Creative Thinking - Heston Blumenthal

By rotide
Created 08/01/2013 - 03:56

Even in the era of celebrity cooks, Heston Blumenthal is widely regarded as one of the finest chefs the UK has produced, carving out a reputation for challenging food prejudices and creating unconventional concoctions which has seen him front numerous television programmes and books, as well as launching his own range of gourmet food at Waitrose. His flagship restaurant - The Fat Duck - in Bray attracts an incredible 30,000 calls every day, has won more awards than you can shake a courgette at and is constantly booked up months in advance.

He attributes much of his culinary success to the fact that he is entirely self-taught; he was inspired to cook after visiting a three-star restaurant on a family holiday at the age of 16 but his first foray into the industry was opening the Duck in 1995. But while this free-spirited nature may have stood him in good stead on his own food journey - "journalists began catching on to the fact that there was a chef with a funny sounding name who has a restaurant in Bray that makes weird food" - it was not necessarily the case on the business side.

What is less well known is that in 2004, as the restaurant ostensibly went from strength to strength and was the highest rated in the UK, the whole thing nearly came crashing down. "We were packed at weekends but you can't run a successful restaurant just on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday lunch, unless you have a massive restaurant with really low staff numbers and you bring in part-timers, and the cost of producing the goods is very low," he says. "I was always trying to build the strength of the business so I was still spending, but I got on a plane to go to Spain to do a presentation on the Monday knowing I didn't have the money to pay the wages on the Friday. We'd run out of everything. The house was rented and I didn't have a penny to my name."

On the Wednesday, the restaurant received its third Michelin star, which Blumenthal says was entirely unexpected, and this effectively saved the venture. "The following day the phone rang, the fax went, emails came in so that lunchtime instead of doing 10 dinners we did 25 and in the evening instead of doing 18 we did 35 and it just built up from there," he says. "That year we were named the second best restaurant in the world and the following we got first. The interesting thing was that even then I poured that money back into improving everything and I would say that in terms of quality and consistency the Duck is now 50 or 75% better than it was then. But I was three days away from the whole thing collapsing."

Even today, there is something of an uneasy relationship between the quality of the cuisine - on which Blumenthal steadfastly refuses to compromise - and the business side. "If I look at the business model now it breaks all restaurant rules because we have the highest overheads and staff-to-customer ratio in the country," he says. "We have 50 chefs and we do 42-44 people in a sitting. We have nearly 100 staff in the Duck, with front and back-of-house staff. But it's always been driven by the food and we're continually pushing to get better. It's just that thinking that it's not good enough and you can get better, and looking again and again at things. We might take a vanilla ice-cream and make 15 different versions, varying the quantity of egg yolk in each one."


Raw ingredients

Taking the decision to open the Duck was a huge gamble, and one that required selling the house he had bought with his wife and borrowing money from his father. "We got it for about £250,000 and the whole thing was done on a shoestring," he recalls. "I had two people front of house and myself, and a pot-washer in the kitchen. I didn't have a business plan because other than my Dad I had nobody telling me how to run the business. If it had been run by an accountant it would never have got to where it did. They would have been asking what I was doing spending that amount of money on cutlery and what are my margins on this dish or that dish. I'm not for one minute saying that my way is how to run a restaurant but with the Duck that individuality and creativity worked. But it worked through chance."

He was, however, able to draw on some of his earlier experiences in a series of jobs, which included working for his father's office supplies business. "I worked as a credit controller for about seven or eight years," he says. "Small businesses were still doing accounts by hand then so I was doing the bookkeeping. Every day at 3:30 I was falling asleep at my desk. For the first eight years of the Duck I was working 120 hours a week and I never had the 3:30-blues like I did sitting at a desk. But I learned how to read a balance sheet and when I opened the Duck I did a basic restaurant management course.

"But in terms of organisation I was totally self-taught and it made the first eight years incredibly difficult," he adds. "It was as if there was no such thing as a restaurant trade and I'd started everything from scratch. I hadn't really gone on any models. In the long run that was a blessing in disguise because it didn't give me boundaries and there weren't people telling me what I could and couldn't do so I thought anything was possible. The downside was that it took me a long longer and a lot harder work to get there."

