On the eve of the opening of his restaurant Dinner at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, Britain’s indomitable master of culinary alchemy, Heston Blumenthal, talks style and snail porridge with MO’s restaurant critic

The Adam Tihany-designed interior

The Adam Tihany-designed interior

Hay smoked mackerel

Hay smoked mackerel

Can we get the silly stuff out of the way first, please? Thank you. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the long-awaited new restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, doesn’t just serve dinner – it serves lunch, too. And tea. Our modern word ‘dinner’ comes from the 13th-century French word, ‘disner’, a meal which in fact was eaten at breakfast. So dinner, it seems, is not what I thought it was, and probably not what you thought it was, either. If Heston Blumenthal were not a chef, he could have been a historian, and if not a historian, a philologist, because he loves etymology, just as he loves to put his own spin on food from history. Roman banquets, Tudor feasts, and his brilliantly imaginative, controversial recreation of the last meal ‘never eaten’ on the Titanic: welcome to Heston’s world.

The menu at Dinner

The menu at Dinner

Reidel decanters and glasswear

Riedel decanters and glasswear

He is, of course, chef-proprietor of the Fat Duck, the restaurant which in 10 short years transformed itself from cosy Berkshire village bistro into Britain’s holy temple of ‘culinary alchemy’, a term the maestro prefers to the overused, ‘elitist’ molecular gastronomy. (Note to self and all foodies out there: molecular gastronomy is dead – long live culinary alchemy.) For years, the Duck has held three Michelin stars and is currently one of only four restaurants in Britain to do so, while in 2005, the prestigious Restaurant Magazine voted it ‘Best Restaurant in the World’.

These days, Blumenthal is revered as one of the top three or four chefs around, sitting comfortably alongside Ferran Adrià, Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse. And goodness me, if my eyes do not deceive me, isn’t that the great Monsieur Ducasse himself, sitting quietly at a window table at Dinner tonight, rapturously tucking into a dish of spiced pigeon with ale and artichoke?

The powdered duck

The powdered duck

Choose from a selection of wines at Dinner

Choose from a selection of wines at Dinner

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has arrived, in its beautiful home overlooking Hyde Park; not so much a feather in Mandarin Oriental’s cap, but a jewel in its already carat-laden, culinary crown. Blumenthal had long had great respect for the Mandarin Oriental brand, with a special regard for David Nicholls, the Hotel Group’s visionary Director of Food & Beverage. ‘Just as long as I could have my own way with everything – I mean, this was never going to look like a typical hotel dining room – it was a deal,’ jokes Blumenthal, not really joking, of course. He was also swayed by the fact that these guys are taking food very, very seriously. (Daniel Boulud’s brilliant Bar Boulud, which opened at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park a year ago, is a critical and commercial triumph.)

Dinner: not just a feather in Mandarin Oriental’s cap, but a jewel in its already carat-laden culinary crown

Yes, Dinner has arrived and, even before you have a thing to eat, before the first plume of evanescent liquid nitrogen has puffed like a wisp of cloud past your table and dispersed, you have to say it looks great. Adam Tihany, who has collaborated so joyously with Mandarin Oriental in the past, has done the room, absorbing a history lesson or two from Blumenthal in the process. There’s a fabulous central chandelier in the shape of a Tudor rose, inspired by the Tudor rose in Westminster Abbey, and what looks like exposed brickwork is actually leather, copied from Hampton Court. The walls in the private dining room are modelled on the Houses of Parliament. It’s history all right – high-end history.

But despite the historical references, the erudition, the ‘dumbing up’, Dinner is a thoroughly modern restaurant. Oddly enough, it is also an uncomplicated restaurant in many ways, more streamlined, less idiosyncratic than the Duck. (And it is certainly less expensive, with set lunch from £28 and dinner from £45.) It goes without saying that, according to the Heston-diktat, it is as far removed from your average hotel dining room as you can get. The floors are uncarpeted hardwood (dramatically raised a few feet by the great Tihany, to improve the view of the park) and there’s a very un-hotel-like absence of curtains. Jelly moulds adorn the walls – specially designed Bernardaud Limoges jelly moulds, you understand – and in the symmetrical, open kitchen, a collection of blue-glass apothecary jars subtly reference the alchemy. The kitchen brigade, by the way, has the best kitchen view in London – across Hyde Park, where the procession of Household Cavalry passes twice a day.

