There’s nothing ordinary about dining at The Fat Duck – from the booking process to the petit-fours, from the innovative dish presentations to the original flavours combinations. And that, of course, is at the heart of the restaurant’s enduring appeal. Heston Blumenthal’s hyper-experimental flagship might not offer the locals much by the way of a quick bite – although his two nearby pubs certainly do – but its 17-course, £255 tasting menu remains one of the world’s most thought-provoking, technically adept and exhilarating dining experiences.
On this menu, nothing is quite as it seems. The ingredients of a Waldorf salad turn into an ice cream; a golden pocket watch vanishes in hot water to create a soup; a virtually weightless beetroot and horseradish macaroon disappears on the tongue.
What’s even more amazing is that some 20 years after opening, The Fat Duck – located just to the west of London in the upmarket village of Bray – remains a relevant and hugely influential restaurant.
Over the past two decades, Blumenthal has developed hundreds of new cooking techniques, and a great many of these have found their way onto the menus of other ambitious restaurants. He was the first person to recognise the culinary potential of liquid nitrogen. He was an early adopter of sous vide cooking. He pioneered the use of different gelling agents to deliver a hitherto unknown clarity of flavour. He gave the world triple-cooked chips.
In the wrong hands, all this would have been for nothing: fancy cooking techniques do not make a great chef. But Blumenthal is able to combine all this culinary know-how with a child-like sense of wonder and excitement to create some of the restaurant world’s most iconic dishes: Snail Porridge, Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, the Alice and Wonderland-inspired Mock Turtle soup, and his famed Meat Fruit to name-check but a few.
Yet more important than all these individual innovations and brilliant dishes is the 51-year-old chef’s constant questioning of established culinary practices and his striving for continual improvement, or as he describes it “restless development”.
Blumenthal was also among the first chefs in the world to understand the importance of a separate development kitchen and development team, and this approach has influenced the way many other high-reaching establishments are run.
“The professional kitchen is not creative,” he explains. “It’s a manufacturing line. The Fat Duck is a measured and precise place because we need consistency. All of that is the enemy of creativity. Discovery and creativity need to take place in an environment that does not have an outcome – you need the freedom to fail.”