London restaurant The Fat Duck has been named as one of the top two dining rooms in the world for the last five years. Matt Preston talks to chef Heston Blumenthal about how he woos his customers.
In the rarefied air of the world’s best restaurants, Heston Blumenthal is The Sundance Kid to Ferran Adria’s Butch Cassidy. These two modernist chefs are both widely regarded as the best in the world—but if Adria is the technical innovator behind a raft of new culinary techniques and ideas, then Blumenthal is the magician.
The compact Englishman with a shaved head has the instincts of a showman. At his restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, about 40 minutes out of London—which has earned him three Michelin stars in the last four years—Blumenthal heartily embraces the notion that this new-style cuisine should make you laugh as much as being provocative.
I catch up with him in Milan, where he is presenting at Identita Golose, Italy’s four-day celebration of culinary ideas. From the dour pictures that dot the internet, I’m expecting a serious and quite imposing character, but—while there’s no doubting his incredibly sharp mind—away from the kitchen, he is a surprisingly open and likeable chap. He’s also shorter than I expected.
So, for an hour, we sit in a Milanese bar and discuss his latest obsessions, which have little to do with the kitchen and everything to do with creating a happy customer.
Earlier that day, discussing the idea of a perfect Christmas meal, he had stood on stage wreathed in dry ice loaded with the aromas of yuletide—woodsmoke, tobacco and leather—while the PA played sounds of a crackling fire. “Context is so important for eating anything,” he declared.
His demonstration explored the impact of engaging the senses, but Blumenthal is more focused on the emotional impact of dining: the art of engaging the customer on a deeper level—both while they are in the restaurant and even before they arrive.
Getting your customers in the right mental state is something Blumenthal is quite passionate about—and with good cause, when you hear him citing research published in Neuroscience Magazine.
“The research found that in stressed people, the ability to taste flavour is reduced by up to 50 percent. But if we are excited, we’ll actually be more receptive to tastes and smells,” he explains. In a way, he has also unintentionally provided an answer to one of life’s great conundrums: why did that wine taste magnificent in the vineyard’s cellar door on
holidays, but disappointingly dull after work back at home.
The idea of taste perception has been further explored by a PhD student at Nottingham University, whose research is funded by the restaurant. She found that perceptions of taste (like salt and sweet) changes on a daily basis. It all means that a happy customer will get more out of their food than a stressed one. Similarly, a stressed chef will have less acuity when it comes to tasting salt and sugar, which could lead to over-seasoning.
Much of what Blumenthal talks about revolves around setting the scene for a dining experience: how to create that ideal, and foster the most receptive guests. In his eyes, the perfect customer is one who develops a childlike excitement about coming to the restaurant before they eat.
To achieve this state in his customers, he has employed a magician to train his floor staff in some basic tricks to create this wow factor.
The vision includes his customers arriving to have their waiter conjure an egg (surreptiously blown and filled with ice cream mix before service) from behind one of the guest’s ears before cracking it and turning it into ice cream at the table with the help of liquid nitrogen. Another sleight of hand he’s currently trying to achieve is pouring both sparkling and still mineral water from the same bottle at the table.
This desire to “fill people with excitement and fun” also has Blumenthal talking about working with everyone from scriptwriters and novelists to hologram designers, box manufacturers and lighting engineers to create the right mood in the restaurant.
But perhaps his grandest plans are built around trying to engage the customer before they even arrive.
“People book two months in advance, so we’ve been looking at how to build their excitement over that time. I want them rubbing their hands with anticipation on arrival, rather than having their noses in the air looking for faults,” he explains.
“To get them into the right frame of mind—to get that ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling—we thought we’d send them a paper lolly bag with an atomizer and a web address inside. When they load the web page, they will hear an old-fashioned shop bell tinkle and ‘walk’ into a candy store. The atomiser contains the scent of a candy store, which we also rub on the frame of the restaurant’s front door. We might also put visual clues from the website on the menu, or around the village to trigger those feelings as well. And after they pay the bill, they get a paper bag of hand-made lollies to take home.”
The trouble with his grand plan is that it involves 1600 sweets every week, which means four new chefs, a new prep room and lots of expensive admin.
“But,” says Blumenthal, “we did end up finding the right smell for the atomiser. The challenge was that none of the old-fashioned candy stores we went to actually smelt like my metaphor.”
At this point he lets out a little guffaw. You get the distinct impression that he is fully aware of how pretentious some of this sounds—and he’s more than happy to laugh at himself. But interestingly, his own boyish enthusiasm for these more unconventional ideas is so infectious that it sweeps you along, and I find myself asking, “Well, why not?”.
It leaves me thinking that Blumenthal is more Willy Wonka than Silly Wanker.