Heston Blumenthal and the mystery of wine tasting

It’s Maundy Thursday. I sit on a long table but there’s no meal, maybe there’ll be a supper later on but right now we await the a true god in culinary circles.

He might not have turned water into wine, but he has worked magic with ordinary ingredients, changing their appearance, texture and form. He has disciples, yes. They have read everything he has written, watched all his shows, cooked his recipes and worship the ground on which his bread crumbs lay.

I might not be a disciple, but I am a believer, because food turns into ambrosia in the hands of Heston Blumenthal. The British chef, sometimes called a culinary chemist, has brought science to an art discipline, re-inventing classic food with a scientific approach to technique and flavours. Or as the hoi polloi call it – molecular gastronomy.

If I’ve spent 100,000 hours on something and can’t consider myself good at it, I should think of getting another job.

At the start of what’s his first interview of the day, he throws down a challenge, daring me to ask him something no other journalist will.

Unlike Jesus’ disciples, I am not surprised but prepared.

“You have a certain trick to drinking wine: think of a loved one when taking a first sip, and then think of someone you dislike when taking the second one. Why is there a noticeable difference between them? Whom do you think of when taking those two sips?” There’s a pause and then a smile. “I will be incredibly surprised if someone else asks me this question.”

We are off to a good start. Blumenthal discovered this ‘trick’ to drinking wine last year. “It’s the single greatest discovery in my life, a result of the 25 years of work on the senses. The first sip will be sweet and pleasant; the second one will have a bitterness you didn’t capture earlier. It’s because there’s a relationship between taste and memories, between the brain and the gut.”  In a nutshell – if you are happy and smiling on the inside, food will taste better. He refuses to drop any names though, saying ‘the question was good but doesn’t mean I have to answer it’. I am not surprised, Heston doesn’t come across as a person who wants to ruffle feathers…with his words. His food makes enough of an impression.

Heston Blumenthal was born on May 27, 1966, in West London. As a young child, he wanted to be an inventor. Food didn’t leave too much of an impression despite the odd burnt sausage, destruction of his mother’s cooker, stuffing sandwiches with all his favourite ingredients, and loading up on pizza toppings.

It was a trip at age 16 that changed his life. His family was on holiday in France and they dined at the three-star L’Ostau de Baumaniere. Blumenthal remembers every bit of the meal – the tastes, the smells, the weather and the surroundings – and never tires of mentioning it. That meal was the gustatory equivalent of handing Jimi Hendrix  his first guitar or the Leonardo Da Vinci a brush.

It was, after all, that meal that birthed his obsession with food. He spent the next two years voraciously devouring cookbooks (and Michelin Guides) and experimenting with recipes. An internship followed, which he left in a week. For ten years after he worked odd jobs while cooking on the side. It was On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee that changed his approach to food. An approach that was presented when The Fat Duck opened in 1995, in the form of crab ice cream, mock turtle soup and snail porridge.

For a student who was ‘rubbish in science’, Blumenthal is a big advocate of a scientific understanding of cooking. His approach to food is multi-sensory. Yet, it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t like the phrase molecular gastronomy. “For some reason, molecular gastronomy has become associated with pipettes, foam and liquid nitrogen. I do take some responsibility with it. I have a slight issue with what molecular food has come to be associated with.”

We shouldn’t be judgmental about what other people eat.

He believes the biggest killer of creativity is unaware anxiety, and fear of failure. “I have spent 100,000 hours working, thinking, relentlessly pursuing and questioning things.  I have a myriad of reasons for adding these techniques to my cooking. But, if people chasing fame or money [measurable stuff, linear things], they will jump the gun and arrive at the destination without enjoying or learning from the journey,” he says adding that what usually ends up being served is ‘just smoke and mirrors’.

“In the early days when this name started to come up with interviews, journalists would ask me to give examples of a molecular gastronomy recipe. I would reply with roast chicken and a boiled egg!”

Blumenthal prefers to skirt the discussion on what ails molecular cooking preferring to focus on the story, and the man who started it all: Nicholas Kurti. The Hungarian physicist considered it a travesty that while people knew the atmospheric pressure of Mars, they didn’t know what went on inside a soufflé. He advocated applying scientific techniques to food, or what he called molecular and physical gastronomy. In March 1969, he presented a paper at the Royal Society of London called The Physicist in the Kitchen along with creating a reverse Baked Alaska or Frozen Florida (hot on the inside, cold outside). Blumenthal never got to meet Kurti, but their fates were intertwined. “I met his wife Giana. She came for lunch with her two daughters and gave me the pamphlet, Physicist in the Kitchen. When I told her I bought Hind’s Head [a gastro-pub near The Fat Duck], she told me that Nicholas and she had their reception there. It was incredible.”

Most of my interview with Blumenthal, can be reduced to quotable quotes; it helps that he loves referring to everyone from Charles Darwin to Aristotle.

We eat too much because we don’t value what we eat.

His repeated advice to everyone is to ask questions. ‘Question everything’ is like a mantra or basic principal and he repeats it often. It is followed by, ‘Take a question mark and spin it and it becomes a light bulb’ or ‘Imagine a world where you have questions and no answers’.

Through it all, I get encouraging comments: “these are great questions, by the way” and “you are smashing this. Very impressive”. It’s enough to make a freelancer blush.

I return the compliment telling him The Fat Duck sounds to me like a cross between Willy Wonka and Harry Potter. He nods approval of the description. “In the next five years, expect The Fat Duck to undergo another change, including that of its name. If the Fat Duck isn’t a restaurant, what is it? That will be the name. It won’t give you an idea about what’s happening inside the kitchen,” he says.

“If I can pull this off, I can change the world of food.” Again.

Also read: My tryst with Marco Pierre White

One thought on “Heston Blumenthal and the mystery of wine tasting

  1. S T PATIL says:

    “We eat too much because we don’t value what we eat ” This quote in your post made me introspect. Thank you for an excellent interview, informative and valuable post.


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