When The Fat Duck Flew Home
A couple of hours into my experience at The Fat Duck, I’m brought what looks like bread and butter. “What’s this now?” I ask, a little too eagerly, the wine pairing tickling my edges. “Fish and chips? A reformed mulligatawny soup?”
“No, sir,” the waitress says with a patient smile, “it’s just bread and butter.”
How was I to know? Here in Bray, nothing is as it seems. The first thing I can remember having was a solid cocktail – a frozen boozy lump that sent dry ice tumbling from my nose like a frosty dragon. Next, a cup of ‘coffee’ that was simultaneously hot and cold, different halves sliding to opposite sides of my mouth. The sensation left me worrying I’d suffered some sort of palsy mid-meal. Later, there’ll be a sweet shop, which is wheeled around the restaurant on a sort of steampunk chariot, cost £150,000 to custom build. The average house price in Wales is £147,000. All that, for what’s essentially a little souvenir to take away after 14-plus courses of the best, strangest, most entertaining food you’ve ever eaten.
Heston Blumenthal’s singular restaurant has been raising smiles and eyebrows for over 20 years with dishes that pickle the mind (pickled mind isn’t yet on the menu, but don’t rule it out). Some sound almost purposely off-putting. Tasty though it is, crab ice cream is a hard sell – or at least it should be, but it’s been here in one form or another for 17 years. As part of the evolution of the menu, The Fat Duck’s most infamous dish, snail porridge, was last year retired to the ‘hall of fame.’ The judges at Michelin weren’t too upset – this tiny, magical restaurant was again awarded its maximum three-star score in the most recent edition of the Guide.
When Blumenthal arrived in this village in the mid-1990s, there were three pubs. His group would eventually buy all three. The Ringers became The Fat Duck; The Crown, which was also recently refurbished, just about remains a traditional pub. The Goldilocks option in the middle is the Hind’s Head, which has grown beyond an ordinary boozer into a gastronomic destination of its own.
It might look like a 15th century tavern from the outside, but it has an outstanding tasting menu of its own, good enough that Michelin have given it a star of its own. If you only want to kill time before the more famous restaurant, upstairs there’s a cocktail lounge. Some drinks are served with gold leaf, others in dainty tea cups designed to whet the appetite ahead of walking around the corner and through the looking glass into The Fat Duck.
Blumenthal’s role in all this has evolved too, beyond the shop floor towards something more symbolic. In recent years, his name has been attached to everything from airline food, to supermarket ready-meals to, most recently, a new range of barbeque equipment. He may sign-off on every menu item across his growing empire, but he’s rarely covering a dinner service.
When it was decided that the ageing Fat Duck needed essential maintenance and refurbishment, rather than close, the team took the typically ambitious decision to move everything, wholesale, elsewhere. Any well-heeled community in the world would have let the Duck roost for six months – one location in Saint-Maxime on the Côte d’Azur was very seriously considered – but instead they decided to go long-haul, all the way to Melbourne.
“It would have been much easier in terms of suppliers, but it would have been nowhere near as rewarding to go to the South of France,” says head chef Jonny Lake after my very long lunch. In the end they took everything with them – almost every member of staff, and 14 tonnes of equipment. All the kitchenware, all the crockery, all the cutlery, even the linen. In Crown Melbourne (in the space now inhabited by Dinner) it wasn’t an imitation of the English restaurant, it was the English restaurant, albeit even more expensive. The set menu was $525 when in Melbourne but that astronomical fee did little to dampen demand. “It was insane, the response to it,” says Lake. “It was nuts. It made it really special, because every single day, every single service there was this atmosphere where people were just so excited.”
Simple the move was not. At the highest level of fine dining, the staff are so familiar with their roles and environment that even small changes can be difficult to absorb. “I think perhaps we underestimated how finely tuned the restaurant was,” says restaurant manager Dimitri Bellos. “When you took the restaurant out of that building, and some people out of the equation, it changed the whole thing. The first couple of months, it took a little while to get it to the same level.”
What was gained in Victoria was lost in Berkshire. Yes, the Hind’s Head and the Crown continued to be busy (remarkably, Bray is also home to another of Britain’s quartet of three-Michelin-star restaurants, The Waterside Inn). But for over eight months in total, the village was diminished. Local businesses such as Bray Cottages, a series of beautifully appointed properties with very close ties to the restaurants, inevitably saw their enquiries decline. A number of niche suppliers also missed out on close to a year of business.
Worse, the Michelin Guide had to temporarily ignore The Fat Duck. Even though the menu and majority of the staff remained unchanged on the other side of the world, the Guide’s incredibly strict range of criteria doesn’t allow for changes of venue. Having once been number one, the restaurant also dropped out of the World’s 50 Best list entirely.
If there are hints of regret or notes of bitterness at the omission then they’re understandable. While Michelin reluctantly revealed the science of their judgements in an extensive 2007 New Yorker interview (amuse bouches included the fact that the anonymous inspectors often can’t reveal their professions to their own families) the process for the World’s 50 Best is less clear. Even the name is contradictory – the list is 100-strong.
To this itinerant glutton, it seems laughable that restaurants in Dubai with access to no local produce can find a place on that list while the mischievous deliciousness of The Fat Duck cannot. I can’t compare eating there to anywhere else. Whatever you think is the maximum potential of a meal, the restaurant seeks to usurp through a combination of fairy tales, nostalgia, and expert cooking.
Heston Blumenthal has for years been described as a Willy Wonka figure but to me that’s an imperfect analogy because while he may be eccentric and perhaps a genius too, he’s more of an author than a character, with multiple narratives and genres contributing to an overall canon.
When I think about what I saw in Bray – dusty young chefs making pastry; another working at speed in a cold room; teams contemplating the future of apples in the experimental kitchen – I think of Blumenthal more as Roald Dahl than one of his characters.
The founder is often quoted as saying that his restaurant is about multi-sensory storytelling. But who does the story belong to? It’s in part his autobiography – the ‘journey’ starts with your ‘storyteller’ describing Blumenthal family holidays to Cornwall, a young Heston’s excitement at getting away from the city (he grew up on the outskirts of London). There are elements of Alice in Wonderland too, never more obviously than when one course encourages you to dissolve a pocket watch coated in gold leaf inside a tea pot, which you then pour into a teacup to make mock turtle soup. Later, from that remarkably expensive sweet shop, you’ll receive an edible Queen of Hearts.
In the end, though, the story you come away with isn’t Heston Blumenthal’s, or Lewis Carrol’s – it’s your own. And how can you put a price on that?
A version of this piece was published in Fairfax’s Traveller in June 2017.