Restaurateur and TV star Heston Blumenthal, whose flagship is the three-Michelin-star Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, is one of the three celebrity judges on British Airways' Great Britons programme. He is also responsible for a London 2012 inflight menu, which comes on stream in July.
Chicken à la King and Coronation Chicken — that's what I remember of my mum's cooking when I was growing up.Christmas. I was never a big fan, but he made huge door-step sandwiches with pickled gherkins and mayonnaise that you'd eat for days afterwards and I loved that. They didn't exactly teach me how to cook, but I guess I noticed things. It wasn't until much later that I really got stuck in myself. I remember the first thing I cooked. My sister and I made a meal for my mum's birthday when I was about ten. It was stuffed vine leaves, something from a Robert Carrier book. She, of course, professed to love them. I've never asked what she really thought! It was the 70s after all. My dad would always have the biggest turkey
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After I left school I was a credit controller. I knew how to read balance sheets and stuff like that. But I was never driven by money. I was much more driven by wanting to cook and create that sort of experience. So I wasn't thinking about financially building a business. Now we've got 300 plus people working for us. Thank goodness I don't have to do the book-balancing myself any more.
An experience at a Michelin-starred restaurant, L'Oustau de Baumanière in Provence near Baux, in 1981 or 1982 inspired me to cook. I remember it so clearly. It was one amazing meal on this terrace under the olive trees that made me decide what I wanted to do. But it was as much about what was around me as the food. All the sights and the sounds. The smell of the lavender, the sound of the crickets, the whacking great wine glasses on the table — all that kind of stuff. The whole experience grabbed me. I became obsessed with food. It was all I wanted to do.
The benefit of being self-taught was that I thought everything and anything was possible. I didn't know reasons why things couldn't be done. But I wouldn't recommend it to everybody. I think it's really important to get a sound understanding of classical cooking, really important. You need to know how to bone a chicken, how to fillet a fish, or make a soufflé. If you don't get training you need to discover it yourself. I taught myself the classics over the years. I wouldn't have done it any other way although it made my life really difficult. Had I gone through classical training when I opened the Fat Duck I would have been a lot more organised. I wouldn't have gone through the first five years, which were so hard. But at the same time I would have been more blinkered.
I admire the American Harold McGee hugely and he's definitely had a big influence on me. His book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, changed my life. I read it in 1985. It dispelled some of the key cooking myths, saying things like browning doesn't keep in the juices. I met him for the first time about ten years ago and he's become a good friend. We go on two- or three-day eating trips once a year. We first met at Palermo airport. I expected an old man but he was quite young and had a big smile on his face. I went to shake his hand and just said, "It's all your fault!"
Great Britons winner Simon Hulstone captained the British team in the Culinary Olympics and stood out from the start. He approached the competition so methodically — he really got the sense of Britishness we were looking for. His menu showcased ingredients from across the British Isles. He really thought about what could and couldn't work on a plane and his food was delicious. We were looking for someone who had the right approach and enthusiasm to take them through the challenge.
When you're travelling at 30,000ft your taste buds change, so our ability to taste food gets squashed. You have to build the recipes differently. You need stronger tastes, more acidity, more contrast, and not have the food too hot or too cold. There are a lot of challenges.
I don't want to live anywhere apart from the UK. There's something about the weather I love. It makes us appreciate the sunshine. I'm not a hot weather person so couldn't live somewhere that's boiling all the time. I live in Barnes and like being near to central London but not in the heart of it. I grew up in the countryside, so like trees and greenery too.
I first came across umami about ten years ago. I was writing for the Guardian about MSG [monosodium glutamate], which is in umami, and said it wasn't good because people react to it. I got a letter from the Umami Research Group to say there's no evidence of it being bad for you as there is about salt and I realised MSG is completely misunderstood. So much so that I'm working on a project with the NHS to use umami in hospital food for old people to encourage them to eat more. It exists in foods such as Parmesan, mushroom, shellfish and tomato ketchup. It's a taste like sweet or sour but harder to imagine because we're not used to it. It's a savoury taste. I think people are using it more and that it will become more used still.
I think it's important to allow your team to grow. People often ask me who cooks at The Fat Duck when I'm not there and I reply, "It's the same person who cooks when I am there, Jonny Lake, head chef." I'm secure in the knowledge that there is not even 2 per cent of a difference in the experience when I'm there or not. The success of the restaurants and my other projects is not down to me alone.
My fondest professional memory was when we received our third Michelin star [for the Fat Duck]. I never thought we would be considered for a third star as we didn't have a lake view
or a bar. We only had a room with 15 tables and a kitchen, so it was a great surprise.
Television has had a massive effect on the way the British eat. There are so many food-related shows that have communicated new messages about food. You can go back to the likes of Loyd [Grossman] and Delia [Smith], then MasterChef and the Great British Menu, then Jamie and Hugh and their campaigning programmes, and Feast... there's a big appetite for it. We're more interested in where our food comes from than ever before. Supermarkets take a knocking but they've played a role in our changing eating habits too, and given people the opportunity to try more foods.
Interview: Jane Dunford
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