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In 1982 when Heston was sixteen he and his family visited a three-star restaurant situated beneath the towering cliffs in Provence. None of them had experienced anything like it before, not just the extraordinary food but the breathtaking surroundings, the delightful smell of lavender in the air, the theatre of waiters carving at the tables and pouring lobster sauce into soufflés. At this moment, Heston fell in love with cooking and the idea of being a chef.
It took Heston more than a decade to realise his dream. By day he worked in a variety of jobs including a photocopier salesman but by night he worked his way passionately through the classical repertoire of French cuisine. Heston cooked the same dishes over and over again, perfecting the techniques and seeking the best ways to harness flavour. Every summer he spent two weeks crisscrossing France, visiting restaurants, suppliers, wine estates, and learning about every aspect of gastronomy, banking flavour memories for the future. Apart from three weeks in a couple of professional kitchens, Heston is entirely self taught.
After 4 years of reading, cooking and researching, Heston bought a book which made him view cooking in a completely different way. During a discussion of meats physical properties it stated; ‘We do not know for a fact that searing does not seal’
The book was ‘Food and Cooking’ by Harold McGee. It encouraged Hestons natural curiosity, showing him the benefits of taking nothing for granted and using a scientific approach to cooking. If the notion of searing = sealing was untrue, despite being preached as fact by countless cookbooks and TV shows then how many other ‘rules’ of the kitchen could be bent or broken? From then on, the precise questioning and testing of culinary ideas became a key part of his approach alongside the more traditional kitchen skills.
In 1995 after more than 2 years of searching Heston bought a small 450 year old pub in Bray, Berkshire. The property wasn’t ideal but it was all he could afford. The Fat Duck opened as a simple bistro serving French classics such as petit sale of duck and tarte tatin. On the second day the oven blew up and limited experience and lack of funds meant Heston was often spending 20 hours a day in the kitchen.
Despite the chaos, the restaurant started to get good reviews and even the kitchens drawbacks were turned to an advantage. The gas pipes were domestic rather than commercial. Trying to find his way around these problems Heston became in contact with a Physicist at Bristol University Dr Peter Barham. Along with a handful of others these scientists became an influential input into the development of the restaurant including several scientists from the flavour and fragrance company Firmenich, which, with its shelves full of stoppered bottles proved an invaluable source of inspiration for Heston.
Following his first Michelin star, in 2000 the restaurant had to be re-designed due to the popularity and increasing demands put upon it. It re-opened with its first multi course tasting menu. The tasting menu offered the opportunity to present all kinds of dishes that didn’t fit easily together into a more conventional format. In 2 years the newfound freedom to explore and create had resulted in Hestons second Michelin star and 2 years after that he received a third.
Among other things, the third star meant that Heston had even more freedom to explore the interests that have become central to his cooking, multisensory perception and how our brain influences our appreciation of food.