For a chef so thoroughly modern, Heston Blumenthal is surprisingly obsessed with the past. Having taken the molecular gastronomy world by storm, his latest project, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, is a nod to history. Kerstin Kühn reports
When a chef like Heston Blumenthal decides to open a new restaurant it's guaranteed to send the international foodie world into a frenzy. So it's funny to see the man himself bemused at the huge anticipation for Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which finally opens at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London's Knightsbridge on Monday.
"I knew there would be some interest, but I didn't expect it to be that much," he says. "I've never seen a newspaper basically advertise a restaurant, saying 'the booking lines are now open for the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year'. I couldn't believe it. The thing is, when there's this much hype it's going to be hard to manage expectations."
Given his track record, one might be forgiven for brushing the slight note of self-doubt aside. Having said that, Dinner is the first restaurant launch by Blumenthal and his team since the Fat Duck opened in 1995 (not counting the pubs) so the element of nervousness is understandable.
"I nearly opened a Fat Duck in Tokyo with Mandarin Oriental about five years ago," he recalls. "For me, Tokyo is the most amazing food city in the world, so it was a massive ego massage. But I don't like to make rash decisions, and after I let the dust settle I realised that I would have to lose key people from the Duck [in Bray] to open Tokyo and so I had to say no. It's then that I decided that I would never open another Fat Duck anywhere else."
This is a point he can't stress enough - Dinner will not be another Fat Duck. Nor will Blumenthal be in the kitchen, which will be headed up by Ashley Palmer-Watts, the Fat Duck group executive chef, who has worked with Blumenthal for more than a decade. "Of course, the restaurant is called Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and I will be there for the opening period, but I am based in Bray and Ashley will be running it. If it wasn't for him, I would never have opened another restaurant and this is as much his restaurant as it is mine."
As with so many other celebrity chef-led restaurants at Mandarin Oriental hotels across the globe (Pierre Gagnaire in Hong Kong and Las Vegas, Carme Ruscalleda in Barcelona and, let's not forget, Daniel Boulud in London) the man responsible for Dinner is corporate director of food and beverage David Nicholls. "After Tokyo didn't happen David still wanted me to get involved, and we got chatting about doing a sort of Hind's Head," explains Blumenthal. "But after I'd done all the research into the history of British gastronomy for the Feast book and the Channel 4 series I realised that no one had done a restaurant inspired by historical recipes before, and that's how the idea for the concept of Dinner started."
Hence, the food offer at Dinner, a collaboration between Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts, pays homage to Britain's gastronomic past while making full use of modern techniques and flavours. It is a contemporary take on, or deconstruction of, the conventions of our kitchens from the past few hundred years, featuring dishes inspired by recipes dating as far back as the 14th century.
"Basically, all of the dishes are inspired by historical recipes in some shape or form - it might just be a garnish," Blumenthal explains, pointing to a rib of beef with chips accompanied by a mushroom ketchup from the 1700s. "It's not a themed restaurant; it's inspired by history but doesn't re-create it."
An enormous amount of research has gone into Dinner. Blumenthal's study of Britain's gastronomic past was as deep and detailed as that for a culinary PhD. He attended the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an unrivalled annual conference devoted to the serious study of food in history, covering subjects as varied as baby food in the Middle Ages or feeding the poor in the 19th century. He also collaborated with numerous food historians, including Ivan Day in the Lake District and the Historic Kitchens team at Hampton Court Palace, and a former Penguin Books editor even joined his team, spending one day a week in the British Library researching historic cookery books.
"I learnt all this incredible stuff about British food and discovered this whole amazing history of gastronomy that we can be proud of," enthuses Blumenthal. "For instance, in the 1800s we were the leading experts on cooking meat over an open flame. The French called us 'les rosbifs' not because they were insulting us but because they would send their chefs to Britain to learn."
Even the name, Dinner, reflects the historical theme: "I wanted to find a name that encapsulated the concept, which has a strong focus on dishes inspired by historic British gastronomy, but was also a bit of fun. There has always been confusion in the UK over the names of our midday and evening meals and their origins. I discovered the word dinner comes from the old 13th-century French word disner, which initially stood for breakfast, and developed into the main meal of the day."
