Bray is a Michelin mecca: a leafy garnish on the Maidenhead platter, populated by a legion of sauciers, pâtissiers and chefs de cuisine.
Already home to the celebrated fare of the Roux brothers, the village enhanced its gourmet gravitas back in 1995 with the arrival of Michelin magnet, Heston Blumenthal OBE.
In the years following the launch of his three-Michelin-starred eatery, The Fat Duck, the pioneer of multi-sensory cuisine has completed the conquest of Bray, acquiring both The Hinds Head and The Crown, as well as a complex of laboratories.
Blumenthal employs 170 staff in the Berkshire village, spread across his three outlets and what he calls his development kitchens: Wonka-esque workshops plucked from the pages of Dahl.
Before visiting Bray, I schedule a phone call with the man himself to gauge the flavour of the Blumenthal phenomenon.
“The best part of my job is the diversity. That’s what’s exciting,” enthuses the 47-year-old, Marlow-born chef. “I’ve been exceptionally lucky, but I worked hard for it – worked my socks off in the early years. Today I do 80 to 90 hours a week. Back when I started, I was doing 22-hour days!”
Entirely self-taught, Heston is renowned for his experimental take on culinary and gastronomic affairs. He holds multiple honorary degrees, in recognition of his scientific approach, and has worked closely with historians at Hampton Court Palace in his study of British culinary history. The Fat Duck, his flagship eatery, was named the world’s best restaurant in 2005.
Now in the final stages of production, series two of Heston’s Great British Food continues the chef’s foray into some of the nation’s most iconic dishes.
“The series is an exploration of the history of dishes wrapped up in the whole sensory thing that I promote,” he explains. “We all love fish and chips out of paper, by the seaside with the sound of gulls. The experience is everything – we use all the senses. My work has become all about the crossovers of the emotions and senses. The psychology of food forms part of my tool kit: why do we like certain foods and not others?”
One wonders what first inspired this enigmatic, multi-sensory approach. The answer lies in Heston’s own experience. From out of the past, he retrieves the vivid memory of a family meal during a childhood holiday in Provence.
“It was an amazing experience,” he reflects. “It was on a terrace at this old farmhouse, all lit up at night, in a medieval village – the sound of crickets and the sea, a sunset, the smell of lavender, the authentic staff complete with handlebar moustaches. I remember thinking: this is it. A real wonderland.”
Heston dreamed of one day replicating this experience in a restaurant of his own.
“When I opened the Duck, the space I had to work with was like someone’s front room. Because I didn’t have somewhere like that restaurant in Provence, I had to create the experience in the dish – and I used science to make it happen.”
But not before he’d ingested as much knowledge of French cuisine as he could. The 16-year-old Heston had returned from Provence with a mission.
“I bought every French cookbook I could find and cooked as much as I could, doing one thing 10 different ways to understand why it worked; trying to understand the physical and structural role of ingredients beyond taste.”
Astonishingly, Blumenthal’s first job as a chef was in his very own restaurant.
“I did it in a unique fashion, which could seem arrogant. But all I wanted to do was cook, and I did it the hard way, working to exhaustion. Putting all that in the pot has made me the way I am. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d had formal training.”
Shortly after this conversation, I set off with somewhat mixed expectations on my culinary pilgrimage to Bray. Blumenthal is renowned for breaking moulds, but could he make a traditional pub lunch without alienating your humble ‘Hank Marvin’ customer?
In truth, the Bray operation satisfies any number of tastes. While The Fat Duck caters for world-class fine dining and oozes fairytale mystique, The Crown is more smoky alehouse, offering up the best quality steak and chips. And The Hinds Head? After a morning tour of the development kitchens, I am about to find out.
First, I sample the cocktail menu. The Triple Rum Old Fashioned – spiced, white Skipper Demerara Rum, whisky bitters and grapefruit zest – is a twist on the early 1800s cocktail, the Rye Old Fashioned. This superb drink is finished with a raisin-scented rum cloud, poured over the glass at the table by a mixologist.
If you like your drinks a little less chemistry set, the Charles Dickens punch comes with added charm, presented in a hipflask hidden away inside a hardback Dickens novel. Sweetened brandy, rum and citrus punch that is strained and flamed before serving, the recipe is drawn from the writer’s own signature tipple.
Nor do the historical references end there. I order the Snail Hash to start – a 17th century dish of which head chef Kevin Love is particularly proud. ‘Technical simplicity’ is Kevin’s mantra – and the simple looking dish certainly warrants that description, its complex flavours and textures notwithstanding.
Nothing has prepared me for Fish Pie with Sand and Sea, the generous fish filling topped with a salty crunch, dried seaweed and ‘sea foam’. I may be miles from the coast, but the tide of seaside nostalgia floods in. To augment the effect I order triple fried chunky chips, and the dish is washed down with a surprisingly appropriate Loire Valley Pinot Noir.
Yet there was still room for dessert: Whipped Chocolate with Hazelnut Ice Cream and Orange, and – again drawing from the historical recipe book – Chocolate Wine ‘Slush’ with Millionaire Shortbread. Imagine Slush Puppies made by Hotel Chocolat!
Sipping an espresso, I fall to wondering about Blumenthal’s critics; those who denounce his distinctive technique as cooking without soul.
“I find that the opposite is actually the case,” he had countered during my phone call. “I’m not a scientist – I failed
O level science – but we use technology for everything today. So why not in the kitchen? If you wanted to be a total purist, you’d cook over an open fire.”
With six Michelin stars to his name, it’s hard to imagine where next for a man who has crossed so many frontiers. One highlight of 2014, however, will be the opening of his new outlet at Heathrow’s Terminal 2. How does he reconcile his love of meticulously prepared dishes with the mania of a busy London airport?
“Part of me has always wanted to open a burger chain,” he says. “And in previous TV shows I’ve explored the history and origins of the old favourites that we all grew up with, like burgers, pizza and fish and chips. Once you get bedded into the mechanics of these dishes, you find no need to compromise on quality for the sake of speed.”
Blumenthal’s has been a stratospheric climb from photocopier salesman and debt collector to celebrity chef. What, I wonder, does he consider his greatest achievement?
“I was looking at my CV the other day and thinking that, if this was some other chef’s, I wouldn’t believe it!” he laughs. “I’m probably most proud of my OBE, my doctorates from West London and Reading and my Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry – the first time a chef has ever received it. They give three annually. In my year, the other two guys were Nobel Prize winners.
“But most of all, I think it’s my three Michelin stars for The Fat Duck. It really is a rare thing to accomplish. I’d always wanted to achieve one, but I thought that any more would be beyond me.”
Worthy reward, I say, for the novelty and mystery he has brought to Britain’s gastronomic scene.