The Sight and Sound of Taste

Heston Blumenthal, mad food scientist and three-star chef at the Fat Duck, near London, is much in demand these days, with a book, In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics, and a BBC TV show that debuted late last year, but Sara Dickerman caught up with him over email right before the holidays. He told her why Fat Duck guests might soon be plugged into an iPod while eating, and why she might soon be able to stop squeezing all the seedy pulp out of her tomatoes.

Over the holidays, most of us revert to the most traditional foods we know. Do you cook for the holidays? Do you reengineer those food traditions as well?

Yes, we all cook as a family. We all pile into the kitchen and cook traditional Christmas lunch with roast turkey and all the trimmings; the kids each have their own chores they like to do. It is a very traditional and nostalgic day. In fact, it’s my favorite holiday. I don’t reengineer food, but we do tend to follow our own style of cooking—for example, longer cooking times at lower temperatures, similar to the chicken recipe in the book, actually.

One thing that distinguishes you from so many chefs today is your interest in the science and technology of food. What are some of your current investigations into food science, and might any of them impact the way we cook at home?

I am currently coauthoring a paper on the glutamate content inside tomatoes—i.e., the seeds and pulp. [Editor’s note: Glutamate, a form of glutamic acid, is the substance that triggers umami, the fifth taste, which is often referred to as meaty or savory.] This particular part of the tomato has strong meat-taste-boosting properties. In many home recipes we throw away the pulp and seeds, and so this may have an effect on how we use tomatoes in home recipes in the future.

How does a typical day of research proceed for you?

We start off with a brainstorming session and update. Swapping ideas and results and working on different projects, pulling in research data, etc. It can be really exciting and productive—but not always. There are tough days too. Take savory candy floss, for example. We must have worked on that for about 18 months and just couldn’t crack it; we had to give up in the end. It can be frustrating. However, other days you can quickly hit an idea that instantly works.

Your book has several recipes in it. How much did you try to scale things down for the home cook—any gadgets or techniques that you’d have liked to use, but chose not to for the sake of approachability?

All of the recipes had to be doable at home. Ideally, it would be great if everyone could access professional kitchen equipment. We use a vacuum oven at the restaurant to make our aerated chocolate; however, when we tried to re-create this for the home cook, we discovered that a strong suction vacuum cleaner works, too, and is great fun. When making smooth ice cream, we also substituted a commercial ice cream machine or liquid nitrogen with dry ice, which is quite readily available.

Speaking of things that can’t be done in a home kitchen, what’s new on the menu at the Fat Duck?

I am working on a new dish using an iPod. We are working on sound at the moment and the effect it has on the context of dining. We have been trialing a new dish of braised lotus root, which is cut and shaped like a shell, served with confit of abalone. It conveys the aroma of the sea. Then we added the sound of the sea lapping at the shore on a personal iPod whilst you eat, and we are monitoring the effects this creates on the taste. So far, so good.