Heston on scam: ‘I’m flattered and appalled’

Written By komlim puldel on Minggu, 30 November 2014 | 23.08

Heston Blumenthal will incorporate Australian ingredients when he opens his Fat Duck restaurant in Melbourne's Crown Casino in 2015

Heston Blumenthal is moving his famous restaurant The Fat Duck to Melbourne in February 2015 for six months. Photo: Pierre Toussaint Source: Sunday Style

HESTON Blumenthal is trying to work out how to get the leather from the chairs of The Fat Duck restaurant over to Australia.

The chef has been scanning each minuscule detail of his three-Michelin-star restaurant as he negotiates moving "the whole kit, including the sign out the front and hopefully the leather from the seats" to Melbourne's Crown as it flies south in February.

The 48-year-old British chef, television host, author and champion of kitchen creativity is one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. He's beloved for his experimental approach that's seen him serve up savoury-sweet mash-ups such as liquid nitrogen ice-cream curry, sensory explosions like his Sound of the Sea dish (seafood with edible sand and sea foam, served with an iPod in a conch shell playing sounds of breaking waves), medieval banquet re-creations like four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie (don't fret; they survived), and themed dinners like the trippy 1960s feast which had guests licking the wallpaper.

Once he served Germaine Greer a bull's testicle disguised as a plum. He's a mad scientist, a joyous kid let loose in a chocolate factory — it's not for nothing he's been called the Willy Wonka of haute cuisine.

The man behind The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal. Photo: Pierre Toussaint. Source: Sunday Style

Blumenthal is as revered Down Under as in his home country: more than 90,000 people entered the online lottery for a seat at the Melbourne iteration of The Fat Duck, which will be open from February until August next year at the Crown. Only 14,000 lucky diners succeeded in their quest to pay $525 per head (plus drinks) for his crazy creations. Seats were so in demand that scalpers managed to scam the ballot, booking multiple tables under false names.

Blumenthal is both flattered and appalled: "I've been completely blown away by the reaction; it's been really humbling," he says. But, he acknowledges, "the fact that some have chosen to go to such great lengths to cheat the system is disappointing. We worked so hard to make it fair for everyone. The matter is being dealt with; it's not over."

Those who missed out will have to be satisfied with the surprisingly accessible Heston for Coles range, which has now extended to a Christmas line, including turkey and a chocolate sauce Christmas pudding. Team Heston considered Las Vegas, St Tropez, Miami and Dubai as locations for the overseas launch of The Fat Duck. Then they found Melbourne.

"'Why go all the way to Australia?' people in England ask," he says. "But the Duck is full of Australians, and think of the effort that goes into coming." Australia does not have a strong history of regional food culture, he says. "It's the opposite of Italy. Italy does simple food brilliantly, but order a cappuccino after lunch and you get kicked out. You can't have cheese and fish together, you can't put garlic in a ragu. It's that rigid. But here everyone is just so excited and interested to try new things."

English celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal owns several restaurants. Photo: Pierre Toussaint. Source: Sunday Style

He tells me about a conversation he had with a taxi driver in Melbourne about making an extra hole in his pita bread to separate the various fillings. "Imagine a London cabbie saying that! They'd say: 'You're the chef who does all that funny stuff, innit?' [In Australia] I'm seeing the biggest explosion of food of any country in the world."

To take advantage of this, Melbourne's Fat Duck will turn into an outpost of the London restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which takes over the Crown site permanently in mid-2015.

Despite — or perhaps because of — his professional success, Blumenthal's 22-year marriage to Zanna, with whom he has three teenage children and whom he often praised for her sacrifices during the early years of his career, ended in 2011. Now dating US food writer Suzanne Pirret, he's tight-lipped about the split and his new relationship.

That hard-won professional success began in the cramped kitchen of The Fat Duck, housed in a 16th-century cottage. It was the setting that nurtured an enduring obsession which started when he was 16. In 1982, Blumenthal and his family went to a three-star restaurant in Provence, France.

"I'd never been inside a Michelin-starred restaurant before and I was hooked. It knocked me for six. It was a wonderland. I bought the book Great Chefs of France by Quentin Crewe, and it was from there I started teaching myself high-school French and cooking."

In 1995, when he was 29, Blumenthal bought the 450-year-old pub that would become one of the most creative, talked-about, covetable dining experiences in the world. But it didn't start out as a search for perfection.

Chef, mad scientist and showman, Heston Blumenthal Photo: Pierre Toussaint. Source: Sunday Style

"I just wanted to be a chef," he explains. "But the memory of that experience in France remained so powerful — the crunching of your feet on the gravel, the smell of the lavender on the way in; The Fat Duck didn't have that. I had a cottage on the side of the road. So my gravel and lavender and chink of glasses, the noise of the crickets in France, came through the food. That's where the sensory stuff comes from. That menu has developed because of that memory." If the memory captivated him, the tiny, barely functioning kitchen helped form him. "That kitchen was brutal, even by chefs' standards.

But there was something about how it constrained me that made me cook the way I do," says Blumenthal. "The gas pressure was so weak the chef couldn't keep the water boiling [to blanch] green beans, so he decided to find out what really happens when you cook green beans." Blumenthal became obsessed with the science of food. He asks me whether I know if you cut the leek one centimetre from the root it tastes different from another centimetre up the vegetable, and so on. I didn't.

"The kitchen forced me down that route. You lose yourself in that." Many would have walked away from such a confronting space. "I seem to chuck myself out of my comfort zone all the time, which is something we should do. But I had no idea I was going to do all these things, or that the food was going to end up where it is. A young chef comes in, 200 metres from England's best restaurant [Michel Roux's three-Michelin-star The Waterside Inn], gets three stars, blah blah blah, and it looks like a big master plan. But all I wanted to do was cook. And get it right. Nothing else. I was obsessed with technique."

