“It’s come to be the label for any chef doing ‘funny stuff’,” says Heston Blumenthal, the chef who brought us bacon-and-egg ice-cream and seafood dishes eaten to a soundtrack of the seashore and who is somewhat tired of the term ‘molecular gastronomy’. “It’s come to be seen as cuisine that’s all about foams and gums. But it’s really the difference between food science and the science of cooking. What does go on inside a souffle? Why does meat burn as it does? It’s the explanatory stuff I’m into.”
Perhaps it is because Blumenthal is self-taught that he has a certain readiness to experiment. But his unwillingness to be boxed in the wacky school of Einstein cuisine is moreso down to the fact that, for one, he considers what he does to be part of a long heritage — “any chef that wants to do modern cooking has to understand the traditional techniques and also the culture and to transmit that through their cooking,” he says. “It’s about building on the past — none of this is revolutionary. It’s evolutionary.” And because, secondly, he regards his progressive stance on cooking to simply be a response to the tools now at hand — tools it seems churlish not to try out.
“What’s happening is just that we have so much more technology available to use as chefs than we did even 20 years ago," he says, "so why not move cooking forward in much the same way as we progress in every other area of life? The Brazilian world cup winners would struggle against a good Premiership team now. A Michelin star restaurant of 30 years ago would struggle to get one now. We embrace technology in everything else we do, so why not cooking? If you want to be purist about cooking, we’d only ever cook over an open fire. Electricity would be heresy.”
So far, so wonder whisks, centrifuges, potato probes and flasks of nitrogen, collaborative work with academics, close-hand magicians and sound designers. But Blumenthal’s investigative approach not only sparks curiosity in a market which, to regular diners, can seem repetitive — and which, enviably, has seen his benchmark restaurant The Fat Duck build a two-month waiting list, as well as the opening of the new Dinner concept, launched in London but which he plans to take abroad by 2014. It is also finding genuinely practical application for the likes of the NHS and British Airways.
This year Blumenthal has worked with chef Simon Hulstone on a special menu for the national carrier. His profile adds to the hoopla of course. But it has also led to a better understanding of how taste works at altitude, in a pressurised environment — in which senses are suppressed, aroma is curtailed and the acidity of the food becomes a crucial factor in hydrating and so re-booting the palette. It can be given a spin that makes it sound gimmicky — apparently other research has found that, for similar reasons, the faster a dunked biscuit is transferred from mug to mouth, the more intense its flavour — but the underpinning detective work is, nevertheless, telling us something we didn’t know or understand well.
It’s also why Blumenthal’s approach might be considered as much psychological as gastronomic. “After all,” he says, “we only get pleasure from food through the brain. Food can be enhanced by being made more multi-sensory.” And that can involve trickery too: crab ice-cream tastes differently depending on what it’s called. “When I first spoke about such things people would look at me as though I was a lunatic,” he adds. “It’s all very complex because the way the brain works is complex. But it seems that the more and more you understand about taste perception, the more you realise what we don’t know. But as knowledge develops and the kit available becomes more sophisticated, the idea is still in the end to use ingredients to give pleasure. We cook for lots of reasons, but we don’t — as one critic of the ‘modern cooking movement’ put it — just want food ‘to just taste of itself’. If that’s the case, don’t cook at all.”
So is he especially excited about the potential for food in the future? GM and man-made foods he concedes is a fascinating minefield: he likes the idea of being able to treat peaches on the tree in a way that removes their essence, and for that to be put back to restore perfect ripeness in time for the supermarket or restaurant. Vanilla, as he points out, doesn’t exist naturally, strictly speaking. “You have to manipulate the bean. So is that OK?” he asks. “Where exactly does food become processed to the point when it’s suddenly unacceptable? A lot of people have dismissed it all [future food] because they don’t understand it. There’s a lot of educating to be done.”