider implications for humanity that he also wants to focus on.
Building a better relationship with food
“Potentially the evolution of consciousness is connected to the evolution of our senses,” says Blumenthal. When you are more aware of how your food tastes – you become more aware of life around you. “Take wine. If music is playing and there’s a lot of bass, the taste will be round and smooth. But if you have a (makes a sound like static) it’s more acidic. So (the environment plays a role) because our senses are designed to protect us. That’s what makes eating so beautiful, complex and frustrating all at the same time.”
Unfortunately, he says, modern living has made people value food less, in the same way that social media has made people connect less with each other.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. “Everyone has to eat and by being a little more aware of food, we can learn so much more about ourselves. And if we are more mindful about what we eat, we will value our food even more.”
And when you do, it changes your relationship with food and even has an impact on potential food shortages and the current fixation with fake meat or meat grown from lab cells.
“In my mind the jury is still out on that. Rather than judge it, what I want to focus on is putting the ‘being’ back in human. If we can encourage people to eat more mindfully, with more pleasure, happiness, discovery and adventure – with all these emotions, all of a sudden food becomes completely different. As opposed to a functional thing. Even if you say you’re not interested in food, you are. You just don’t like your relationship with it. Whether we like it or not, we have an emotional relationship with food.”
If nothing else, he wants to at least have an impact on the education system with a new food and nutrition syllabus he’s developed at GCSE level. “Cooking and eating are the only topics that every other subject can come under. There’s physics – you chop and make stuff; chemistry – flavour molecules; biology – digestion; geography – where the food comes from; and so on.”
If Blumenthal has gotten more focused on personal wellbeing, it’s also a result of his own experience of being constantly on a “hamster wheel” that he just had to get off.
It also explains his ‘disappearance’ from the food scene. He was massively burnt out, he says. “It was about the restaurant guys wanting to try new things which means you have to invest in more staff and better equipment. Then you get a development unit and you need to get business projects to pay for it and then you need more people to satisfy those projects – it just became an avalanche and I didn’t want to be running faster on the wheel.”
Even though he has won every award under the sun, “everyone’s rewards and punishments are all relative. Rewards aren’t just public trophies, they’re also emotions and what’s probably helped me is the fascination I have with the senses and our relationship with food.”
His burnout was just one of the reasons for moving to France (the main one being his French wife whom he married after divorcing his first wife after over 20 years of marriage). “Moving was part of a break to cut and rebuild the business.”
Part of why he was stuck on the hamster wheel was because “I was a humongous people-pleaser,” he says. “This is also why I’ve become more self-aware. I realized I was a liar. And the worst thing is to lie to yourself. I wanted other people to be happy so I edited all the other stuff out. I didn’t realize I was burning out because I have an inordinate amount of energy. When it comes to illness, I haven’t taken an antibiotic in years. I was behaving like I was invincible without knowing that I’m not.”
Now, he spends a lot of time on his mountain bike, and with his wife and daughter, a toddler who’s also teaching him “how many ways pre-language babies have more emotional intelligence and are less ‘contaminated’ than we are as adults.” So yes, life is good in France.
The Singapore connection
Blumenthal will be back in Singapore for Formula 1, when he brings the cuisine of his one Michelin-starred gastropub The Hinds Head to the Paddock Club.
“The formula is historical British-inspired dishes which somehow have a connection with Singapore because of its colonial past.”
So guests lucky enough to get a Paddock pass will get to enjoy the signature Scotch Eggs and Coronation Chicken, as well as Lapsang Souchong tea-smoked salmon.
There’ll also be a connection between historical grilling – which was done over wood – with motor racing, since rubber (tyres) and wood both come from trees.
“We’ll also build a story around the dishes and have a list of fun pub facts on the menu. There’s going to be a three course menu for dinner and we’ll also do afternoon tea.”
Making a comeback
With his lab and an exciting new Christmas menu for The Fat Duck that will reveal some of the results of his ‘senses’ based research, does that mean that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Blumenthal from now on?
“Yes. I’ve got more clarity, motivation and excitement than I’ve ever had before and a big chunk of it is because I’m gradually removing distractions. Like I used to be on Whatsapp but I’m not anymore.”
And this year, he might just be doing “I don’t want to call it a restaurant or an event but an immersive experience which is built on a personalized fairy tale.
“It wouldn’t have a fixed place so it could be anywhere — under the water, on top of a mountain, on a beach or even somebody’s front room. To be served in bed. But the whole thing would be built around a story.”
And as for the laboratory and research kitchen that’s located just 1km from his house, “We’re going to take all the things we’ve done over the years – hundreds of them – and base techniques, and revisit all of it. It’s an attempt to make them streamlined and stronger, and simply so we can build a story around it. And then in the process learn it again.”
So yes, “It sounds really cliched, but I’m back!”
(RELATED: The Fat Duck reopens in London)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.