The Ebel pulley mechanism

The Ebel pulley mechanism

Head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts

Head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts

Who, please, is Heston Blumenthal? He is a rather handsome, bespectacled bald guy, prone to winking, rather stylish. Effortlessly stylish, needless to say, because once you put effort into it, it’s no longer stylish. You don’t think much about a guy’s skin – at least I don’t – but Blumenthal is nicely in touch with his epidermis. He has a natural golden glow, a healthiness, which most people need to go to Bermuda to achieve, a glow which can by no means be put down to the long hours he spends in the kitchen, or the TV studio.

He is also a man without guile, without artifice. He is neither self-consciously bloke-ish, as many well-known chefs are, or affect to be, but nor is he in any sense rarefied. He is self-contained, bright-eyed and a little mischievous-looking.

But, above all, he is kind. Kind and sweet-natured. If you kept a little room in your house for all the people who have ever been especially nice to you, or just gone the ‘extra mile’, you’d surely want to make room for Heston Blumenthal there. Talk to him for 10 minutes on any subject – he loves to talk and has the gift of the gab – and you feel you have known him a lifetime. He has the kind of face, too, you feel you already know, and though you don’t actually know him at all, you just know you could trust him.

When a friend of mine mentioned, en passant, that his teenage children were, not to put too fine a point on it, obsessed with Heston Blumenthal (and that is another fascinating thing about this man, the way his appeal cuts through social class and age), before you could say Mont Blanc he had whipped his pen out, to dedicate and autograph menus for each of them.

Diners enjoy views over Hyde Park

Diners enjoy views over Hyde Park

Chefs at work in the kitchen

Chefs at work in the kitchen

Grannies love him, too – he doesn’t swear, he speaks the Queen’s English – but what really amazes me is that children think he’s very cool. What a long way we’ve come. When Blumenthal roasts a piglet or inflates a duck (from the air pump at his local garage), kids sit up and pay attention. This is not school dinners. This is not meat and two veg. Well, actually it is, only the veg in question is Pointy cabbage with Robert sauce, or smoked fennel, or – if you’re really, really lucky – Blumenthal’s extraordinary triple-cooked chips. Do they count as vegetables? (Absolutely.)

‘I discovered food aged eight,’ he says, definitively. ‘There was not a whole lot going on – it was the Seventies – and at 16, I knew I wanted to be a chef. We went on holiday to France and my dad took us to L’Ousteau de Beaumanière (the great three-Michelin-star restaurant in Provence). That was it. No looking back.’

There is a childlike quality, an inquisitiveness about him, that is almost palpable. His curiosity is unfailing. In another life, I tell him, he could have been a journalist, though I’m glad he chose not to be, because journalists are two-a-penny and really great chefs are rarer then slow-cooked hen’s eggs, or cockle ketchup. He loves gadgets and tools and learning about how things work. I bet he read Look and Learn as a child.

Head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts is a formidable talent in his own right

‘In the private dining room at Dinner,’ he says, not quite conspiratorially, but leaning into the table and dropping his voice, ‘my ice-cream machine is waiting.’ This is the machine he has created in honour of Agnes B Marshall, the Victorian Englishwoman credited with inventing the edible ice-cream cone. In fact, I’d had a sneak preview earlier of the Agnes B Marshall part Singer sewing machine, part barrel organ, gleaming white. It’s not quite ready to be launched on the unsuspecting public yet, this extraordinary – and extraordinarily beautiful – contraption, that produces ice cream ‘on demand’ essentially by the turning of a handle, but it soon will be.

