Heston Blumenthal, known for experimental dishes such as snail porridge on television and at the Fat Duck, is days away from opening his first London restaurant and if he’s feeling the pressure, it’s not showing.
Seated at the bar of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, a few feet from paper-covered doors that will on Jan. 31 be the entrance to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the three-Michelin-star chef muses on the fact the place is booked solid for two months before it opens. Did he expect that level of interest?
“It surprised me,” he says. “I know the Duck: We wanted to make the telephone system more user-friendly, so we asked the telephone company to look at how many calls we were getting in an eight-hour day. We had 30,000. (The Fat Duck seats 44.) But even with that in mind, I didn’t expect it here.
“Rather than getting excited, it’s just making me slightly more nervous because this is not the Fat Duck. I’ll be here for most of the first three weeks or so, maybe a bit longer,” he says. “And then I’ll be in and out of here all through the year but I’m staying at Bray,” the village west of London that is home to the three-Michelin star restaurant.
In person, Blumenthal, 44, is friendly and soft-spoken, and greets you with the hug that is common in the chef world. He’s dressed in a light-colored jacket and open-necked shirt and throughout the interview waves and smiles at passing staff.
The executive chef at Dinner is Ashley Palmer-Watts, who has worked for Blumenthal at the Fat Duck as group executive chef for 11 years. The focus at the new brasserie will be on British dishes inspired by historical recipes, such as Meatfruit, a boozy chicken-liver parfait encased in a mandarin jelly. (Dinner is the traditional English word for the main meal of the day: The venue will also be open for lunch.)
One unusual feature will be three ketchups to appear with various dishes: turbot with cockle ketchup; scallops and bergamot with cucumber ketchup and steak with mushroom ketchup.
Blumenthal is scheduled to announce a new range of foods for Waitrose supermarkets following the success of his Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding, which sold out at 13.99 pounds ($22.17) and ended up being offered on EBay Inc. for 129 pounds. The range will include three ketchups -- cucumber, mushroom and lemon -- plus a range of flavored cream desserts. Watch out also for a Heston hamburger.
Palmer-Watts brings out some dishes for us to try. There’s slow-cooked short rib of beef, rich and big on flavor; and the turbot with cockle ketchup, a real taste of the sea, even without headphones. (One of Blumenthal’s most famous creations requires diners to listen to a recording of lapping waves.) The plan is to charge 25 pounds for lunch and 55 pounds for dinner.
If Dinner proves a success, has he given any thought to opening another branch, perhaps in New York?
“Yes, we have thought about it,” he says. “London is so popular with tourists because of the heritage to it. Well, we do have a cooking heritage, and I think that concept could really work.
“London and New York are the two most exciting cities in the world, for me, for eating out, taking into account the cost and diversity. If you want the purest, focused food you go to Tokyo. It’s just amazing, but it’s Japanese.
“If you want French gastronomic cooking, you go to Paris, but it’s dull. London and New York have shown the way and really reflect what’s happening in international eating habits.”
Blumenthal says he was offered the opportunity to open a Fat Duck in Tokyo six years ago and flew out to Japan full of excitement only to realize that his restaurant needed his full attention and a staff of 70 and he wasn’t going to split it between two locations.
As for the future, he is thinking of closing the Fat Duck for as long as six months for a refurbishment and opening a pop-up restaurant overseas. He rules out doing anything this year because he is committed to a range of projects, including a TV series for Channel 4 where he looks at how we prepare food for locations as diverse as cinemas, nuclear submarines and long-haul jets. He plans to fly to New York and back tomorrow.
Where might he open a pop-up if he decides to go ahead with that plan in 2012?
“We looked at the south of France, we looked at several Swiss sites, we looked at Vegas -- we’ve had three or four offers to go to Vegas -- we’ve looked at cruise liners,” he says. “We’re not going to do anything this year just because of everything else that’s on the go. If we can find a suitable solution for moving the Duck, then I will definitely consider it. I kind of like the challenge of doing it in France but that would be nerve-racking.”
The interview over, I tried calling the booking line for Dinner. The earliest evening reservation I could get for two was for 10 p.m. on March 30. If you would like to try Blumenthal’s food before then, I have a “Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding” for the first Bloomberg subscriber to message me who is prepared to pick it up from our London office. Bon appetit.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA. Tel. +44-20-7201-3833 or click on http://www.dinnerbyheston.com/ or http://www.mandarinoriental.com/london/dining/heston_blumenthal/
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)