Cutting-edge cookery – meet Heston Blumenthal
Name: Heston Marc Blumenthal, OBE
Born: May 27, 1966
Family: Three children: Jack, Jessie and Joy
Career: Michelin-starred chef advocating a scientific, multi-sensory culinary approach, TV personality and author of several cookbooks
Restaurants: Blumenthal is currently running six restaurants/gastro pubs: the recently revamped The Fat Duck in Bray – one of four UK restaurants holding three Michelin stars, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in London and Melbourne, and Berkshire gastro pubs The Crown and the one-star The Hinds Head as well as The Perfectionists Café in London Heathrow’s Terminal 2.
With his convention-busting ways in the kitchen, Heston Blumenthal is considered something of a mad professor in the culinary world. Curiosities such as liquid nitrogen coronation chicken purée ice cream may seem quirky, but the British chef’s most elaborate project yet is the space menu he prepared for Major Tim Peake, the British astronaut whose 6.5-month adventure onboard the International Space Station ended last June. Space food preparation has little in common with the methods Blumenthal uses at his much-garlanded restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Bray, England.
“It was the complete opposite to a normal kitchen – instead of serving the food as soon as it’s prepared, you pack it up and send it to live in orbit for months on end,” says the chef.
Though high in nutrition, microgravity sustenance typically lacks flavor and texture.
“I was surprised at how tasteless some of the food was,” he says. “When you’re in zero gravity, body fluids build up in your head. This puts pressure on your sinuses so your ability to smell and taste is restricted even further.”
Wanting to put an end to the blandness of space food, the chef vowed he’d offer Tim Peake a bit of variation, making sure some of the dishes had interesting textures and a hint of acidity or chili. Blumenthal worked closely with Peake for over two years to create emotionally-resonating dishes that would remind the astronaut of home. “We went hiking together, visited museums – I even got the chance to meet his family,” says the chef. “The food we created was rooted in what Tim said he would miss most about earth – nature. Because he would be so far removed from society, I decided to create nostalgic food, that would reconnect him with his memories and loved ones. For example, we developed a sizzling sausage dish, packaged with a pop-up campfire book, scented with the smell of sausages cooking on a fire, to tie into Tim’s childhood memories of camping trips.” Did the astronaut nominate his favorite meal while he was up there? “I know he was particularly fond of the Alaskan salmon dish – it reminded him of a fishing trip from his time training with the army in the US.”
Creating food for space involves more than catering to the tastes of a single astronaut. Blumenthal encountered lashings of red tape and bureaucracy with each spoonful he proposed. “After passing the regulations set by the UK Space Agency, I had to get past the European Space Agency and finally – NASA!”
Try the taste of Heston before take-off
Following on from his own TV series “In Search of Perfection”, the chef has brought a new dining concept to London Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Opened in 2014, The Perfectionists’ Café serves up nostalgic British favorites with a typical Blumenthal twist – think fish and chips followed by a futuristic helping of nitrogen ice cream. The Perfectionists’ Café is open daily 5am- 10:30pm.
Terminal 2, London Heathrow, Hounslow
Although it was frustrating at times, the culinary innovator admits he found the space food constraints quite liberating as they inspired him to work in new ways. Rustling up a bacon sandwich may be considered child’s play on earth, but in space it can spell disaster. In 1965, US astronaut John Young famously made an unfortunate attempt to eat a corned beef sandwich onboard Gemini III. Decades have passed since, yet space officials still shudder at the mere mention of bread entering lunar orbit. Not only can crumbs interfere with the machinery, they can also float into astronauts’ eyes or respiratory systems. But ever the rebel, Blumenthal refused to send Tim off without the most classic of British comfort foods. “After countless revisions, I managed to create a bacon sandwich that would pass all the tests,” he says animatedly. “It was so simple, but by removing the crusts from a circular cut of bread that’s high in density, there’s no danger of it breaking up. That was one of the most difficult restrictions, but the end result was one of the most rewarding.”
Back on earth, Blumenthal continues to experiment and challenge diners with his signature scientific and “multisensory” style of cooking. He has a penchant for historic recipes and eating habits from centuries past, often using these to subvert modern perceptions about what’s acceptable or not.
“Some people have been brought up with rudimentary flavor habits and that’s difficult to shake later in life,” he notes. “I believe flavor expectation is rooted in context – even the name of a dish plays a role in the dining experience.”
As an example, he tells us that he once conducted an experiment serving crab ice cream to participants. “Some recoiled at the thought because they were seemingly two disparate flavors, but when I told another test group that it was ‘frozen crab bisque,’ they had absolutely no problem eating it,” he says.
To what extent does he predict we’ll have to alter our tastes to tackle future food shortages?
“I think many people will be surprised about what the accepted norm will be in the future,” Blumenthal says. “Companies are now experimenting with insects as a viable source of protein, with limited cost to the environment. Meanwhile, scientists are creating meat made up of grains and amino acids.”
Blumenthal doesn’t find these prospects off-putting in the slightest, which would come as little surprise to anyone who knows him. “Science really is the driving force behind a lot of innovation in food at the moment and the marriage of the two disciplines is incredibly exciting.”
Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon