18 June 2011

The Fat Duck. Food for Thought

John Malkovich: I have seen a world that NO man should see!  
Craig Schwartz: Really? Because for most people it's a rather enjoyable experience.
          Being John Malkovich, 1999

I was trembling with excitement. The hard earned moment had arrived. A moment that I had dared not dream of had arrived. A moment that I considered had come about from sheer hard work and an ounce of luck.

The hard work had brought me the money to afford this experience and the luck was having actually managed to get my bum on this seat. In fact I was awed that we had managed, among 30,000 other hopefuls a day, to have actually got through to make a reservation at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, UK.

So where do you go from here?  I thought.

Is this where food pretentiousness begins? Will I now be presumed to belong to the particular clique of Foodies that has always annoyed me? The clutch that have always struck me as sycophantic, where famous Chef’s names are dropped with such regularity as if to claim the superiority of the individual over other diners? The one where the list of meals recounted begin to sound like scalps taken in battle? I surely hoped not.

This philosophical thought kicked in around course number eleven at the celebrated restaurant. At the time of dining, The Fat Duck was placed at number one in Britain and number three in the San Pellegrino 50 World’s best restaurants, behind Noma of Denmark and El Bulli in Spain.

It was also number two on Mr Sticki’s list of places to mark his personal half century on the planet. El Bulli was his first choice, but we were unable to secure a seat in the annual email ballot, where you - and a million others - plead in Spanish to reserve a seat at some point during El Bulli’s six month open season.

By comparison it seemed a much more democratic system to secure a table at The Fat Duck. Exactly two months to the day that you hope to attend, you battle with thousands of others for a place among the 40 seats, by phoning the restaurant’s call centre from 10:00am London time. There is a clock on The Fat Duck website that counts down the minutes until lines open. After that you are in the hands of the Telecommunications Gods.

We had planned to be in London for five days. One of those was a Monday when The Fat Duck is closed - leaving us only four chances to make a reservation. After multiple redials over three days, engaged signals and attempts that reached the answering service only to be rejected, we were prepared to face defeat. In fact, had I not prompted the call on the final day Mr Sticki might not have bothered at all.

So, on the final possible day to reserve a seat, Mr Sticki got through 20 seconds before 10:00am  - that’s 7pm in Melbourne - and was yet  again rejected. He continued to redial and incredibly at eight minutes past the hour he got through, securing a booking for our final day in London. Hanging up the phone we jumped for joy around our little home, like a couple of old punks pogo-ing at a Hüska Dü gig.

I think Mr Sticki’s interest in premier league dining possibly stems from certain TV shows and Ferran Adria’s Ell Bulli documentary that we saw at the la Mirada Latin Film Festival. Without exposure to Chefs Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) via film media, I doubt that the suggestion would have been made for either restaurant. And it puts an interesting spin on what you come to expect from the dining experience. It can make for disappointment for some, but I can honestly say that in my case the experience was all that I imagined it would be.

Heston Blumenthal at Taste Of London Festival,...Image via Wikipedia

From what I had read of Heston Blumenthal, my expectations were very high. He is described as driven, a man that channels an enormous energy into whatever he believes in. There have been anger management problems, often seen in the super intelligent, young and bored; issues in Heston that have since been addressed and channeled – one would imagine – creatively.

As a chef he is self taught. As a food scientist he is self taught. A natural lateral thinker, his approach to food is not dissimilar to the thought processes I learnt to become a creative type in the advertising industry. The creative process follows this path: you start with a single unique proposition. Standing back you look at it objectively, break outside the box of traditional perception and you bend that proposition in every direction until a certain clarity is achieved, resulting in either a ground breaking new concept or inspired re-invention.

In the same manner as I do in my profession, he appears to gather other people around him who are able to help flesh out his concepts. While he has the ideas, he hires those with greater knowledge or skill in certain areas, yet with the same passion to create and innovate.

One of his waiters mentioned that there were 51 staff involved back of house at The Fat Duck. I expect this also extends to Heston’s other projects - including The Lab and his pub, The Hinds Head, just metres from the restaurant  - not just the restaurant’s prep kitchen and service. Those numbers have probably swelled since opening his latest venue in London.

Heston appears to have a great thirst for challenges. I imagine that his mind is seldom still. He has described himself as being obsessional, totally immersed at the expense of his family. In that he reminds me of my father, and I wonder if Heston too has some form of genius based autism spectrum condition, like Aspergers Syndrome.

As well as the restaurant, he has been involved in creating menus and dishes for a British hospital. He recently opened a more casually oriented restaurant ‘Dinner by Heston Blumenthal’ in a London Hotel, and has a range of packaged food distributed through Waitrose supermarkets.

Against the odds of apparently dealing with recalcitrant staff and management in front of TV cameras, Heston has also tackled the challenge of reinventing the British road-side diners, Little Chef. The most recent show aired, 'Heston's Mission Impossible' saw Heston reinvent the way the British Military manage food operations, and a range of challenges from getting hospitalised kids to eat nutritious meals and using food science to deliver tasty food to economy class passengers travelling on British Airways.

