Yesterday I watched Heston Blumenthal, chef of the Fat Duck restaurant, give a cooking demonstration at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress in Manhattan. It was mind blowing. It’s one thing to read about Heston and his work, and an astonishment to actually see him in action.
“Eating is a multisensory experience,” he says. And by George he’s right. He says his cooking is all about contrasts of texture and flavor. It’s based on knowledge: knowledge of anatomy and physiology and psychology and magic.
In the brain the centers for taste and memory are anatomically very close together. Heston knows that. He also knows our own personal taboos and prejudices have a profound influence on our food preferences.
So he creates a seafood composition in a shadow box, (a kind of deep picture frame). In went a base of sand (tapioca), and on it he carefully places three kinds of seaweed, an oyster, a razor clam, a sea urchin and a coverlet of ethereal white frothy foam. There’s a garnish of artfully arranged crystallized and fried anchovies. O.K. sounds good?
Sound is the operative word. To experience the full impact, enter the magician. The diner wears a couple of seashell microphone headphones. While savoring every tiny morsel, the conscious mind is enveloped with cries of seagulls and experiencing the sounds of waves crashing on the beach. Incredible! Transported to the seashore, the fish leaps from the icy waters, leaving a faint briny taste hovering on the lips.
What’s fascinating about this is an experiment in which the same seafood dish was accompanied, not with the sounds of the ocean, but with the grunting of pigs and the cackling of chickens. Not surprisingly everyone hated the food. Some even spat it out. (But the same folk loved the bacon and egg ice cream with the farmyard symphony resonating in their heads!)
Eat a potato chip wearing headphone-enhanced loud cracking sound and it makes them wonderfully crispy.
Chef Blumenthal engages experts from many fields to help him achieve the singular sensations he seeks. For a Christmas dinner, his objective was to recreate the very innermost essence of the moment, not just the taste and the smells of Christmas, but the feeling of Christmas, the emotion of Christmas, the memory of Christmas. Where to begin?
Why in the Middle East of course, to procure gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then on to Siberia to get a bucket of reindeer milk. Then, have a consultation with Christophe, the Parisian perfume expert who analyzed each component into its molecular structure. And then the real task begins.
How to incorporate the other flavors of the season: nutmeg, roasting chestnuts, orange, whiskey… and how to serve the composition?
Why in the form of a sorbet-that-doesn’t-melt encased in a tabletop crackling fire over which is suspended a bouquet of roses that release their fragrance? The sights and sounds and smells of Christmas are formed into a scoop of sorbet and served from a wooden teaspoon carved from the myrrh tree of course. Of course!
Why did no one think of such a thing before? (The miniature scoop of sorbet melts in slow ecstasy in the mouth.)
A cup of tea? Split in half vertically with one side hot and the other cold?
Pour liquid nitrogen over macerated apples and billowing clouds of fragrant apples suffuse the brain.
Chefs are transforming themselves into artists, magicians, and creative geniuses. Some accept interns, sorcerer’s apprentices. Just a word of warning: don’t mention the words, “molecular gastronomy.” Molecular gastronomists hate this term. You can understand why.
They are more accurately described as Wizards of Godz.