Down the rabbit hole

Heston Blumenthal chats to Malu Lambert about the importance of all the senses

Self-taught chef and restaurateur, Heston was recently in Cape Town for the Good Food and Wine Show. He owns the world-famous Fat Duck in Bray in the English countryside.

I read somewhere that one of your favourite books is The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Cleary not a foodie book, can you elaborate?

Well, it makes you think about the power of the senses. Particularly about the sixth sense of proprioception (perception) and what happens when you lose it. It's not obviously linked to food, but about the way we approach all the senses. And how things start to go funny when one of the senses is out of balance. Perception is reality.

For example, a traffic light is red to all of us, but we don’t exactly see the same tone of red...Our sense of smell too, we have over six hundred thousand receptors in our noses, and barely use even 400 of them—and we don’t all use the same ones.

Add to that your memory; the smell of bananas can mean different things to different people.

Talking about senses, how important is hearing in relation to food. Obviously taste and smell are right up there, but what about the other senses?

Completely! Back in England, we’ve been doing experiments with a psychologist in his laboratory. I sit in a sound booth with a tube of Pringles, and he turns up the sound, the louder the crunch gets, the crispier it becomes. By changing the sound; the crisp becomes fresher.

Restaurants have been doing it for years! It’s been proven playing classical music pushes the wine prices up, and that fast music makes people eat faster; thereby turning tables quicker.

We have this one dish at the Fat Duck called ‘Sound of the Sea’. It’s a composition of lily bulb seashells, tapioca and panko sand as well as oysters, sea urchins and razor clams.  It’s served with a conch shell that has an iPod inside loaded with the sounds of waves washing upon a shore and seagulls in the distance.

I wanted to get more particular about the sounds by including the sound of an ice cream bell, or boat masts flapping in the wind. But that would have made it too specific, and it wouldn’t resonate with everyone.

For example your beach is in Cornwall, mine is in Camps Bay, and I’m more used to the sound of a vendor screaming: ‘Grandillllllla lollllly!’?

Exactly! I want the image of this beach to be anywhere. To fit with a person’s memories.

Touch too can alter your perception, a while back a toilet paper company added another spongy plastic layer to their packaging—the effect was that the product, just by touch, immediately felt more luxurious, while in reality it really wasn’t.

Your biggest molecular flop ever?

I was trying to make savoury candy floss at one stage, and it just wasn’t working, we had so many issues with the actual spinning of the sugar. Sometimes you just have to give up though, no point in flogging a dead horse.

How do you see your style changing in the next five years?

The food at the Fat Duck is always changing but the ethos stays the same. What I will say though is that I’m exploring the importance of acidity in a dish, it’s not looked at enough—and it really balances richness. In terms of seasoning it’s the new salt of its day.

The building the Fat Duck is housed in is 450-years-old. Any ghosties?

A few...we’ve had quite a bit of paranormal activity. During renovations the builders were spooked. They would lose tools, only to find them again in impossible places; like a screwdriver on top of the curtain rail.

I saw a picture on Twitter of you and our top chef Margot Janse on a beanbag; it was just after The S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best. Lots of high-jinx?

Not too much, just lots of gin and tonics!

Speaking of Margot, she’s famous for her use of South African herb, buchu, have you ever tried it?

It’s that green stuff right? She actually gave me a banky of it.  I haven’t used it yet though.

Customs must have loved that

[Laughs] Yeah, I love South Africa. I’m always inspired when I come here, but I see it more as a holiday destination, my family and I have been here a few times.

So any chance of a Fat Duck opening in Cape Town?

No chance, I like to keep business and pleasure separate.

By Malu Lambert

Our own top chef Margot Janse recently placed 36th on the S.Pellegrino list, making Le Quartier Francais the best restaurant in Africa.

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