The turning of handles, the application of physics, the logic of a crankshaft, Blumenthal’s art is informed by his love of mechanics. If he hadn’t been a chef, if he hadn’t been a journalist, if he hadn’t been a philologist or historian, he could have been an engineer. If x does this, and y does that, then surely z is bound to happen. That’s the beautiful logic of cooking for him – and the thrill of it. You can almost see his mind working. He loves things which turn, like rotisserie grills, and things which tock, like his Ebel watch, with its ‘see-through’ mechanics at the back. Indeed, the watch was the inspiration for the spit rotisserie, with its elaborate pulley system, where soon, no doubt, hogs will be roasted, but which, in the early days of Dinner, is being used exclusively for pineapples. If he hadn’t been a… well, I won’t go into all that again, but I will tell you that if Heston Blumenthal hadn’t been a great chef, he could have been a great watchmaker.

There is another thing you should know about him. He is a tease. In the best sense, naturally. The term ‘wind-up’ has more than one meaning, but that’s what he does, he winds you up. Language has everything to do with it. Snail porridge has done as much for Blumenthal’s career as The F Word has done, or did, for another famous chef’s, or a cut-glass accent and a low-ish cut dress did for Nigella’s. For Blumenthal, you see, it’s not the dish, it’s the name of the dish. Porridge is a 16th-century variation of pottage, a soup thickened with barley. Add a few meltingly tender gastropods and suddenly a ‘snail porridge’ dish doesn’t sound quite so esoteric. Instead, it sounds rather scrumptious, just like ‘rice and flesh’ from the Dinner menu, which is provocative to read but by another name is saffron risotto with veal and utterly, butterly delicious.

Dinner hostess Anneka Dacres

Baked lemon suet pudding

Baked lemon suet pudding

Dinner hostess Anneka Dacres

‘This is not ye olde themed restaurant,’ says Blumenthal, although the menu, as cooked by head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, is inspired by historic British dishes. And gracious, how they dazzle, the historic dishes with their bracketed dates, the powdered duck (1672), the salamugundy (1723), and the baked lemon suet pudding (1937) – the last a mere upstart, you would have to say.

If you were opening a restaurant at a Mandarin Oriental hotel, you couldn’t not have a Mandarin signature dish, could you? I mean a real mandarin, small and perfectly formed, with a few fresh green leaves still attached to the twig, like it just got in from Florida or the Canaries with a lot of other mandarins. Even the texture of its soft orange skin is, well, mandarin-ish. The only thing telling you that this might not be a mandarin is that Thomas, our waiter, has laid a knife and fork, and when was the last time you ate an orange with a knife and fork? So without spoiling the ending, I will tell you that foie gras comes into it somewhere – and has quite a starring role.

Palmer-Watts, who has worked with Blumenthal at the Fat Duck for 11 years, and will be responsible for all the cooking at Dinner, naturally shares the maestro’s mindset, but is a formidable talent in his own right. While he wears the whites, Blumenthal will be free to pursue his scientific endeavour and his TV career, which is going seriously global. (Even on Dinner’s opening day, he has had to head off to the studio mid-afternoon.)

Part of the Ebel pulley system which works the spit rotisserie

Part of the Ebel pulley system which works the spit rotisserie

The spit rotisserie, currently used to cook pineapples

The spit rotisserie, currently used to cook pineapples

I wonder how he manages his time.‘I work 100 hours a week,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘A few years back, when I was banned from driving for 30 days, I got myself a driver, which is something that changed my life.’  Licence long restored, he would still never be without his driver, and the extra time it gives him in his working week. ‘I work in the back of the car, never have to worry about parking, never have to think about a thing,’ he says, cheerfully. ‘It’s the best use of time.’ 

It’s typical of his thought process. If he hadn’t been a… Suffice to say, if he had wanted to, Heston Blumenthal could have been a home economist. Actually, I think he could have been anything. But I think he made the right choice.

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