Heston Blumenthal on Obsession and Food TV
Heston Blumenthal might spend his days in an impressive food science lab or traveling the globe consuming the world's hottest chilies, but all he really wants to eat is a chicken sandwich.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
I've never been to The Fat Duck—for shame—but I have tried Heston Blumenthal's snail porridge at an awards ceremony. I have, however, been a fan of his for some time. Watching him cook is like watching a child play with a train set, or a microbiologist with their petri dishes and microscopes: His concentration and innate enthusiasm is hypnotic. The meals I've had at Dinner By Heston Blumenthal have been some of the best food I've ever eaten, and I firmly believe he's done more for re-igniting the current pride there is in British cooking than any other chef ever has.
I pinned Heston down for an interview, which ended up being quite long, very hilarious, and heavily biscuit-based. The man can put away a lot of wafers in a short amount of time. Over the course of a long morning, we covered everything from getting so high on chilies that you can't stand up to slicing up balls, tuna sandwiches, and, erm, dwarfs. Oh, and he brought along a Wagyu beef 'Moos' bar he'd made for me, which are featured in the chocolate episode of his new show, Heston's Great British Food. It was fantastic.MUNCHIES: Heston, you always seem like the busiest man on the planet. Heston: [Laughs] Well, it's better to be like this than being bored with nothing to do. But if I were the one dealing with my schedule it would definitely send me to an early grave.
I was reading an old interview with you where you talked about the old days of working 22-hour days in the kitchen. Presumably, the diversity of your work now means those days are a distant memory? Yes. I'm not doing 15 hours of sleep a week anymore. Every so often, though, I have a couple of very intense days on the trot—with filming, TV or radio interviews, and the like—and think, Oh my god it was actually ten times worse than this every day?
Didn't you start to have dreams about filleting fish? Yes! I had quite a few cod-based dreams. We'd work so intensively on ingredients in our development of dishes. Leeks were a killer. We'd be tasting them one millimeter away from the hairy bit at the end, then two millimeters, and so forth, to test how different the flavor was.
Shit. Was it worth it? You wouldn't think so, but yes. And if you're that involved with something you become like a kid with a computer game. For a while, my world didn't exist outside of a leek.
Do you still get asked whether having such a scientific, molecular approach to food takes the emotion out of it? All the time. But does science take the emotion out of cooking? I don't think it does. If anything, it's the opposite. Wanting to try and push flavor and perception surrounding food to the nth degree means that, actually, it becomes all about emotion. For me, anyway. My love for food has never waned and I have never, or will never, become blasé about it. In fact, I would actually like to start testing food in that similar way again over the next year.Isn't it helpful to be reigned in a bit with your schedule, though? For the sake of getting enough sleep and all that. Probably. If I was allowed to be as obsessive as I was in the past I probably would be. So maybe you're right. Your new show, Heston's Great British Food, looks exciting. What were some of the highlights of filming? Eating one of the hottest chilies in the world was an experience. We were on this chili farm in America and the producers had laid out a chili buffet for me, ranging from the soft ones like jalapeños up to nagas. I looked at them and thought, I know exactly what they want me to do. I'm really not a big fan of very hot things—I tried phall as a kid with my mates, but generally don't like it. I took two bites of this thing—god knows why I took two—and immediately my glasses steamed up. My glasses were sweating. As the heat came up (it takes 20 minutes to reach its peak), my legs went cold and numb. Afterwards, I had to do this piece on camera at our field lab about what it was like, but I couldn't stand up—I was bent double and hallucinating from eating this bloody thing.
Will people be able to see the despair in your eyes? I imagine so. The chili farmer—who eats chilies every day—also had some and his eyes were popping out his head. When we got back to the lab, one of the researchers was on the phone with another researcher who said, "Oh, hang on, I need to change my drip." I was like, "What?" This man had eaten one too many nagas and they had ripped through his stomach lining. Ridiculous.
Were there any amazing historical stories you picked up that have stayed with you? Oh, plenty. The one about Jeffrey Hudson, an English court dwarf, stands out.