The original idea with the Duck was for a bistro or brassiere serving dishes such as steak and chips, leek and potato soup, crème brule, pigs' cheeks with lentils or confit of salmon, says Blumenthal, but this quickly evolved along with his own culinary journey. Influenced by the American chef Harold McGee, he began questioning traditional dishes and experimenting with new combinations. "The key moment for me was when he said browning meat doesn't keep in the juices and that flew in the face of everything I'd learned in classical cooking," he recalls. "At that moment I decided to question absolutely everything." He'd already come up with the concept of triple-cooked chips and before long others followed.

"I came across an old Victorian recipe for savoury ice-cream and thought it was a bit weird," he recalls. "But it was only weird because we're used to ice-cream being sweet. I made this crab ice-cream when I was making a crab risotto and when people tasted it some would love it and some wouldn't. But if you gave them the same thing and said it was a frozen crab bisque they would have it and that was really where that whole thing opened up to me." The journey to snail porridge had begun.

As word of the Duck's delicacies started to spread, he took the decision to move from an à la carte menu to a tasting menu, driven as much by a desire to cook a wide variety of dishes as economics. "It enabled me to put certain dishes on the menu," he says. "I remember having orange and beetroot jelly where one looked like beetroot and one looked like orange but what looked like beetroot was dyed orange and vice versa. You can't just serve two cubes of jelly in a three-course menu but if that was one of a 15-course menu you can get away with it. It enabled me to become more creative because it didn't meet people's stereotypical expectations." Serving dishes that required a longer cooking time was also a factor, with diners staying for an entire sitting.


Branching out

As his own reputation grew, the offers to get involved in other areas started to come in. His priority, though, remained the Duck, where he wanted to sacrifice a table to improve the overall experience. "Even when I eventually succumbed to the TV route and started looking at my name as a brand, the motivation was not really one of money but more to support the improvement of the Duck," he says. "If we were going to remove a table from the restaurant - and we did this two years ago - it meant a £300,000 loss of revenue. I had to do something else to pay for that loss. So all that allowed the Duck to shrink, which is the opposite of how an accountant would look at it. They'd want me to open another five or 10 restaurants but the quality would be compromised."
The initial expansion beyond the confines of the Duck did not take him far, investing in the Riverside Brasserie in 2002. "My motivation at the time was to somehow keep my maître d' and head chef within the business because there was no more money there for anything," he says. "The deal I did with the person who approached us for it was to take a £45,000 management fee which I then split three ways between myself, the maître d' and the head chef so we each managed to get an extra £15,000 a year extra before tax." Two years later he sold the business, to his former head chef.

Other local ventures followed; he took over the Hinds Head in 2004 and The Crown at Bray in 2010; both of which he still owns and which operate as traditional British pubs. "With the Hinds Head there was an old staff house and I saw that as an opportunity to put in a development kitchen and use as my office because we were desperately short of space," he says. "It all came back to pushing the Fat Duck forward."

All the while, says Blumenthal, he was fighting off pressure to open other restaurants, particularly in London; largely due to concerns around attempting to imitate the uniqueness of the Duck. It is somewhat ironic, then, that an approach to open a Mandarin restaurant in Tokyo eventually led to the very thing he had spent so long trying to avoid.

"It was a massive ego massage," he admits. "But I realised that if I opened another Duck I'd have to lose some key people from Bray and I had so much more to do with the menu. Then I looked at taking the Heston name and moving that outside of the Duck, so Heston brand could exist outside of Bray and the Duck just exists in Bray."

The final catalyst towards opening Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London - based around the concept of historic British gastronomy - was again based around not himself but another member of the team: Ashley Palmer-Watts, who had worked at Duck since 1999 and been head chef since 2003.

"He was about to start a family and he wasn't going to be head chef at the Duck for ever, so I asked him if he was interested in taking financially a far more significant role in that side of the business," he says. "If he'd said he wasn't interested and wanted to stay in the Duck, the Mandarin wouldn't have happened. But he's now involved on that side of the business and as that grows he grows with it, so that's an example of when you have a great team just allowing them to develop."


Taking Responsibility

Developing talent and demonstrating people can have a long-term future with the business is one of the reasons behind his success, he says. But, as with many entrepreneurs, nurturing a team of people to meet his own high standards has been a challenge, and Blumenthal admits he has been forced to evaluate his own approach to management.

