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The Biography of the World's Most Brilliant Master Chef
By Chas Newkey-Burden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Chas Newkey-Burden
All rights reserved.
THE KARATE KID
To paraphrase an old football billboard advertisement, 1966 was an eventful year for England: the national football team won the World Cup, Harold Wilson's Labour Party won the general election, The Beatles released their acclaimed album Revolver – celebrating the release by declaring themselves 'bigger than Jesus' – the Kray twins shot a rival; and, on 27 May, Heston Blumenthal was born in West London. (Blumenthal is not the only British celebrity chef to arrive on this date, a certain Jamie Oliver was born on the same day, just nine years later.)
Blumenthal grew up in the Shepherds Bush district of West London with his parents Stephen and Celia and his sister. This is not a part of the world hugely associated with cuisine and dining. True, it has its fair share of restaurants but the leisure activities most associated with Shepherds Bush are football, theatre, live music and television. The local team, Queens Park Rangers, play their home games at nearby Loftus Road. (Blumenthal himself is a confirmed Arsenal fan, visiting the Emirates Stadium a couple of times a season. He once went into business with a Gunners' legend.)
Venues such as the Bush Theatre put on great plays and concerts, the Shepherds Bush Empire is a hot live music venue and the BBC has many offices and studios in the area. Therefore, it is more likely that the celebrity side of Blumenthal, rather than the chef side, was awakened by his experiences growing up in Shepherds Bush.
But, as far as food is concerned, there has long been a South African flavour to the area. Some street names in Shepherds Bush hark towards the country, and the area used to be home to a venue called the South African Pavilion. Nowadays, the distinctive accent of the region can be heard in the area, as part of the general influx of its inhabitants into West London.
Although Heston Blumenthal's father, Stephen, had an English background, he was born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa. The family returned to England as apartheid began to cause increasing conflict, but they would still holiday in South Africa when Blumenthal was growing up. There were some early food experiences for him on those trips, such as the meaty delights of boerewors (spicy sausages) and tasty, juicy steaks. He was fascinated by the flavours and textures of these foods.
It is only natural to look for clues in the early years of someone for the person they became. However, for Blumenthal, being a cook was not an ambition that he forged particularly early in life. Instead, he originally wanted to be an inventor. This stemmed from a story he wrote at school at the age of seven. 'I wrote a story about a spaceship that could go anywhere in the universe, even to Ireland,' he remembered. As far as the Emerald Isle? That's some spaceship, Heston. However, his ambition to become an inventor has not gone entirely unrealised, for Heston has been at the cutting edge of cooking, rather than one who follows either the pack or the rules. So it can be said that he realised his ambition, but in the kitchen rather than in hops across the Irish sea in a spaceship. Well, it's not a bad second prize, is it?
Not that he is lacking in memories of food as a kid, as we have already seen. Blumenthal is now a famous chef, not least due to the numerous television programmes he has presented. He was inspired from an early age to combine food and broadcasting when his imagination was captured by one of the earliest cooking personalities, Graham Kerr.
Born in 1934, Kerr was one of the earliest celebrity chefs in the UK, although his profile was first raised as a result of a trip to New Zealand. He emigrated down under in 1958 to work as a culinary consultant to the armed forces. One day, he appeared on television to demonstrate how to cook an omelette. He charmed the viewers and he was soon offered a regular spot on Australian television. He also contributed recipes to the pages of glossy magazines and published his own book – Entertaining With Kerr.
Then, in 1969, Kerr moved to Canada where he presented a show called The Galloping Gourmet. It was named after a book he co-authored with wine bod Len Evans, based on a jolly jaunt the pair made across the globe. However, in the television show of the same name, it really was all about Kerr. He would leap around the set, crack jokes and neck gulps of wine as he cooked. More than anything else, the programme is perhaps best remembered for the fact that Kerr used large amounts of butter, cream and other high-cholesterol ingredients. He was devil-may-care and often said to his guests of these fattening factors, 'Madame, you could go outside and get run over by a bus and just think what you would have missed!' It was all good fun and The Galloping Gourmet earned himself two Emmy nominations in the process, as well as young Heston Blumenthal's continued admiration.
Two events in Kerr's life radically changed his outlook. Firstly, in 1971, he was involved in a serious car crash that left him paralysed for a while. Then his wife suffered a stroke and a heart attack. The Kerr that returned to the television screens after these setbacks was a changed man. More serious than the carefree cook of before, he would include a quote from the Bible as part of his shows. And the high-fat recipes were history as well. Instead, he produced dishes which he dubbed Minimax – the name formed from 'minimum' amount of fat and the 'maximum' amount of flavour and texture. Kerr's shows grabbed the attention of Blumenthal as he grew up watching television in the family home in West London, in the shadows of the BBC headquarters. One of his earliest memories of watching the box was of Kerr 'standing back as he shook a flaming pan while the audience cheered'.
There was also plenty of cooking at home. Heston's mother has always cooked a great coq au vin, and many of his childhood food memories revolve around the Christian festive season. Heston considers himself Jewish, yet agnostic. He has always celebrated Christmas, for instance. 'Childhood memories are key to my cooking,' he has said. 'And, of course, many of the most vivid childhood memories are of Christmas.' It is a season full of scents and smells, particularly for the ultra-sensorially aware Blumenthal, who would later draw upon them as inspiration for a flaming sorbet dish. 'When I was a kid, we used to go to my uncle's house in London. I remember being cold and walking into his warm house as he had a big open log fire. The heat and light and the crackling sound of the fire mixed with the smell of his oak-panelled room, his tobacco and the whisky by his leather chair always bring Christmases of my childhood strongly to my thoughts.'
