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By Neharika Padala | March 31 2014
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)
As a chef if I had to pick one I’d say Alain Chapel from Lyon. I’ve still got a dish which was the only one on The Fat Duck menu where I’ve ever credited a chef. It’s still on. Jelly of quail, langoustine and cream, pea purée, truffle and oak toast, oak moss: the smell of a woodland.
Otherwise my inspiration has been all the people that I’ve been working with. So if could be a perfumer, a magician, a psychologist or a physicist.
The Fat Duck specializes in confounding expectations and surprising the senses. Should food always break the rules and contain an element of surprise?
No, there are some times you crave a great burger – you don’t want caramelized onions in that burger. On the surprise-ometer, The Fat Duck’s at the top of the tree for us, Dinner’s the next one down, The Hinds Head’s the next one down and then The Crown.
And we’re opening a new restaurant (at Heathrow’s Terminal 2) in June – there will be some really exciting surprises but if you crave a burger, you crave a pizza, we want to give exactly that. It’s called ‘The Perfectionist’s Café’.
It will, without a shadow of a doubt. More and more and more. Because at first, the notion of working with sciences was obviously completely new. And everyone said, “Oh no, this takes the emotion out of cooking”. In fact, it does not take the emotion out of cooking. It enables you to look at emotion even more and gives you more ability to be consistent in the kitchen.
People put down science, however if you’re making certain sweets or meringue, you’re told to cook sugar at a certain temperature. Even the most luddite-type people that like cooking still have to admit that there is a science. It’s there. Whether or not you want to embrace it is another thing.
The greatest thing that’s happened recently is greater confidence in British food. Britain is now in the first time since the Georgian period where we’ve actually embraced British cooking. There were some great restaurants in the eighties and the nineties and the early noughties but they were all French based.
Now we have this new wave of confidence, which I think is fantastic. And along with that, you don’t need dickie bows and tablecloths and stuff like that and I think people are much more comfortable and confident going to restaurants.
What would you say drives and motivates you more than anything?
Learning. I love learning. Learning things, discovering new things, being creative. That kind of stuff. Ultimately, it’s seeing pleasure on people’s faces. You can reduce adults to children. I love that.
And finally, what’s your next goal and what are your plans for the rest of the year?
We are going to be making a very big announcement in a week’s time.
Is that to do with one of the restaurants?
I can’t say! We are going to be making a very big announcement. I’ve got a TV show coming out in May and we’re opening the Terminal 2 restaurant, I’m launching a really exciting range of food products for one of the largest supermarkets in Australia – that launches in May. There’s about half a dozen things this year that happen to be really huge.
(Image Credit: Ashley Palmer-Watts)