I wrote this article for a local arts website about my new book, Heston Blumenthal: The Biography Of The World’s Most Brilliant Master Chef.
Heston Blumenthal: The best of Berkshire
Biography-writing is always an eye-opening, perception-confounding experience. Never have I found this to be more true than in my research for my new book about masterchef Heston Blumenthal. I’d always admired him but my respect grew the more I worked on the book. He is a man of wonderful contrasts and makes for a joyful, fascinating subject to study.
His food rarely comes cheap: a meal at The Fat Duck is going to set you back comfortably in excess of £100 per person and will cost you several months of waiting time. However, his tasting menu experience is not aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at those for whom such a hefty bill would be a commonplace experience. The theatre and multi-sensory joy of the Blumenthal experience – iPods playing the sounds of the sea, cakes having ‘orgasms’ on the plate, miniature fireworks going off, sprays to add complimentary scents etc – would most likely be lost on such souls. No, Blumenthal’s favourite customers are those who have saved up for a really special treat and want to savour every moment, every mouthful.
He understands these people because throughout his twenties he was one of them – only obsessively so. Indeed, in his work he frequently harks back even further – to the smells, tastes and experiences of his childhood. These include ice-creams in west London, picnics in Windsor Great Park, Christmas lunches and so much more. No wonder he is so happy in his work and says he can count on the fingers of one hand how many days he has not wanted to go to work. Not that he has always been such a contented soul. Blumenthal has past issues with anger that took him to the brink of tragedy on more than one terrifying occasion. He was a very angry young man before he accepted treatment and before he hit the bigtime, when the years of hard work and sacrifices finally paid off.
Even given the riches his success have earned him and the famous intricacy of his work, Blumenthal’s feet remain on the ground. When he received his OBE he said that all he does is chop a few onions. Away from work, he often eats a curry takeaway of a Monday evening, and can be spotted at the Pizza Express restaurants and even the kebab vans of the Royal County. That’s why he was such a perfect choice for the Channel 4 Big Chef Takes On Little Chef reality series: he understands the world of both the big chef and the Little Chef. The classy man with the common touch, he truly represents the best of Berkshire. I’ve written biographies of other personalities including Simon Cowell and Amy Winehouse, but (aside from a brief stay in Windsor for the young Cowell) this was the first time I’ve been lucky enough to write about a man who lives and works so near me. (The Fat Duck is a 15 minute drive from my house, and I’ll let any of you treat me to a lunch at the Hinds Head anytime. When can you make it?)
All of us in Berkshire should be pleased and proud to have Heston in our midst. Where he fits in among the crowded arena of celebrity chefs can best be seen by what each would do were we to hand them a single egg. Delia Smith would teach us how to boil it, Ainsley Harriott would tell it an annoying joke, Jamie Oliver would take it onto his high-horse with him and Gordon Ramsay would scream at it: “Where the f**k are your balls?!” Blumenthal, meanwhile, quietly showed us how to use liquid nitrogen to create egg and bacon ice cream. As you do: he is the Willy Wonka of the masterchef world.
As such, he stands as part of a noticeable and welcome trend. From the increase in bespectacled, intellectual football managers, to the hero status of the team at Google and the millions earned by the creators of Facebook, the geeks are finally inheriting the earth. So it’s no wonder that it is the experimental, bright and boyish man from Berkshire who is cooking up a storm. Long may he reign.
Heston Blumenthal: The Biography Of The World’s Most Brilliant Master Chef by Chas Newkey-Burden is out now (£17.99, John Blake).