Heston Blumenthal is regarded as the pioneer of molecular cuisine. His five restaurants boast a total of six Michelin stars. The British chef doesn’t see himself as an artist in the kitchen, even his manager puts it dryly but definitively: “Heston doesn’t cook.” No, Blumenthal is busy doing other things of a perhaps more elevated nature.
The more I read about you before our meeting, the less appropriate it seemed to describe you as a chef. So what are you?
No idea. I’ve spent years cooking, but there’s so much more to food. It brings together the physics of cooking, the chemistry of aromas and the biology of metabolism. You can even use it to describe the history of humanity.
And what does the multi-sensory experience you’re so interested in have to with that?
Evolution has equipped us with an alarm system: the ability to taste, hear and feel. We never experience things with just one of our senses at a time, they influence each other. A red strawberry, for instance, will always taste sweeter to us than a green one. Rock music makes you eat faster. Red wine tastes different depending on whether there are high frequencies or low tones in the background. Have you heard of the Bouba-Kiki experiment?
Test persons were shown a pointy shape and a bulbous shape and asked to classify them as either “kiki” or “bouba”…
Exactly, and a clear majority called the pointy shapes “kiki”. We attribute sounds, colors and aromas to abstract concepts. Ask a child to draw “bitter”. I tried this myself. Bitter is pinkish with a little bit of green in it, like oxidized copper. The sound “bitter” makes is chhhhrrghh. Or take the word “sharp”. It sounds sharp, it tastes sharp, like acid, and I associate it with a high tone.
So you’re saying that language is influenced by our perceptions?
There was an experiment done once in which a group of people were shown pictures of couples. They were asked to decide whether or not they were in a stable relationship. Everyone was seated for the experiment but half the group sat on chairs that wobbled a little bit. In the wobblers’ estimation, the couples clearly had a less stable relationship than that attested by the people whose chairs didn’t wobble. Connotations like that are simply part of us.
It’s easy for you to understand because you’re a synasthete, someone for whom a single sensory stimulus creates more perceptions than in other people …
Some synasthetes can taste tones or see smells, but I only associate letters with colors. A and T, for instance, are red. B, D and E are blue, whereas I see C and as being yellow. The word “table,” however, has a red shimmer to it. The phenomenon of synesthesia has no evolutionary function, that’s the difference. We all connect taste, sound, touch and sight inside us. Unfortunately, many people have barricaded themselves behind walls and shut out subtle impressions. But lots of things are taking place subconsciously.
Do you manipulate your guests?
The first time I saw the Bouba-Kiki experiment was on a BBC show, and I had no idea how much it would influence me later on. At our restaurant The Fat Duck, we serve a shrimp ice cream. Most people associate the word with something sweet, and they’re disappointed when the ice cream tastes salty. So we called it “lobster foam” and most people liked it a lot better.
You consulted psychologists, graphologists and sociologists before opening The Fat Duck in September 2015. What was the outcome?
It’s been proven, for instance, that people feel more confident sitting upright than they do when they’re slouched. The shape of our chairs and the position people sit in is enough to influence how much they like our food. A pistachio in the shell tastes so much better than when it’s handed to you shelled. That has nothing to do molecules, it has to do with the tiny bit of effort you exert in order to earn the pistachio.
Do you expect your guests to earn their own meal? After all, eating at your restaurant costs more than 300 euros.
There’s that element at the Fat Duck, too. Just booking a table requires effort, which heightens one’s anticipation.
To help you put on a good show, you even engaged the scriptwriter Lee Hall. What did he advise?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make eating an experience, and together, Hall (the scriptwriter for Billy Elliot) and I analyzed fairy tales and plays, but many of the mechanisms were too abstract. Using lighting to awaken a dish to life works well, and we can operate every lamp in The Fat Duck individually to create everything from morning light to an evening mood.
The light changes the appearance as well as the taste?
Sure. Green lighting brings head notes to the fore, sharper aromas like jasmine or basil. Black olives or caramelized onions are more base notes.
You describe your concept as being multi-sensory. What other senses do you appeal to?
The handle of the spoon for “Counting Sheep” is covered in sheepskin and has baby powder sprinkled on it. When you raise the spoon to your mouth the smell enters your nose and reminds you of your childhood. We play the sound of the sea to accompany “The Seven Seas.”
But doesn’t every guest bring their own memories with them?
Aromas allow us to travel through time. The meal describes a day in a child’s holiday – my holiday, my memories. But they also function as a catalyst for guests. Curiosity, adventure, surprise – I wanted it all to flow into the meal.
In his autobiography British comedian John Cleese writes that in England, the unspoken purpose of cooking is to at least make something that doesn’t hurt you. Is Cleese spreading a cruel cliche about English food?
In Victorian times, Great Britain was a huge empire, and such an empire is perhaps not as interested in enjoyment as in expediency. In the 1970s, there was only one kind of pasta available in England, and you couldn’t get olive oil at the supermarket, you had to go to a pharmacy.
Back to my first question – what are you?
I don’t know, perhaps I’m just a big kid. And more curious than ever.