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So what's Heston Blumenthal REALLY like?

With two TV series and a blockbuster book in the pipeline Heston’s set to be the chef we’re all going to be talking about this autumn. Matching Food & Wine contributor Signe Johansen, who spent three months working at the Fat Duck, gives an exclusive insight into what goes in Heston’s lab and the team who bring his off-the-wall ideas to fruition.

You only need do a quick trawl on Google to see how much rubbish is written about Heston Blumenthal: that he cooks "Frankenstein food" (The Times), that he's a "man who mistook his kitchen for a lab" (The Guardian) and sneers from the Daily Mail that he "prefers the culinary delights of snail porridge" to a good old English fry up.

It seems to me there are a lot of misconceptions about the Fat Duck in general, and Heston Blumenthal in particular. My expectations of going to work there as a chef stagiaire were confounded by what I saw on a daily basis. The lab is not ghoulish, Heston's not deranged, equipment didn't blown up while I was there (or perhaps it did and I was oblivious making ice creams). Ah yes . . . the ice creams.

I knew I'd struck gold when someone in the lab told me in my first week we would be recipe-testing ice creams. A lot of them. In fact my diary reminds me we had a tasting scheduled early on for 14 ice creams. Even in the darkest days of winter, the Fat Duck ice creams are a wonderful beam of light, a glimmer of sunshine. If there's one thing guaranteed to lift your spirits, a spoonful of delicate kirsch ice cream or intensely flavoured blackcurrant sorbet will do the trick.

I digress - back to what goes on in the 'lab'. Actually that's a misnomer; strictly speaking it's the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen (FDEK), and therein lies the key. It is first and foremost a working kitchen, albeit one that doesn't cook to service, but which happens to host an eclectic range of equipment: a centrifuge, lots of petri dishes and occasionally an elaborate contraption known as a rota-vapour makes an appearance. But the FDEK is predominantly a kitchen, with sophisticated scientific gadgets AND essential cooking tools we're all familiar with, such as blenders, whisks, tongs, bowls, spatulas and spoons (lots of spoons, predictably, for tasting).

Wizardry does go on, and the cupboards could be mistaken for an apothecary’s (anyone for methyl cellulose or some malic acid?) but cooking by its very nature is a form of alchemy, and the most renowned advocate of this idea, as Heston has often acknowledged, is Harold McGee, author of the classic compendium 'McGee on Food and Cooking.'

The FDEK consists of a team of four full-time chefs and one or two rolling chef stagiares. FDEK head chef is Kyle Connaughton, Californian by birth, Japanese by persuasion - his recent years spent in Japan at places such as Michel Bras and with some of the best-known chefs in Japan has accorded him a much-vaunted training in the aesthetics, delicacy and seasonality of Japanese cuisine.

James "Jocky" Petrie is head pastry chef and divides his time between the lab and as head of pastry in the restaurant kitchen. Scottish, and best described as a force of nature, whenever Jocky enters the lab, it's the equivalent of a culinary hurricane. He's brilliant - terrifying - but brilliant.

Kyle's number two is Stefan Cosser, an Icelandic chef, very young and fast as a whippet; Jocky's number two in pastry is Otto Romer, a Venezuelan gentle giant with a chemical engineering degree, his knowledge of the intricacies of chemistry impressive and he taught me everything I needed to know about those amazing ice creams.

Adjoined to the lab, tucked away in a tiny room known as the 'chocolate room', is Ida Garphagen, Heston's queen of confection. Feisty and Swedish, Ida takes no nonsense - quite rightly - from the boys and somehow manages to produce the most extraordinary amount of chocolates and caramels in a minute space.

No two days are alike in the FDEK. One day recipes might be tested for the forthcoming cookbook (of which, more below), the next there would be a photo shoot for a magazine or newspaper. Visitors, such as chefs, food writers, producers, and academics all stop by on occasion. If there are any special events planned in conjunction with the restaurant, the FDEK will step in and prepare the necessary dishes - alleviating the burden on the restaurant kitchen, a tiny space in itself! Film shoots also take place in the FDEK: this is where the first and second series of 'In Search of Perfection" were shot, but primarily, this kitchen is for the conception and execution of new ideas.

How do those ideas come about? It's a question I've been asked many times, but am still not certain of a definitive answer. Like all creative processes, there's an inherent unpredictability to the innovation that goes on at the FDEK. Heston will think of something during a tasting, and it will be discussed and tested, often for months or years until the idea has been implemented, or a problem has been solved. The hot sorbet from Heston's TV Christmas special is an example of this - it took four years to perfect!

One of Heston's team in the FDEK might have a 'eureka!' moment whilst researching a dish and then tell Heston about it, or something new and different arises from playing around with a dish, as an unintended – but welcome -consequence. Although Heston has the final say in what's going on, it's a remarkably democratic set-up, in which all those involved will contribute to the ideas process, and that in part explains the success of the Fat Duck: Heston has an incredibly strong team working with him and commands great loyalty from all involved. His image as a 'mad scientist' belies a much warmer person, who's generous, down to earth, and unrelentingly optimistic. There are no histrionics in the FDEK.

So having spent years making The Fat Duck into the best restaurant in Britain what's next for Heston? There are plenty of projects in the offing, some commercial, others academic. Amidst the development of new dishes, months of work have put into Heston's magnum opus ‘The Big Fat Duck Cookbook’ – a compendium of all his recipes, contributions from academics who’ve collaborated with Heston over the years, and the most exquisite photography I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. The prototype we saw was huge – in excess of 400 pages, and it’s destined to be every chef’s must-have.

Otherwise, the bulk of current development at the FDEK is focused on launching Heston's Historic British Menu - excavating dishes from Britain's past, interpreting them and using culinary science to refine the recipes and make them suitable for the modern palate. Channel 4 will be filming 'Feast with Heston Blumenthal', a series on his attempts to recreate classic British feasts. And more immediately, we'll see Heston on screen trying to resurrect Little Chef from motorway ignominy to somewhere we'd actually like to eat.

Of all the projects, the historic British menu has been the most daunting task, but highly topical at a time when Britain is delving into its history and starting to take pride in its culinary traditions again. Certainly it was a fabulous excuse for me to research British history and to visit places such as the Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court Palace, as I did on a couple of occasions, where the head historian Marc Meltonville, imparted reams of history in a few short hours.

Kyle, the head chef at the FDEK was indulgent enough to let me go gallivanting off to places of historic food interest, and to attend the relevant history lectures at this year's Oxford Literary Festival. Another highlight was spending a day at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Pig in a Day course– highly recommended!

Working at the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen is an amazing experience. The team working with Heston live in a whirlwind of culinary, creative and scientific activity . It's a great forum for learning, but amidst all the hard work and serious business of producing Michelin quality food, the ethos of play and fun at the FDEK is evinced by the following incident:

Before I left, one of the FDEK chefs, with a glint of mischief in his eyes, threw leftover liquid nitrogen from the day's photo shoot down the stairs, sending plumes of "smoke" into the prep kitchen below the FDEK. I suspect Heston would thoroughly approve. Boys will be boys . . .

Copyright Signe Johansen, 2008.

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