Heston Blumenthal: 'My food is really emotional'

With his oversized glasses, closely cropped cranium and faintly mechanical gait, there is something of the Brains from Thunderbirds about Heston Blumenthal. And like Gerry Anderson's puppet, the celebrated proprietor of the Michelin-starred restaurant the Fat Duck radiates an obsession with scientific discovery.

"A counsellor friend of mine did say that I might be ADD," admits the 45-year-old. "I said, 'If I'm ADD then how can I have spent so much time and effort day in day out for so many years?' He replied, 'That's classic ADD. You have no patience for most things and then you find something you like and you go the other way.'"

Obsessive or not, Blumenthal's famously technical cooking appears to have survived a testing three years. In 2009, the restaurant was forced to close for six weeks after a vomiting bug, thought to be caused by the norovirus and linked to shellfish, affected 500 customers. Three years on, and despite the £180-per-person price tag, the waiting list for the tasting menu is back up to two months.

Last year he opened his first London restaurant, Dinner, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and has been employed for the past year by British Airways as part of their Great Britons programme to promote British talent in the year of the London Games. He is mentoring the Torquay-based, Michelin-starred chef Simon Hulstone to create four Olympic-themed menus that will be served to three million passengers on long-haul BA flights during the summer.

Handing responsibility for inflight menus to someone famous for difficult cooking might seem like a risky proposition, but Blumenthal – who also revamped roadside diner chain Little Chef's menus in 2009 – says he is enjoying it.

"I was fascinated," he says . "It's weird with aeroplane food. We kind of expect it to be bad. In the context of eating in the sky, if you paid six quid for most of that food in the pub, you'd send it back. But we happily sit on the plane, open these little containers, and still expect it to be – or at least hope it will be – a highlight of the trip. Hopefully, with the menus Simon and I have created, it will be the highlight of the trip." Curious diners can sample the menus from next week at a pop-up restaurant in Shoreditch.

Last year was also a time of personal upheaval for Blumenthal, who separated  from his wife Zanna, with whom he has three teenage children. His new partner is American actor-turned-cookery-writer Suzanne Pirret. He also lost his father. "My father passed away and that was really, really hard, and it was all happening at the same time that the Mandarin was opening. Things like that, you have to deal with deep. Really deep. It's much easier now, but of course, anything like that is going to affect focus."

"But I still have the drive. I still have the excitement. I still love doing what I do, and I'm really lucky to get up in the morning and want to go to work. And with the TV, the books, the restaurants and Waitrose, at any one point we have 600 dishes in development and many of those feed back into the restaurants, and that's where I get most excited."

As if to illustrate the point, he embarks on a rapid and astonishingly detailed explanation of the painstaking lengths he'll go to perfect every single dish, that culminates in the assertion that 72C (161F) is the only temperature at which to cook a lemon tart.

It's this level of molecular exactitude that Blumenthal is known for: not for him the more casual, homely approach to cooking promoted by some other celebrity chefs. Last year Marco Pierre White called Blumenthal's kitchen "a well-oiled production line, technically flawless" but lacking romance. Blumenthal turns pink when I bring this up and says: "I like to think my food is really emotional." He then recounts a story about one of his signature dishes, where diners listen to the sounds of breaking waves on an iPod while tucking into razor clams, shrimps and oysters.

Blumenthal's famously elaborate contrivance has won him admirers. Just three years after opening the Fat Duck in 1995 in a dilapidated 450-year-old former pub in Bray, Berkshire, came his first Michelin star. It received its third in 2004, and the best restaurant in the world prize in 2005 was followed by an OBE in 2006. Then came the UK Good Food Guide's top restaurant honour in 2007 and 2009, and the 2010 Bafta nomination for his Channel 4 show Heston's Feasts.

Success has brought the luxury of an extensive support network of talented chefs, experimental psychologists, cognitive scientists, neurologists, musicians and scriptwriters, collectively tasked with generating a superlative mutli-sensory experience. All of which is a million miles away from his early days.

"When we started I was working stupid hours," remembers Blumenthal, whose first paid work as a chef was at the Fat Duck.

"I worked 120 hours a week for eight years. That's 20 to 22 hours a day every day and one week I only got 15 hours sleep."

Surely such extreme sleep deprivation provoked an urge to attack strangers with a kitchen knife?