At Dinner one of the signature dishes is based on a historic recipe for meat fruit, which back in Tudor days took the form of minced veal and pork shaped into an apple. Blumenthal re-created the dish for the Feast series, where he made a meat orange in the form of a chicken liver parfait coated in orange jelly, but for Dinner he's given it yet another twist (see recipe, below). "For Dinner we're doing a mandarin," he says. "It's a great motif for the restaurant, both because we're in the Mandarin Oriental and because it's inspired by a Tudor dish."
ALWAYS A PUDDING
He adds that there will always be a pudding on the menu - "Britain gave the world puddings" - both sweet and savoury, while other dishes include cod in cider (from the 1940s) and spiced pigeon with ale and artichokes. "This is based on two recipes from around 1777 - pigeon cooked in ale and pigeon cooked with artichokes," explains Palmer-Watts. "It is a typical dish that showcases how the historical inspiration comes into play. The pigeon is cooked with two techniques, sous vide and roasting, finished with ale and gently spiced with typical spices from that time, including maze, nutmeg, all spice and star anise."
The restaurant will be priced moderately, considering its location and high profile, and will open for lunch and dinner. There will be a three-course set lunch for £25, while at dinner three courses à la carte will start at £55. "We will do a tasting menu eventually - around five courses - and there's also a chef's table and a 10-seat private dining room where there'll be a more extensive tasting menu available," Blumenthal says. "This restaurant is a British brasserie, a smart brasserie, but it's not a fine-dining restaurant."
While Dinner will not be another Fat Duck, with Blumenthal's fame for experimental dining customers will undoubtedly expect a certain element of excitement. And they won't be disappointed. The massive open kitchen, including a rôtisserie powered by an oversized clock, allows diners to watch the many chefs in action, and as customers enter the bar area an overhead wall displays 16th-century recipes, which appear and disappear depending on the light, almost like a riddle. And there will be liquid nitrogen, which, surprisingly, has a historical background too.
"In the late 1800s Mrs Marshall, who has been credited with the invention of the edible ice-cream cone, predicted the use of liquid nitrogen in ice-creams," Blumenthal explains. He hints at a trolley carrying a bowl and whisk, which will be wheeled around the restaurant with ice-cream made at the table.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is a nod to Britain’s food of yesteryear but at the same time it is a thoroughly modern restaurant that pays homage to but doesn’t recreate history. It is a restaurant where the chefs are offering a taste of the future that is deeply rooted in the past.
Interiors at Dinner have been developed by renowned US designer Adam D Tihany, who also worked on Bar Boulud. The design is in line with the overall concept of the restaurant and comprises a thoroughly modern look with subtle historic references.
"With all of the restaurants I design I try to encompass the chef's personality and what they're about," Tihany explains. "With Dinner, the journey began when Heston took me to see a food historian in the Lake District, and when we walked into his house the first thing I saw was this cranky little rôtisserie, which became the inspiration for the rôtisserie in the restaurant."
Natural materials such as wood, leather, and iron, found in the historical roots of British style, are used in contemporary ways. Curved leather-clad walls reveal small recesses of the old brick background wall, while oversized lampshades are reminiscent of medieval chandeliers. One of the main features is a rôtisserie powered by an oversized clock - a reference to the 1800s when watchmakers would make the turning mechanism for spits. As guests enter the bar area an overhead wall behind a one-way mirror displays 16th-century recipes taken from antique cookbooks. They appear and disappear depending on the light, almost like a riddle.
"There is a process of discovery to this restaurant and there are a few secrets between Heston and me that diners will have to find. It's a sense of rabbit hole," adds Tihany. "It's been one of the most unusual restaurant launches I have worked on and certainly one of the most exciting."
Despite the high-profile nature of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts initially struggled to recruit the 130 staff needed to man the restaurant
In an interview with Caterer last year (17 September 2010), he discussed how international acclaim can't cure the hospitality industry's chronic lack of new recruits.
"The article in Caterer definitely helped," he says, adding that a big problem is that of "Fat Duck fear". "A lot of people don't even bother to apply for jobs with us because they think they are not experienced enough."
However, the 45-strong kitchen brigade is now fully staffed. "Front of house has been more difficult, and they're still looking to fill some of the more junior positions," says Palmer-Watts.
