My girlfriend emails me from London with the news: “We’ve got reservations for lunch at The Fat Duck whilst you are visiting.”
I’m nonchalant to be honest. I’ve seen Heston Blumenthal on Australia’s Master Chef and he strikes me as more ‘mad scientist’ than gourmet chef. Knowing I’m going to be easily impressed by fish, chips and mushy peas at the local pub (given my 18 months in Korea), I’m not entirely engaged in what this reservation actually means. I’m also focussed on the exorbitant cost – £275 (nearly $600 AUD) without drinks and taxes. Can a dining experience actually be worth this?
It’s not until the Sunday before our reservation when we happen to catch a TV interview with Heston, that the anticipation starts to build. I’m beginning to comprehend that I may be in for something rather extraordinary.
Heston is explaining that the new menu offers a multisensory journey based “on a collection of some of my favourite childhood memories, spanning a whole day.” The menu is intended to act as a catalyst to help bring our own childhood memories to life. He goes on to tell the story of a recent couple dining at the restaurant to mark the end of their marriage. “They’d decided to divorce and the lunch was their ‘last supper’ of sorts”, he says. Over the course of four hours, each dish sparked memories, deep conversation and a realisation that perhaps the marriage should not be ending.
The price for lunch may be steep, but it clearly has magical healing powers. I’m beyond intrigued.
After a six-month closure and a £2.5m renovation, the restaurant receives more than 30,000 calls a week for reservations. To cope, they’ve installed a ticketing process whereby you reserve and pay in full up-front to secure your reservation – even then, it’s almost a lottery to bag a seat.
Whilst a number of his famous (and truly whacky) dishes such as snail porridge, egg and bacon ice cream, and quail jelly are gone, a few favourites neatly tie in with his new theme and remain on the menu – most notably, The Sound of the Sea (shellfish eaten while listening to the sound of the ocean on headphones embedded in a shell).
We’re travelling from Greenwich in south east London to Maidenhead, about an hour’s train ride from Paddington Station, west of London. From the station, we hail a cab to the nearby village of Bray, with a population of around 8,000 and boasting two of the four three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the United Kingdom.
We wander the quaint village perched on the Thames, with Tudor themed houses, streets canopied with colourful Fall trees and an impressive number of restaurants for a town so small. Even the local pub – the Hinds Head – is owned by Heston and has one Michelin star.
And it’s here we start our day – sipping a Louis Roederer champagne by a cosy fire as we spy guests starting to arrive.
The staff are happy to take our photo before we enter. It’s a simple white two storey building with only the duck-themed cutlery sign to indicate we’re at the right place.
They allow only one dining party in at a time. We enter a small foyer where a television-like screen features a 3D spinning ball. We’re asked if we are ready to take the journey, and a map and magnifying glass is handed over – this is our guide for what is about to come. Our excitement is palpable.
We enter a very simple dining room – a very low ceiling, some 10 small round white-clothed tables, no colour and no music. It’s clear that there is to be no distractions from the food.
Our two-sided map features a strong Alice in Wonderland theme. Given Heston is often referred to as the Willy Wonka of the chef world, I’m not entirely surprised by the theatrical presentation of our 16 course lunch.
Our journey starts ‘the day before we go’. After an aerated beetroot ball that literally dissolves on the tongue, we’re presented with a clear glass cup with a tea-like liquid. And here’s where the Master launches his genius. We’re told not to turn the cup but to pick it up and drink as it is presented. Half of the liquid is hot, the other cold. Can you imagine the sensation in your mouth? I’m still trying to work out what science was involved to make this happen.
It’s time for a welcome drink. A cocktail cart is pulled up to our table and a lovely girl from Melbourne squeezes our preferred cocktail flavour (Paloma for Lee and Erynne and a Pina Colada for me) onto a spoon and dips it into a smokey pot (think a witch’s cauldron effect). This seems to create an aerated ball of yumminess which when popped on the tongue, shoots a dragon-like steam from your nose (hence the menu question; ‘who will be the dragon?’).
We move onto morning – ‘rise and shine, it’s breakfast time’. We start with rabbit tea and our menu asks why there has to be a choice between a variety pack and a full English breakfast.
We’re presented with a cereal variety pack from which to choose. The contents are mixed with a savoury custard – tasting much like the flavours of a traditional English breakfast. Our variety pack also comes with a complimentary ‘gift’ – a small timber money box to construct and to hold a coin; we’re told to keep it handy for later in the journey.
It’s now mid-morning and we’re off to the seaside. The Original Sound of the Sea is presented. We’re listening to the ocean through headphones hidden in a shell (and also where we find our large coin to go into our coin box). The dish is made to look like sand and sea foam – extraordinarily clever.
Tiny, delicate and intricate savoury ice-creams are presented in a pebble box. They feature asparagus, salmon and crab. I finish mine to find ‘Happy Birthday Jody’ inscribed on the tiny stick. The attention to detail is astounding.
Then we went rockpooling.
Our afternoon is spent in the woods – ‘damping through the borough groves’. This particular dish is one of my favourites of the day – a range of different mushrooms and truffles with earthy, robust flavours. A delicate mock turtle soup follows.
We’re already ten courses down and its time for dinner. We’re presented with a four course menu, featuring a number of classics. Our starter is prawn cocktail.
The main is duck a la orange (you’d be disappointed if duck wasn’t on the menu right?)
Desert is my favourite dish of the entire experience – a take on cheese and fruit. This is presented as a work of art on the plate – each piece painstakingly created to look like a familiar food and yet nothing as it seems.
The Digestif (‘serious enough for the kids, fun enough for the adults’) is clever and fun. Mounted on a map, each tiny whiskey gum bottle features the flavours of the whiskey house it is derived from. I’m imagining tiny elves with tiny fingers in some back room spending hours creating these alone.
It’s about this time, we note that the lighting over our table has changed. It’s muted, softer…..like we’re being prepared for bed time.
And so we are.
Our map tells us where off to the land of nod and its time to count sheep. A floating, spinning pillow is placed in the centre of the table featuring three delectable cream filled meringue pillows – one each – to eat in one bite. This is followed by a bowl fashioned into the shape of a pillow filled with more of the same and equally delicious.
It’s coming to an end, but not before we spend our penny in the box, still held in safe keeping from breakfast. A doll’s house-shaped sweetshop (apparently commissioned by Heston at the cost of £150,000) is wheeled to our table. We’re asked to insert our coin, which magically starts the drawers randomly opening and closing. The final one to open – and stay open – contains your sweets, which are scooped into a pink and white candy-striped bag to take home, along with your cereal box, map and other mementos from the day.
Heston Blumenthal is part genius, mad scientist, chef and storyteller – a powerful, and clearly successful, combination.
When you consider the price, plus the fact that you must travel a distance from London for what is a minimum four-hour dining experience, this is an all-day, cost-of-a-weekend-in-Paris commitment.
Would you pay $700AUD for this experience? In my view, it was worth every damn cent. I have, and likely never will, experience anything remotely similar again. The level of artistry, innovation, attention to detail and professionalism is second to none. In the big scheme of life, $700 is a drop in the ocean for an experience I’ll be talking about for years to come.
Special thanks to Erynne and Lee for making this happen. x