"When I started off I probably wasn't the most relaxed person in the kitchen but eventually I realised that if somebody wasn't a success it was my fault," he says. "Either they're the wrong person for the job and then it's my fault as a boss, or I was expecting too much of them in which case it's my fault as a boss or they weren't being trained properly in which case it's my fault as a boss. The moment I realised that I had to ultimately take responsibility it calmed me down and I looked at it in a very different way."

Running a business - particularly in this industry - is not for the faint-hearted. Blumenthal's day starts at 6am - he rises early to exercise, "because of the copious amount of food I eat and taste", he says - and often doesn't go to bed until 1am. "It's such a competitive and hard business so you go into it because of your passion to do the work," he says. "I would never into the restaurant business because I wanted to make money. Ultimately it's about producing the quality with a level of service and doing it day in, day out and it's that bit that can grind you down. But I can't wait to wake up in the morning."

These days, a large proportion of his time is taken up with television work, including his latest series How To Cook Like Heston. Outside of this, he estimates around 70% of his time is spent at the Duck, but an increasing proportion is spent in developing new recipes for use on-screen, in books - he has produced several over the years promoting some of his creations - and, of course, in his four outlets. "When we opened the Mandarin a year ago last January we had 600 recipes in development and I was involved in every single one of them," he says.

Blumenthal lists the third Michelin star and receiving the OBE in 2006 as his proudest moments but his own interpretation of the entrepreneurial journey on which he has been is telling. "I describe it as creating a monster where I'm hanging on to its tail and then that monster receding," he says. "Over the last few years it's been me taking the monster for a walk and leading it, rather than holding on tight." He may have done it the hard way, but it's certainly been quite a journey. And even though there was no firm destination in mind when he first set out, it's probably fair to say he's got there in the end.

Fat chance: How Heston Blumenthal cooked up fame and fortune

1966: Born in London

1982: Was inspired by a trip to a restaurant in Provance on a family holiday at the age of 16 and determined to take up a career as a chef, although he would not act on this for a further 13 years

1995: Bought the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, after selling his house and borrowing money from his father

1998: The Fat Duck was awarded its first Michelin star

2000: Published Family Food: A new approach to cooking

2001: The Fat Duck was awarded its second Michelin star

2002: Took over the Riverside Brasserie with the intention of retaining his maître d' and head chef. He sold his stake to the head chef two years later

2004: The Fat Duck won its third Michelin star, saving the business from bankruptcy

Acquired the Hinds Head in Bray, which he still runs as a traditional British pub and restaurant

Published Family Food: A New Approach to Cooking

2005: The Fat Duck was named best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine

Produced the Kitchen Chemistry with Heston Blumenthal television series, shown on Discovery Science, as well as the Kitchen Chemistry book

2006: Awarded the OBE in the New Years Honours List

Featured in two BBC series - In Search of Perfection and Further Adventures In Search of Perfection, where he attempted to recreate classical British and world dishes, during which he milked a reindeer in Siberia to make ice-cream

2007: The Fat Duck received a score of 10 out of 10 in The Good Food Guide, something it has maintained ever since

2008: Published The Big Fat Duck Cookbook

Signed a two-year deal with Channel 4 to produce a number of television programmes

2009: An outbreak of food poisoning at The Fat Duck affected 500 diners, including Jim Rosenthal and Frank Warren, causing the temporary closure of the restaurant. An investigation by the Health Protection Agency found the most likely cause was raw shellfish being contaminated at source by human sewage

Published The Fat Duck Cookbook

Featured in a three-part television series where he attempted to revamp the menu in Little Chef outlets. A follow-up programme was aired later in the year

The Heston's Feasts series was shown, focusing on Victorian, medieval, Tudor, Christmas and Roman-themed banquest

2010: Acquired The Crown in Bray, a 16th century former inn serving traditional food, which he retains today

Launched a highly successful range of ready meals with supermarket Waitrose, in a partnership that continues today

Published Heston's Fantastical Feasts and releases Heston's Feasts on DVD

2011: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opened at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, run by the former head chef at The Fat Duck Ashley Palmer-Watts

The Hinds Head is named pub of the year by the Michelin Pub Guide

Published Heston Blumenthal at Home

Channel 4 broadcasts Heston's Mission Impossible, in which he attempts to overhaul food served up in various industries including hospitals and the armed forces

2012: How To Cook Like Heston broadcast on Channel 4

Launched the Dine In range of ready meals with Waitrose

The Fat Duck is named the best restaurant in the UK by The Good Food Guide

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was awarded its first Michelin star

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