Opens 31 January
Chef-patron Heston Blumenthal
Head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts
General manager Josephine Stead
Designer Adam D Tihany
Capacity 136, including 10 private dining, plus 44 outside
Average spend set lunch £25, à la carte dinner from £55
Address 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA
Telephone 020 7201 3833
For the chicken liver parfait
(Makes one 26cm x 10cm x 9cm terrine)
100g shallots, finely sliced
3g garlic, minced
15g sprigs thyme, tied with string
150g dry Madeira
150g ruby port
75g white port
18g table salt
400g chicken livers (trimmed weight)
300g unsalted butter, melted
For the mandarin jelly
45g leaf gelatin
500g mandarin purée
0.4g mandarin oil
1.5g paprika extract
Place the shallots, garlic and thyme in a saucepan with the Madeira, ruby port, white port and brandy. Set aside to marinate for 24 hours.
Heat the marinated mixture until nearly all the liquid has evaporated, stirring regularly to prevent the shallots and garlic from burning. Remove from the heat and discard the thyme.
Preheat the oven to 100°C. Fill a bain-marie with 5cm water and place in the oven. Preheat a water bath to 50°C. Sprinkle the table salt over the livers and put them in a sous-vide bag. Put the eggs and the alcohol reduction in a second sous-vide bag, and the butter in a third. Seal all the bags under full pressure, then place in the water bath for 20 minutes.
Remove the bags from the water bath. Combine the eggs, alcohol reduction and meat in a Thermomix and blend until smooth at 50°C. Slowly blitz in the butter and blend until smooth. Pass the mix through a fine sieve using the back of a small ladle.
Pour into a terrine dish and place in the bain-marie and cover the bain-marie with tinfoil. Cook the parfait until the temperature in the centre reaches 64°C. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate for 24 hours before serving.
To make the mandarin jelly, place the gelatin in cold water to soften. Gently heat the mandarin purée and glucose in a pan to combine. Add the softened gelatin and stir well until dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the mandarin oil and paprika extract and stir well. Pass the mix through a fine sieve and reserve in the fridge until required.
To make the "fruits", using a spoon, fill dome moulds with parfait, ensuring there is enough pressure to create a completely smooth surface. Level off the tops so that they are flat, and cover with clingfilm. Gently press the clingfilm directly on to the surface of the parfait. Place in the freezer until completely frozen.
Gently remove the parfait domes from their moulds. Place on a board with the flat sides facing upwards. Very briefly run the flame of a blowtorch over the flat side, being careful to only just melt the surface of the parfait. Join two halves together and compress using a square of clingfilm. Wrap well in clingfilm and place back in the freezer until required.
Gently push a wooden cocktail stick into the middle of the rounded surface and re-wrap until all the parfaits are complete.
Gently melt the mandarin jelly in a saucepan and allow to cool to room temperature. Remove the clingfilm and dip each ball of parfait into the jelly and stand the sticks into a piece of Oasis covered in clingfilm. Place in the fridge for a minute then repeat the dipping process. Dip a total of three times, then gently remove the cocktail stick and place the balls on to a tray covered in clingfilm. Place a lid over the tray and leave In the fridge to defrost for at least six hours.
Once defrosted, gently push the top of the ball using your thumb to create the shape of a mandarin. Place a stalk and leaf in the top centre of the indent to complete the fruit.
WHERE TO RESEARCH AND EXPERIENCE BRITAIN'S GASTRONOMIC PAST
The British Library
The Books for Cooks collection includes cookery books from medieval times to the 20th century, with texts beginning with The Forme of Cury, one of the oldest known English cookery manuscripts, and ending in 1940 with wartime cooking advice from the Association of Teachers of Domestic Subjects.
Address 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Westminster Kingsway College
The college has a historic reference library that dates back to the 1890s and includes hundreds of books, texts and magazines - including copies of Caterer since the 1980s. It has also received substantial donations from a number of notable chefs, including Lady Penrose and Michel Bourdain, throughout its 100-year history. The texts are available to any industry professional in return for a signature in the visitors' book.
Address Vincent Square, London SW1P 2PD
The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery
The symposium is an annual weekend-long conference on food, its culture and history, that brings together up to 220 international scholars, journalists, chefs, scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and committed amateurs. The 2011 conference will explore the topic of Celebration and will be held on 8-10 July.
Address St Antony's College, 62 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6JF
The Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace
The Hampton Court kitchens are a living monument to 230 years of royal cooking and entertainment. You can experience the kitchens in action by visiting the live Tudor Cookery events run by Historia food archaeologists, who bring the kitchens to life by experimenting with traditional recipes, ingredients and cooking methods. The next live cookery events are on 5-6 February, 5-6 March and 2-3 April.
Address East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU