"It's not revolutionary food, it's evolutionary." The Fat Duck is coming to Melbourne, and here's what Heston Blumenthal has to say about it
Heston Blumenthal: master of surprise. The chef behind three Michelin-starred UK restaurant the Fat Duck is already famed for his technically gymnastic shock-factor food – meat parfaits disguised as fruits; edible sands served with iPods loaded with ocean sounds. But on Monday, he smacked gobs and the internet right off their hinges. At 10am the bespectacled, sandy-stubbled chef announced his intention to temporarily close his Bray-based eatery and bring it to Melbourne for a six-month residency at Crown Casino, crew and all.
A shock? For us the statement was a relief. The assembled press were expecting the announcement of a restaurant. But plenty who showed up to the media scrum were also a little sceptical, questioning, as always, the ethics of a celebrity chef lending their name to a far-flung restaurant outpost. In truth, we count ourselves among them. Gordon Ramsay’s Crown flop Maze was a short-lived enterprise that sorely lacked soul. And though we along with everyone else would have taken any scraps from Blumenthal’s world-renowned tables – hell, we’d have lined up for an outpost of his Heathrow Terminal Two pizza joint – it was a faith-restoring moment to know that in spite of Blumenthal's hot crossed bun deals with Coles and the umpteen TV shows and books, he stands true and proud over his greatest work. The Fat Duck won’t fly without him. It won’t fly without its crew. It can’t. We were happy to be wrong.
Our cynicism wasn’t without cause. Last week, a polite mention to the publicist re: a Fat Duck of our own was met with insistence it was most definitely not, absolutely not anything to do with the Fat Duck team, but maybe a bit like Dinner (Blumenthal’s four-star London restaurant, which will, in fact, replace the Fat Duck after its six-month residency). “Wishful thinking,” was the term used.
It seemed strangely cloak and dagger at the time, but on Monday, all was made clear. Just hours before the press gathered at Crown, the Fat Duck crew were bemusedly gathering in the Bray kitchen on their day off.
“They didn’t know until this morning,” Blumenthal tells Time Out. “I’d written out this long speech talking up the great wine regions, the produce, the incredible ingredients and people. But then I just told them and there was a pause – I thought they were in shock, but it was just a Skype lag – and then a massive cheer.”
So there you have it. We’re getting a full rack of Fat Duck employees, with Blumenthal manning the pass for the first month. But what of the food? Blumenthal’s dishes are incredibly narrative-driven, many with strong links to British culinary traditions. So what comes here? The classics, or the cooking concepts that inform them?
According to Blumenthal, the former. “With the Duck, many of the dishes – things like the sand and the sea, the mock turtle soup, the egg and bacon ice cream – have taken years to evolve. There wouldn’t be any point to come here and change the menu.”
Later on, when the restaurant goes from 45-seater Fat Duck to the 120-seater Dinner, that could be a different story. “We might do some new concepts at Dinner,” says Blumenthal. “I’d like to find up to six dishes where there’s an Anglo-Australian connection. And now the crew is on board we can start developing and researching. Given they just found out, we couldn’t do that until now.”
Obviously Australian produce will be used. “There’s loads of stuff I’m looking forward to working with," says Blumenthal. "Australian beef is the best in the world and you have the shellfish, the marron. We used more Western Australian truffles than French last year.”
He is interested in native produce – “I’ve never eaten a witchetty grub,” he muses, staring off into the middle distance in a way that gets our hopes temporarily up, “but that's just a personal thing – nothing to do with the restaurant.” There may be bits of shrubbery, but Blumenthal doesn't, thankfully, believe in foraging purely for the sake of it.
Labels and trends have been both his cash cow and bugbear. His sense-stunning and very scientific dishes spurred a generation of chefs to go technique crazy (with extremely mixed results), and he was tagged with a ‘lord of molecular gastronomy’ label he just couldn’t shake. “People always want to compartmentalise cooking,” he says. “But I simply think there’s good food and bad food."
Five years ago he wrote a piece with food-science author Harold McGee about the term molecular gastronomy – which he finds frustrating. "It was called the Statement of New Cookery – four or five principles as relevant to the barista trying to get the perfect crema as to a baker trying to make the perfect sourdough or a chef trying to create a 15-course tasting menu. The approach is still the same. It’s all about respecting tradition, but questioning tradition if it needs to be questioned. It’s not revolution, it’s evolution.”
But such is the frenzy for Blumenthal’s high impact creations, we asked if paring back felt like a viable way forward in the future.
“If you’re going to make a cup of tea, make a bloody good cup of tea – it’s just that food also has the ability to excite. It can be playful. And it should be playful and we should be comfortable with that.”
The Fat Duck opens February 2015. Bookings open in September. Be ready.