Here, the multi-sensory dining pioneer speaks to Elite Traveler about what drives him, his latest projects and the continued success of the former Bray alehouse known as The Fat Duck.
What have you been up to today?
New menu stuff we’re working on for The Fat Duck. We’ve just finished a brutal filming schedule and we’ve done loads of new dishes for it. We’ve got three new savoury dishes, one dessert and we’re looking at revamping the whole petits four sweetshop thing.
Congratulations on coming third in the Elite 100 Restaurants 2014. How does it feel for The Fat Duck to be recognized by the public in this way?
Fantastic. One of the hard things is that the restaurant has achieved more than I could ever have imagined. Beyond my wildest dreams. When I opened The Duck, I thought maybe one day I’d get a Michelin star and from August we’ll start our twentieth year.
Then you get to a point where, I think what happens with some of the journalists, is that you go off the radar. And in fact, what’s wonderful about this (recognition), is that it’s not critics, it’s the general public, who ultimately – as stereotyped as it might seem – are who you are cooking for.
Food critics are very important for the business and obviously to bring the general public in, but ultimately you’re cooking for your customers and you want to give them the best pleasure and experience.
What do you feel is the secret to maintaining a globally successful restaurant over such a long period of time?
It’s never being happy with what you’re doing: I think humility is really important. And also, any constructive criticism or feedback is also really important.
But The Duck is quite interesting because when we opened Dinner at the Mandarin, we opened it with a planned format, a planned concept that we’d been working on, and we considered that people go to restaurants because they want to enjoy the food, but they also want to spend time with their friends… social interaction, occasion… all that kind of stuff.
So Dinner was more planned like that, but the Duck has just evolved organically in the sense that in the late nineties this whole world had opened up to me, the world of the senses. The impact of sound and sight and smell and touch and taste is so powerful. I think that to be able to continually rethink what you do and continue to say, “How can we make this better? How can make the overall experience better?” is really important.
Is that the secret?
It’s the secret. And also having a brilliant team. So we’ve got – just in the Duck – 100 staff with administrators, reservations and stuff, and we only seat 42 people. I think you’ve got to have a motivated staff.
If a journalist walked in and watched service, you’d think, “Are you putting this on for us?!” Everyone’s really polite and it’s all smiles and pleases and thank yous. It’s so opposite to people’s stereotypical idea of a gastronomic kitchen with a screaming, shouting chef.
Obviously multi-sensory dining is still relatively new. Do you hope that it’s something that will grow more and more?
Yes. The art, or the trick, or the key thing, is how to do that without turning something into an experiment. If you see what I mean.
(Image Credit: Alisa Connan)