Blumenthal bought The Fat Duck back in 1995. Photo: Pierre Toussaint. Source: Sunday Style

The driven, self-taught cook spent his income on "French chefs' books". He always came back to the best food he'd ever tasted. "I'd think, 'What's the best ice-cream I've ever had?' and that's where I had to get mine to. I got frustrated because I'd take 10 books and 10 chefs — some use honey, some sugar, some glucose, single cream, double cream, mascarpone, and I'd think, 'Do they know which is best?' I was obsessive. That's where the bacon-and-egg ice-cream, and the sardines-on-toast ice-cream [from The Fat Duck menu], came from."

There's a fine line between attention to detail and obsession: on which side does the chef fall? "I'm not really [obsessive]. I've tried table tennis, I've had a couple of guitar lessons, I say, 'Yeah, that's all right'. But with the restaurant, the menus, I don't compromise on anything. That's the one part of my life I do that. I'm not obsessive-compulsive, but I have ADD. Attention-deficit disorder. When I found out, I asked, 'Surely with ADD, they don't pay attention to anything?' That's true, until they find something they like. And then, that's it. I think that was true for me. I don't think it's true now."

It was once, though. Is he ever satisfied that he's done enough? When Blumenthal discovered he had been awarded his second Michelin star, "The first thing I said was, 'Sh*t, we need a new sommelier.' It's always about doing better. I'm definitely better now."

A search for the best became Blumenthal's obsession (his cafe at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 2, opened in June, is even named The Perfectionists' Cafe), so when the BBC tapped him to host a television series in 2006, they suggested calling it Perfection. He preferred In Search of Perfection.

Blumenthal has always advocated the importance of scientific understanding in cooking. Photo: Pierre Toussaint. Source: Sunday Style

"[Being a chef] is hard enough, and if you have a perfectionist approach, it's not good for creativity, because that breeds fear of failure. If you fear failure, you'll never experiment. It's about discovery, embracing the unknown — that's really important."

And it's the search for the new, not perfection, that's now his obsession. The chef is nurturing his creativity via a huge renovation of The Fat Duck's kitchen, and also plans to build an entire lab dedicated to the elusive art.

"I spend so much time doing development for Coles or Waitrose [a posh British supermarket], but [I need to] carve out time for what I want. I've become a jack-of-alltrades. You end up in back-to-back meetings. I walk in and taste stuff, and people are standing around looking at me eating. I've become a quality controller. I want to give a lot of that back so I can be creative. The Fat Duck is nearly 20, so now I'm being selfish. I want to play, get excited — and I want a lab with a door that goes 'swoosh'."

If great ventures and new discoveries are his agenda, then his new project is one giant leap in the right direction. "We're doing space. Yep," he laughs. Blumenthal is working with the UK Space Agency to develop space food for British astronaut Tim Peake's six-month mission to the International Space Station.

"It's the opportunity to learn," he says. "These guys are going to be out there for six months, you can't be plucked further out of your society than to be in space, so the food needs to connect them to home. I'm really excited."

He compares his life and projects, the space work, the move to Australia, the supermarket ranges and refurbishment of The Fat Duck, to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, "and now I just have to put it together". Does he think he will ever finish it? "No. You can't ever finish the jigsaw puzzle, because then you have to go to bed."

***

Here is Heston's recipe for Hidden chocolate Christmas pudding ice cream sundae

For the crystallised pistachios

200g pistachios

200g white caster sugar

1. Pre-heat the oven to 170ºC.

2. Place the nuts on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 12 minutes.

3. In the meantime, put 150ml water and the sugar into a small saucepan. Place it over medium-high heat and bring to the boil.

4. When the temperature of the liquid reaches 135ºC, or the syrup is beginning to colour at the edge of the pan, add the pistachios and whisk until the syrup has completely crystallised and coated the nuts.

5. Pour the coated nuts onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment and allow to cool.

For the chocolate sauce

500ml water

20 coffee beans

180g cocoa powder

¼ tsp salt

340g unrefined caster sugar

60g chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), chopped

1. Bring the water, coffee beans, cocoa powder and salt to a simmer in a small saucepan. Turn off the heat and cover.

2. Place the sugar in a stainless steel saucepan over medium heat to make a dry caramel. When the caramel is goldenbrown, reduce the heat and slowly pour in the water mixture, stirring continuously. The mixture should automatically boil from the heat of the sugar.

3. Add the chopped chocolate to the caramel and mix well. Remove from the heat. Pass through a fine sieve and reserve until needed.

For the crystalliseddark chocolate

120g white caster sugar

130ml water

56g dark chocolate (minimum

70% cocoa solids), chopped

into small pieces

1. Place the sugar and the water in a pan over medium-high heat and allow to heat up to 150ºC. Once the temperature is reached, add the chocolate, remove the pan from the heat and vigorously mix using a whisk.

2. The mixture will begin to bubble until it dries and turns into powder. Continue whisking until all the mixture has become powder. Pour over a tray lined with parchment paper and allow to cool completely.

To finish

Heston for Coles Hidden Chocolate Christmas pudding

Vanilla ice-cream

Crystallised pistachios

Chocolate sauce

Crystallised chocolate

1. Cut the warm pudding into small pieces and place in the bottom of a glass. Add a couple of scoops of the vanilla ice-cream. Sprinkle with some of the crystallised pistachios.

2. Drizzle some of the warm chocolate sauce on top. Repeat the layering process one more time. Top with chocolate sauce and crystallised chocolate.

Follow Kate on Twitter and Instagram. Download the Sunday Style app here.


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