Heston Blumenthal: 'I started out as a pot washer and now I look up and think, 'How did I get here?''
Chef Heston Blumenthal was captivated by a French restaurant's atmosphere, writes Rebecca Burn-Callander
Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30
'When I was 15, I went to a restaurant in Provence with my folks. I could hear the legs of lamb being carved and the clink of glasses, I could smell the lavender. The waiters' feet crunched on the gravel and the crickets sang. I went into a multi-sensory wonderland, and I was hooked."
It was this moment, 35 years ago, that convinced Heston Blumenthal to become a restaurateur. Despite growing up in Kensington, one of the most affluent parts of London, he claims that his childhood had thus far been devoid of tasty food.
"I didn't grow up with gastronomy," he claims. "In England, olive oil was to pour into your ears. It was sold at chemists!" That point three-and-a-half decades ago sitting outside L'Oustau de Baumaniere surrounded by olive trees was the defining moment in his life. "You have to find something that grips you, and then do it," he says.
The path to becoming a celebrity chef and entrepreneur has been far from smooth. He left school with just one A-level - in art - and famously failed his chemistry O-level, a fact he now finds hilarious, given he has become a strong proponent of "molecular gastronomy" - a science-based approach to cooking - and was named one of the 175 greatest chemists of all time by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Aged 18, a brief stint at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir, where Blumenthal started as an apprentice but left after only a week, was followed by a string of dead-end jobs: "I've been a door-to-door salesman, a debt collector, I was even an accountant. But I was always obsessed with food. If I wasn't kickboxing, I would be making 20 versions of creme brulee."
Everything changed when Blumenthal bought a run-down pub in Bray, Berkshire, in 1995.
The Fat Duck has become the jewel in his commercial crown, winning three Michelin stars, and earning Blumenthal countless plaudits for his playful dishes, from bacon and egg ice cream to snail porridge.
His businesses now employ 750 people, and Blumenthal claims to be an enlightened boss, criticising chefs who use aggression in the kitchen - "[Head chefs] are aggressive when they lose control. They need someone else to blame. Now I take responsibility for everything. If someone's making mistakes it's because I hired the wrong person, expected too much or haven't given them enough support."
Speaking at an event held by King's College London's Entrepreneurship Institute, he recalled the early days of the Fat Duck, when he was gutting the building and a local stopped by.
"This little old lady asked me what I was doing as I was pouring rubble into the tip," he says. "I told her to come in for a glass of wine. She said we've had three owners in five years. We've closed them down and we're going to close you down." This inauspicious start was prompted by a misunderstanding about the restaurant's name, he says. "They thought it was Dat F***", he says.
For the first eight years, Blumenthal worked 120 hours a week. He sounds pained when he recalls the misery of his staff, who would receive an email at 2am and then a further message at 5.45am asking why there had been no response.
Times were harder then - Blumenthal was spending big on newfangled gadgets and kitchen equipment to allow him to make his famous gastronomic creations. "I was sitting in my little office above the Duck, going over the weekly figures with my accountant," he says. "He goes, 'Heston, you've made £420 this week'. For me that was fantastic.
"Then there's a knock on the door," he continues. "The man from Bonnet [the commercial oven company] comes in with a box under his arm. It was the first commercial plug-in induction hob, a super-efficient way to cook. My eyes lit up and the accountant said how much is this? The man from Bonnet said: '£499'."
Blumenthal nearly went bankrupt four times, he reveals. "I'm rubbish with money when I have none and rubbish when I have a bit," he says, mournfully.
The restaurant's saving grace was when it was voted best in the world in 2005, seizing the title from El Bulli.
SL6, the holding company for all his businesses, remained a small company, with about £5m turnover, until 2010, when it hit £10m in revenues for the first time.
This coincided with a major boost to Blumenthal's profile: his £13.99 Waitrose Christmas pudding made headlines that year. Today, his empire comprises the Fat Duck, and his nearby pub, the Crown; the Perfectionist's Cafe in Heathrow Terminal 5; his Dinner concept restaurants in London and Melbourne, as well as his Waitrose range, a production company and his endorsements - "probes and scales" with Salter among others.
"In the beginning, I had no idea the business and the restaurants would go like this, I just wanted to cook," he continues. "I started out as a pot washer and now I look up and think, 'How did I get here?'"