Heston Blumenthal: Raging Duck
He is the owner of what is generally regarded as the best restaurant in the world, and, despite the weirdness of his cooking, his food shows are the most popular on TV. But Heston Blumenthal's overnight success was hard won, finds Julia Molony. The star of this year's Taste of Christmas festival in Dublin's Convention Centre has got over his psychotic episodes, and has largely repaired his relationship with the kids he never saw because he was always working, but he still hasn't figured out how to make it all up to his wife
A few years ago, when Heston Blumenthal started to appear on telly as the new celebrity chef, he was not an immediately convincing star. Unlike Gordon or Jamie, Blumenthal didn't arrive on our screens as a fully formed media construct with a mouth full of sound bites. But, since he first appeared on the Discovery Channel show Kitchen Chemistry in 2005, his slow-burn charisma has gradually made him a hit.
The world first took notice of Blumenthal when his tiny restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, Kent, came, seemingly out of nowhere, to be named the World's Best Restaurant. Alongside Ferran Adria, from El Bulli in Spain, Blumenthal was launched as an international gastronomic superstar. The foodie elite crowned him their new king. But it took the wider public some time to catch up. He was thought of as a chef's chef, a perfectionist defined by a rather alienating quality: obsessive attention to detail.
Actually, he tells me, all that time he was "unhealthily obsessed with trying to be accessible. Which is funny, if you think about the kind of food I was doing. If you want to be accessible, just cook steak and chips."
Unhealthy obsession is a bit of a Blumenthal thing. All his life, it seems, he's been governed by rather extraordinary compulsions. Some of those compulsions have served him well. The desire to stay up all night experimenting with creme brulee, for example, is part what has made him a global success. Others, however -- such as the compulsion to chase debt collectors down the street with a meat cleaver -- were less constructive. Those destructive impulses of his have, with some effort, been dealt with. But more of that later.
In the flesh, he's a rather arresting mix of brutishness and finesse as he strides over to greet me in his chef's whites, all smiles and apologies for having been delayed by a production meeting with Channel 4. There's his blokeish syntax, his stocky build and shaved head, to which the black-rimmed specs that frame his face are an unexpected counterpoint. Behind them, his eyes seem wide -- more curious than confrontational.
In an unexpected inversion, Blumenthal finally appealed to the masses by being anything but populist. The outlandishness of the dishes he served up at The Fat Duck -- snail porridge, bacon-and-egg ice cream -- and his geeky devotion to highly scientific cooking processes were what did it in the end. His latest TV hit, Feast, is, he says rather proudly, "the most successful cooking show over the last year on television". And not a quick family supper in sight. Instead, he challenges well-fed celebrities to dine out on vibrating jellies and ejaculating cakes. It is, he says, "amazing, because it's one that you can't cook at home. So people have obviously said, 'I'm never going to cook this at home, so let's just sit and enjoy the silliness of it.'"
For him, it seems, delight is the point. All the theatricality, the relentless quest for innovation that has become his trademark -- what that seems to be about for him is the desire to entertain. So it's not really surprising that he gets a great satisfaction from bringing all his mad showmanship with test tubes, viscosity and liquid nitrogen into people's living rooms. Like a kid with a box of magic tricks, he seems genuinely thrilled to have the chance to show off.
There's a story Blumenthal likes to tell about his Damascene conversion to cooking. He was 15 years old, a normal, middle-class boy from an ordinary home, when his parents took him and his sister, as a rare treat, to a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France. He was overwhelmed by that experience and still rhapsodises now about what a heady feast for the senses it was -- the setting, the smell of the lavender outside, the sound of the gravel crunching under the waiters' feet -- it was a whole new world of experience, offered up on a plate. It was there that the seeds of his all-consuming passion were sown.
Several years later, when the 20-year-old Heston first met his wife, Zanna, in a gym, he was working a nine-to-five job as a credit controller, and his adventures in kitchen alchemy were just a quirky little hobby, albeit one that he practised until all hours in the morning. It wasn't until 1995 that he founded The Fat Duck. He had virtually no restaurant experience, or any formal training as a chef. All he had was his enthusiasm for food, and his nerve. For seven years, he survived on three hours' sleep a night, snatching naps between orders and generally immersing himself in the project with a dedication that tipped over into zealotry. Within three years, though, he'd won his first Michelin star. Now he has three. In 2005, The Fat Duck was named the World's Best Restaurant, and it has remained in the top three ever since.
Has it been a joyful journey of discovery or a grim and gruelling ascent to the top? Well, a little of both, apparently.
"I had no idea," he says, of his expectations when he first started. "And if somebody told me that, could you do it? Could I physically work on that little sleep and be that drained and still get up and still carry on and still be relentless with it? Until you are in it, you just don't know. I don't know how I did it."
Of course, running a restaurant is only that punishing if you make it so. It didn't have to be like that. So what was underlying that restless drive to be the best? "The weird thing is," he says, "the traits that I think I have now -- slightly obsessive, slightly dog-with-a-bone, refusing to give up, inquisitive -- it's really weird because, go back to my school days, I wouldn't have said any of them about me. And I think my school reports testify to that. I left school with an A level in art. I didn't even get my chemistry O level."
While he is clearly a chef in the classic, alpha-male mould, there's no bluster about him, and none of the effing and blinding that usually goes with the role. But it hasn't always been this way. Roughly a decade ago, Blumenthal sought help after a series of alarming incidents that, with hindsight, he now thinks could be classified as "psychotic behaviour". Some years ago, when some menacing debt collectors called at his parents' home to recoup for renovation work, which had not been completed, Blumenthal saw red. The incident ended with him chasing them away from the house with a meat cleaver.