Pardon? I know. In the 1600s, a time of very different ethics and morals, the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham—who had recently acquired Jeffrey as part of their growing oddball family, which also included a monkey called Pug— entertained King Charles and his young wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. They put on a banquet, climaxing with the delivery of a huge pie in which lay young Jeffrey, wearing a bespoke suit of armor that encased all 18 inches of him. He jumped out and danced across the table, much to the delight of Queen Maria, who subsequently gifted Jeffrey to the Duke.
What happened to Jeffrey in the end? I think he killed Queen Maria's body guard in a duel and ended up being sent on a mission to France on a boat, but was captured off the coast of North Africa and trapped for 25 years as a slave. His nickname was Lord Minimus.
Wow. OK! There have been a few things in the press recently about the role of food television now. How do you think it has changed since the super informative shows of the 80s and 90s? Massively. About two months ago I saw an old Delia [Smith] program from the 80s on UKTV and she was preparing this dish—a cake, I think—and she was measuring everything out, talking through how she was "now tipping 200 grams of sugar into the mixture," then the camera would zoom in on the sugar bowl and film the sugar falling out of it. It felt surreal—hypnotic almost—to watch this kind of food programming again. We don't have the patience for all that now: Food TV is an opt-out for people. Our patience and concentration levels are lower and the pace of the hundreds of food shows out there now reflect that.
Did the celebrity chef thing always sit well with you? I think so, yes. The celebrity chef thing started in the 90s here, really, and I have always said to myself that if it's okay for a chef to write a cookbook then it's more than okay for them to show those processes on television. Our patience is even thinner with cookbooks these days, too, I think. If you included a recipe that explained, for example, the process of protein breakdown in a beurre noisette, people would just think, you're having a laugh, mate. They want to see it done on television.
I loved it when you made the first meat fruits on Feast and the plums were made from bull's testicles. But I'm not sure, even with an open mind and no bollocks hanging between my legs, that I could have a go recreating that. Ha! Testicles are really nice—in cooking terms, I mean. I did this bit where I stabbed the testicle and squeezed it when we filmed that, which was fun. We made a mousse from the balls to go—arf, arf—inside the plum. Otherwise, they're really good braised, pickled or deep-fried.
Because your job involves so much testing of these things all day long, do you ever crave something really bland and inoffensive? Oh, all the time. I eat like any normal person outside of my work. People can be incredibly blinkered and snobbish when it comes to food, but to me, there's only good or bad cooking. When it comes to eating, human beings are creatures of habit; we crave things that are comforting and trigger happy memories. I'm no different. When I'm testing food all day in the kitchen at The Fat Duck, I often forget to eat a proper meal and end up asking someone to nip to the corner shop and get me a tuna sandwich. Or a pork pie. I love a good pork pie. Actually, I think my favorite thing to eat is a chicken sandwich.
For some reason I can imagine you being a really easy restaurant or dinner party guest. I am! I'm very, very easy to please. People always expect the opposite, but I love being fed as much as the next person. The novelty never goes away. The only thing I really dislike in restaurants is slow service or rudeness. I despise rudeness.
Speaking of restaurants, a new pub in my local neighbourhood just opened and is serving cockle porridge. Oh wow. Really? Yeah. It was terrible, but it shows how much the ambition you apply to food has percolated into the consciousness of any chef starting out now. How aware are you of this Hestonisation of cuisine across the world? When pubs opened before you, they'd serve scampi and chips. Not cockle porridge. You're actually the first person to directly ask me that. It's certainly been bubbling for a long time. I remember Jay Rayner joking about having a weird ice cream somewhere that was flavored with chicken tikka or something mad, and him saying to me, "It's all your fault." But we're truly in the best period of British cuisine that has ever been right now, and if I've played a role in any of that, fantastic. It's the first time that everything hasn't been French-based—there's so much more pride about British food and produce now. It's very flattering. A great feeling.
If you'd have tried that porridge I think you'd have smashed your head against the table. [Laughs] Well, this is the flip-side to the coin, isn't it? I would say that having ambition is brilliant, but you should never just do something for the sake it. Being presented with a dish like that without the right research behind it is the worst thing. Don't mess around if you're not going to think it through properly. Just make a really nice chicken sandwich.
Heston's Great British Food starts in the UK tonight at 9pm on Channel 4.