The man seems always keen to bite off more than most would be able to chew. Such is his nature I suppose. A restless mind moves constantly forward to the next project. In his case it would appear that the previous projects continue to tick over, with his vision intact thanks to his army of collaborators.

Watching the TV show Heston’s Feasts, I imagined that each of Heston’s dishes at The Fat Duck would be playful, conceptual and delicious. Thankfully there was no anticlimax. My assumption was correct. Heston’s ‘thinking outside of the box’ to titillate and stimulate was clearly on show in the line-up of courses that make up his Tasting Menu.

I have often asked myself ‘What is the point of molecular gastronomy in most restaurants?’ At The Fat Duck it is brought into sharp relief as a means to an ends in manifesting a concept. Unlike those chefs that miss the point - by casting with abandon, foams that resemble sputum and pearls that do little to enhance a dish - at The Fat Duck, molecular techniques are neither used faddishly nor fashionably. It’s a tool used to recreate Heston’s imagination of an event.

Eating at The Fat Duck is a dining experience that goes well beyond merely eating something delicious. I felt as though I was living some of the more poignant moments in his life, portrayed by a tableau of food. So the tricks, for which he is notorious, seemed to just blend seamlessly into the whole idea of each dish.

And the venue itself offers no distraction from the food. The small dining room has no outlook onto the picturesque olde worlde village surrounds, yet despite being low ceilinged it is bright, white and convivial. Exposed traditional oak beams frame the space and an incongruous modern sculptural glass room divider serves to shelter diners from gusty blasts that may emanate from the door opening onto the street.
Starched linen and simple table décor meant that the diner’s focus was expressly on the food. In fact all there was to distract us was the view of other diners - giving one a preview of the dishes to come.

We attended a lunch service. While food allergies can be accommodated, there is no choice to the meals other than an optional addition of a cheese course. While admiring the cheese trolley with lust, we were aware that we did not have the gastrointestinal fortitude to include it in our repast.

Around us there were gatherings of a corporate nature, a family with adult children, a woman and her nine year old daughter, sixty-somethings gastronauts, a young Asian couple, and in the centre of the room, Mr Sticky and I. At most tables there was at least one camera recording the event.

Yes cameras. Why? Because it’s a milestone - who wouldn’t want to capture for posterity their meal at The Fat Duck?

Five hours after the commencement of our meal, on our way back to Maidenhead train station, our cab driver told us that recently, some of his passengers came away disappointed that some of the most famous dishes were no longer on the menu. For example, the famed egg and bacon ice cream is no longer there – the dish of liquid nitrogen frozen scrambled eggs.  

The Fat Duck could probably get away with serving the same menu for the next five years, but why would you? To the enquiring and creative mind, repetition is soul destroying. If there is an opportunity to spread the wings, then take me there. I’m all for it.

Famous dishes not-withstanding, the hallmark techniques sighted in Heston’s TV shows are there. Between the layers of textures, flavours and ingredients are influences that have come from the best of many cultures. Being half Asian I was reminded of many concepts I grew up with, fused with those of other cultures. That the ingredients are superior however is to be taken for granted, with the exception of unpasteurised butter there was no mention of the source of the ingredients. Provenance is not the selling point here, ideas are.

For those with expectations of trickery, the procession of dishes served are accompanied by the anticipated Heston peculiar add-ons such as liquid nitrogen treats produced at the table, atomizers of evocative aromas, sounds to be listened to on headphones and breath freshener style gelatin flavor strips to open the palate, all found a place in the experience.

Yes, it was truly a unique experience.

While it involved food and I felt full upon eating it, I shall not remember it as a meal. For me, it was something akin to the concept of the film ‘Being John Malkovich’ where climbing into a cavity in a space between the floors of a building, you enter John Malkovich’s mind. You see the world through his eyes.

Through Heston’s eyes you visit moments in his memory, transmitted into your mind through edible art. Sometimes you may even add your own recollections to the memory and find yourself transported to a further level. The foie gras course took me back to my own particular childhood woodlands memory, the beach course stirred unique memories in both Mr and I, and all the while we were being toyed with in a delightful way.

My deduction is that The Fat Duck restaurant is an art installation. The back of house team that spans cooks, chefs and scientists, and also the floor staff, ensure that you and 40 others are seamlessly bound in a deeply sensory experience for four hours. The food is the vehicle that lends itself to an experience that Heston wishes to share with you. It tells a story, paints a picture and stimulates new thoughts from within you.

I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to take in this adventure. It may be the first and last time I dine at such a prestigious establishment. But the realization that I truly have a fortunate life is not taken lightly, and my time at The Fat Duck will not easily be forgotten.

I had considered a second blog post that discussed the content of the meal blow by blow. But if you thought this post was long, that would have been ten times longer. So I will upload images of each course to my Tumblr gastroporn site, Stickifingers instead. I will tag them fatduck50. Each image will include a description and my thoughts. It will be far more digestible as bite sized degustation portions.

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