"I kind of did. Not literally attack someone with a knife but in the early years, I wasn't very calm," he says with admirable understatement.

"I used to do ridiculous things. I remember once portioning a piece of cod and there was this triangle here and a jagged bit there. I'd actually been asleep and just carried on doing it. Sleep filleting, you could call it. I'm lucky I didn't cut my fingers off.

"Another time, I tried to light a blowtorch with a hot tap. And the bizarre thing was that the thought process was: 'You can't possibly light a blowtorch with a cold tap' – it was quite Lewis Carroll – 'it has to be a hot tap.' So I turned the gas on and turned the tap on. And then I realised what I was doing."

For a time, Blumenthal's anger threatened to spiral out of control. "I became obsessed with measuring temperature: fish, meat, everything. And my first notion was always about ways of doing things in the kitchen that created consistency and limited the possibility of errors. And my drive for doing that was more about my temper."

He says a spell of therapy, as well as some faith healing and a course in cranial osteopathy, helped improve his mental health. "The moment I took responsibility for everything, that's when my stress levels went right down, and it's been 10 years since any of those outbursts."

"Before, if somebody did something wrong, I was having a go at them and blaming them, but I realised that if I took total responsibility for everything, then it would always be my fault; I'd either employed the wrong person for the job, I'd expected too much from them, or I'd not trained them properly."

So is the stereotype of the cleaver-clutching chef, reducing his commis chef to a collapsing blancmange, a thing of the past?

"There are still customers who'll book the chef's table where they can get a view of the kitchen. They're a bit like drivers on a motorway rubbernecking at an accident on the other carriageway – but people wanting to see that at Dinner will be disappointed.

"No one shouts. Even if a pan drops. And I think that sort of quieter kitchen atmosphere is happening more and more now. There are still top-end kitchens where chefs scream and shout – and I wouldn't say that those kitchens are the exceptions to the rule – but they're in a minority."

Blumenthal was 16 when his parents, who ran their own business, took him to the two-Michelin starred L'Oustau in Provence – "it was like falling down a rabbit hole into Wonderland," he says. Convinced he wanted to learn cooking, Blumenthal spent a week under the tutelage of Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir in his late teens, and worked for a short spell with Marco Pierre White as well. But he quickly decided that apprenticeship to a master was not for him.

"It sounds arrogant, but it wasn't," says Blumenthal. "I just thought, 'I want to carry on down the teaching-myself route, experimenting. I'll go and get a job and earn money and that'll get me more money quicker so I can open my own restaurant up.'"

Financing his culinary education through various jobs, including photocopier salesman and debt collector, Blumenthal spent the next decade immersing himself in French cookbooks and science manuals, fantasising about the moment when he could recreate that multi-sensory Provençal high.

"When we [Blumenthal went into business with his wife] bought the Fat Duck, we realised that it wasn't possible to recreate the noise of the crickets and the water, the crunch of the gravel and the smell of the lavender as it's just a tiny building on a main road, so the multi-sensory idea really began to take hold."

"Development is where my heart is focused because eating is the only thing that we do that involves all the senses. We eat with our eyes and our ears and our noses. You think about some of the most memorable meals you've ever had; the food will be good but it will often be about locating a mental memory and taste is inexorably linked to all the other senses and memory, so ultimately it is all about taste.

"I find myself at this lucky junction between some guy working on sound, some guy working on memory, some guy working on smell, and then there's me, a cook, bringing those things together. The Duck is my labour of love and it's better now than it's ever been. I'd say it's 50% better than it was when we got the first Michelin star.

"I don't have a specific kind of timeline for the future, but I do have one ambition and I don't know if this will ever happen. Maybe I'll just keep it as one of those things that is really enjoyable to think it might happen.

"I've always loved shiny things, things that go flash, loads of buttons to press, purple lights and stuff like that. So I'd love to have a James Bond-style development kitchen with a door that goes swishhhhh. Like M. Maybe hidden under Buckingham Palace."

Heston Blumenthal has mentored Simon Hulstone to create an Olympic menu for BA's Great Britons programme. The menu will be served on BA flights between July and September and can be sampled at a pop-up restaurant in Shoreditch, east London, 4-17 April. For bookings visit www.facebook.com/britishairways

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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