Heston Marc Blumenthal

Master of Science

20 February 2007 - Orator: Professor Peter Barham

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor: Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal was born in 1966 in West London. His father ran an equipment leasing business which started to do quite well in the 1970s, enabling the family to move out of their one bedroom flat near Paddington and into a house in the country. Today, Heston is consistently said to be one of the world’s finest chefs. His restaurant – the Fat Duck in Bray – was voted in 2005 (by other top chefs) to be the best in the world. I must admit that I cannot be so sure myself – largely as, despite years of trying, I have yet to eat in all the world’s restaurants. But I can certainly attest that the best food I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat has been at the Fat Duck; many colleagues and friends agree.

Undoubtedly Heston is a great chef, but why, you may ask, should the University of Bristol wish to honour him with a degree in the sciences? A quick look back over Heston’s career will show how his journey from being a food enthusiast to a great chef, has led him, albeit unintentionally, to become an excellent applied scientist, and one whose influence is now encouraging youngsters to take up the sciences in school.

Heston’s love of food springs from his youth when, aged 16, he was taken on a family holiday to France and tasted food at a top quality restaurant, in Provence, for the first time. He rapidly determined that he would one day run his own restaurant.

But it is not so simple to get into the restaurant business, especially if you have no relevant training or qualifications. On leaving school (with a handful of O-levels and an A-level in Art) Heston tried to get a job in a top restaurant. After many applications he managed to persuade Raymond Blanc to let him work for a week at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Following this trial period Raymond offered Heston a job, but Heston was not ready for the hard graft of working his way up the kitchen ladder. He determined instead he would earn enough money to buy his own restaurant and so start at the top, rather than the bottom, of the kitchen.

With the support of his wife, Zanna, Heston took on a range of jobs (from photocopier salesman to debt collector) meanwhile spending every available hour reading about food and teaching himself classical cooking techniques. He was particularly struck with one book, On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee, because it explained in a straightforward manner the scientific principles behind much of what happens in the kitchen. It was this book that really started Heston on his journey into the science of cooking.

By dint of lots of hard work, over the ensuing decade Heston and Zanna eventually managed to scrape together enough money to get a mortgage on an old, run-down pub in Bray. In the early days Heston had little cash available to pay kitchen staff, but he came up with a novel approach: prisoners from Reading Gaol who were soon to reach the end of their sentences were allowed to work on day release in the kitchen to get accustomed to life outside prison. Thus in the early days of the Fat Duck you might have eaten food prepared by an axe murderer (though fortunately no serial poisoners were sent to the Fat Duck in this way).

Initially Heston cooked what was essentially very high-quality French Bistro food using his self-taught classical foundation and the knowledge gained from Harold McGee’s book. Quite quickly the reputation of the restaurant grew and despite the major limitations of the small, old and ill-equipped pub kitchen the Fat Duck was awarded its first Michelin star in 1998 just three years after opening its doors (the second star came in 2001 and the third in 2004). But Heston still wanted to keep on improving the quality of his food and continued (as he always has and always will) to experiment with ingredients and processes. However, he kept coming up against the problem that cookery texts are often contradictory, rarely explain why they tell you to do what they say you must do, and all too frequently give advice that turns out to be wrong.

The breaking point came in the summer of 1999 when Heston started to worry about how to cook green vegetables. The classic books state that the correct way to cook green vegetables is to get a pan of water boiling vigorously. When you put in the vegetables the water must not come off the boil so a large amount must be used. They also state that the water must be well salted to keep the green colour. But at the Fat Duck the gas pressure was a problem. It was insufficient to bring a large pot of water to the boil and if any more than a small quantity of, say, beans were added, the water would come off the boil. This meant that if the beans were to be cooked in the  ‘proper ‘ fashion, they had to be cooked in batches of eight!

Obviously this was not a viable way to run a restaurant, and as there was no mention of the problem in Harold McGee’s book, Heston started experimenting to find out more. After making some basic tests on broccoli, it appeared that salt was not necessary to keep the green colour. This was gastronomic heresy. It flew in the face of one of the most fundamental laws of the kitchen. At this point Heston determined he needed to start talking to scientists and learning enough of the science of cooking for himself to be able, with confidence, to go against some of the most basic traditions of gastronomy. He turned to the world of science for answers.

Luckily for me my name was near the top of his list of contacts, so after a very long and interesting phone call Heston invited me (and my partner) for lunch that weekend – the sort of invitation no-one in their right mind would refuse. After our excellent meal Heston emerged from the kitchen and went straight to an adjacent table where an elderly distinguished looking couple were sitting and sat down to talk to them. Later, when he came over to our table, he admitted he had looked around the restaurant and immediately thought the intellectual looking gentleman with the large forehead at the other table was the only candidate to be a scientist. He has since found that scientists look just like anyone else.

Following that initial meeting Heston started making regular visits to the Physics Laboratories here in Bristol discovering a whole new world of equipment to heat and cool and to extract flavours, etc. I recall on one occasion Zanna complaining that I had given Heston an old scientific equipment catalogue; while reading it in bed he kept waking her up with excitement as he thought what he might do with a rotary evaporator or a vacuum desiccator or a temperature-controlled water bath and so on (all these are now standard equipment in top restaurant kitchens!)

More importantly, by meeting colleagues in our laboratories Heston very soon found that scientists are really quite approachable and are only too willing to talk to any one who will listen (if you’ve ever asked a physicist to explain his or her research you will know that we can go on for rather a long time without deviation, hesitation or repetition). So I was able to introduce Heston to many others around the world who were working on the science of food and cooking. I vividly remember a visit to a flavour research laboratory in Geneva where Heston was faced with a fully equipped sensory laboratory for the first time. He was like a child in a sweet shop as he opened and smelled as many of the hundreds of bottles of aroma molecules as he could in the short time available.

Heston’s knowledge and use of the science in his kitchen led the Royal Society of Chemistry to ask him to co-write a new school chemistry text book. Now youngsters studying A-level Chemistry are doing experiments designed in the Fat Duck, and in so doing are not only being inspired to learn chemistry, but also some useful basic cooking skills.

Nowadays Heston is a regular visitor to science labs across the country interacting and collaborating with physicists, chemists, psychologists and on occasion dentists. He now even has his own research laboratory at the Fat Duck with a small team of dedicated researchers. Everything he learns from the physics of gelation to the psychology of flavour he applies in his cooking, making ever more interesting and exciting dishes to entice his customers and leaving journalists and chefs of all nations stunned to realise that the centre of good food seems to have shifted to England.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Heston Marc Blumenthal as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Science, honoris causa.

Edit this page