"I wouldn't say I was an angry young man," he explains. "But I'd flip and have a temper and then it was the easiest thing to fight something physically. It went from an adrenaline rush to these couple of moments where everything just slowed down. That was a bit shocking -- to have a feeling that you could take the world on and quite happily attack somebody in slow motion. It came out of the blue: your eyes going, everything slowed down. It was," he says, "one of the best feelings I've ever had."
But, though he might have enjoyed it at the time, it became clear that to be periodically possessed -- literally taken over by rage -- was not a good thing.
"I had to go and get myself sorted," he says. "From the psychiatric side of things to cranial osteopathy to faith healers to meditative stuff -- I tried the lot." The key, he says, "was really being acutely aware of it. Because, actually, when it was happening, I loved it. When it was happening, I was thinking, 'This is great.' But then I had the realisation of what you could do to somebody else, how bad this is, how wrong. And then, when it started to happen, I'd be aware of it, there was a level of self-control, and then over a period of months, and then longer, it was easier to control. And now it's got to the point where I haven't raised my voice for -- it must be eight years, or nine years. And I won't have anybody in the kitchen raising their voice."
He can't pinpoint exactly what kicked the problem. But he knows that part of him is gone and he doesn't worry about it coming back. "It's easy for me to talk about it now," he says, "because it's like I'm talking about a different person."
I wonder whether perhaps that ability to switch into a different mental state might come from the same place as the singular, myopic focus that has defined his career trajectory, but he's not so sure. The source of the rage remains a mystery to him. "I'd still like to know why and where that came from."
All that ambition does come at a price, though. For Blumenthal, that price seems to have been paid in the time spent with his family. He wasn't there for the birth of his second child. His wife has spoken about how she used to dread the weekends spent alone. By his own admission, his role as father and husband has regularly come second to the demands of his business. For that to work, I suggest, it must rather require his family to be on board with a goal that is more his than theirs.
"There is a selfishness in cooking," he admits. "Anything you do that involves some kind of craftsmanship or creativity, you could say is selfish. Ultimately you want to try and make people happy and bring food to more people. But, whatever anybody says, cooking is selfish. You can say it puts strain on family life. But then, I think lots of jobs do. And then it's also how you get on and what you do in the time when you are together."
This is true, of course, but in previous interviews he has expressed remorse about the things that he missed, and vowed to redress the balance. Has he made any progress? "That absolutely hasn't happened," he says with a grin. Your poor wife, I suggest, must be waiting for the day. "I think she's quite happy, to be honest . . . No wonder we don't argue very much."
He's quick to acknowledge the importance of Zanna's contribution. "I always say my wife is the biggest single reason for the success of the restaurant, because she single-handedly has looked after the household and the kids, plus supported me. So I think if she'd been giving me pressure for the amount of time spent at work, we would not have been able to get on with doing that, and, plus the physical support, she's doing all the stuff regarding the kids and house. I don't do that." One gets the impression though, that it would be hard to try to impose any sort of agenda on Blumenthal -- despite all the affable smiles, he does seem rather immovable.
"The thing that is a shame is, that when the kids were younger, I could never leave work, not for like one minute . . . Obviously, my son is 18 now, I've got a great relationship with him, but he's got a girlfriend and mates and stuff like that. I can't turn the clock back, and I wish I could. So there are definitely sacrifices. By the nature of the business anyway, it can put demands on the family."
There is a long-term plan afoot to focus on developing the sustainability of the business without it requiring such an exacting level of attention from him, which he explains to me in detail. But, at the moment, it's all rather in the abstract.
"We bought a house about three years ago, and it's the first time we've ever had anything to our name. The house has a whacking great mortgage, but we still had some money in bricks and mortar, because every single thing we've put back into the business. Everything. Even some of our wedding stuff, mixers and stuff. It just went back into the business."
Zanna must have been a saint, I find myself thinking, to have had not only her husband but also her wedding presents co-opted to the cause of his improbable dreams, without offering so much as a word of complaint. And he acknowledges as much himself. "Her ability to put up with me is the secret," he says. Adding that, when she used to work shifts as a midwife, "It's amazing how little time you can see each other. There is an argument to say that people that spend a lot of time together can start to run out of each other's company quite soon. It can go the other way."
Blumenthal's energy certainly seems boundless. Even sitting down, away from any cameras or pots and pans, he is an emphatic man. All vigour, he paces his prose with staccato gestures and stresses his point with taps to the table. "Fear of failure has always been a bigger driving force than the want to succeed," he says, acknowledging, lightly, the psychological processes behind his total commitment to the cause. "It's very easy just to keep yourself as comfortable as possible. I've always felt, for me, I need to put myself out of the comfort zone.
"So I moan about things like the TV series we're doing," he says, referring to his new series for Channel 4 in which he overhauls the food in widely different institutions, including a hospital, a cinema, an airplane and a nuclear submarine. "But I almost have to commit to something that then I've got no choice, I can't get out of it. So then I'm in the shit, basically. It's almost sort of chucking myself in at the deep end and then having to fight. Because otherwise I wouldn't just automatically get up and have a fight anyway. I'd have to stick myself in it so that I've got no choice."
Taste of Christmas, sponsored by Marks & Spencer, in association with LIFE, is the season's finest food, drink and Christmas-shopping festival, taking place from Friday to Sunday, November 26-28, in the spectacular surroundings of the Convention Centre Dublin. Visitors are invited to discover the best in seasonal food and drink from Dublin's top restaurants and Ireland's finest producers, to be inspired by the capital's leading chefs at the live theatre shows, and to savour the gourmet atmosphere in this winter wonderland of flavour. Tickets are on sale now from €19.50, see www.tasteofchristmas.ie