As we will see, he had a wake-up call one Christmas as an adult, which made him determined to try harder on his relationship with his own children. He says that the key to a good Christmas dinner is 'organisation and to remember you are not just doing it for other people but for yourself as well. You've got to enjoy it or there's no point. And cut down on the number of dishes you serve. Do fewer things well.' Of his nightmare Christmas guests, he says they would be vegans. 'I completely understand vegetarianism, and there are some wonderful pleasures in eating food that doesn't involve meat and fish. But Christmas is an occasion when people come together friends, family for social interaction around the table, and when you decide you're not going to eat the meat or fish, then surely you get no enjoyment from that, and, well, I just think you shouldn't be there.'
His mother's favourite dishes included warming fare such as Hungarian goulash and Coronation chicken. Heston's first memory of cooking himself was when he camped in the back garden of the family home and cooked a sausage over a fire. He burned it but was proud of his first cooking experience. He had cooked it, he explains, so to him it tasted marvellous. A burned sausage is not something that is likely to appear on the tasting menu of The Fat Duck any time soon, but he did return to the open-air cooking of sausages on his BBC television programme In Search of Perfection in later years.
Two culinary childhood memories that are firmly implanted in Heston's mind are being ticked off royally for breaking the seal on a pressure cooker that was boiling some chicken broth. The floor in their flat was uneven and, when the young Heston jumped up and down as his mother was cooking yet another dish in the pressure cooker, the vibrations could cause the valve of the cooker to fly off. This would be immediately followed by a blast of escaping steam, much to his excitement.
A more harmonious memory is that of his impatience waiting to be able to eat newly prepared cheesecake. It took a day for the cake to set and Heston would become extremely enthusiastic at the prospect and impatient to eat it. He also remembers sometimes seeing an avocado pear in the fridge, an exotic ingredient for a home in that decade. How things have changed: nowadays an avocado pear would be one of the least surprising items in a Blumenthal kitchen.
He is keen to not overplay the part that the preparation of food played in his early years. 'Although my mother was a very good cook, my childhood memories were not woven with gastronomic experiences,' he insisted. 'I didn't spend hours beside her, stoning cherries or peeling potatoes. Food nostalgia for my generation was quite heavily influenced by synthetic flavours such as strawberry Angel Delight.' Not that he was a fan of Angel Delight alone. Indeed, the treat he truly delighted in appears to have been ice cream.
'When I was young we went to Par Sands in Cornwall,' he recalled in the Guardian. It was a culinary experience in a whole range of ways. 'My old man used olive oil as suntan lotion; we'd eat Shippam's meat-paste sandwiches and ice cream for pudding. It was always a fight to eat the ice cream, licking the top so it didn't fall all over your fingers, sucking the remainder out of the bottom. I remember picnics by the coast, with floral tables that collapsed as we battled the elements. Through it all, ice cream was our beacon of hope.' A sweet-tasting lighthouse, perhaps. This was the 1970s and so the ice cream range was not as exotic as it is today. 'Back then, of course, it was either Neapolitan ice cream or these nuclear orange blocks wrapped in cardboard,' he recalled. There was none of your Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs back then.
But it was not just his father who shaped Heston's love of ice cream and nor was Cornwall the only place he ate it. Back in West London, he would partake of it with some gusto. 'Every Saturday morning, my grandmother would take my sister and I to her favourite haunt: Church Street market, off Edgware Road,' he told the Guardian. For the young Heston, traipsing round the antique and junk stores was hard work. However, there was always a treat at the end to make up for it. 'On the way back, my grandmother would treat the pair of us to a tub of vanilla ice cream ... Just the thought of the contents of that carton made the couple of minutes that it took to walk home before devouring it seem like an age.' The shop they bought the ice creams from was called the Regent Snack Bar, run by a family from Sicily. It had a pistachio- green interior and a symbolic ice cream cone above its entry.
Blumenthal vividly recalls that a man dressed in a white coat would fill the ice cream orders. Heston's favourite order was vanilla ice cream with a hint of coffee. He always imagined that this combination was achieved by simply mixing a tiny amount of coffee into a vanilla base. However, as he began to experiment later in life in the hope of reproducing this childhood favourite, he found he could not get it right. So he tracked down the man in the white coat, now working in Chiswick, and discovered that the method was a lot less subtle than that. The man simply combined 50 per cent vanilla ice cream and 50 per cent coffee ice cream. All the same, an ice cream fan had been born.
Blumenthal still remembers hearing the tune of the ice-cream van and the hurried process that followed to make sure they were out on the street with their money in time to buy a 99 complete with chocolate flake before the van motored off to its next stopping point. Evocative stuff, and Heston to this day associates the tinkle of the ice cream van with summer alongside other memories such as wasps and lawnmowers. He also ate ice cream at the local cinema he attended regularly on Saturday mornings where he would enjoy a tub during the interval midway through that week's choice of movie. Who could have guessed then what headline-grabbing innovations he would bring to ice cream – among many other foods – in later years?
On long trips across the country, the family would sometimes stop at motorway service stations. There, he first experienced the joys of Little Chef restaurants that were to become such a famous part of his career many decades on. As a kid, he loved the entire Little Chef experience. 'You could get fishfingers ... in the actual shape of fish,' he recalled. 'Bliss. And the traffic-light lollipop with which they sent you on your way was the crowning glory of many a 1970s childhood.' These vivid memories and the warmth with which they are delivered show just how much of an impact, and a positive one at that, Little Chef had on him.
His family also sometimes ate at the Berni Inn chain. Founded in 1955 as a one-off in Bristol, it soon opened branches across the country. There, discerning diners were introduced to the wonders of steak dishes, prawn cocktails and Black Forest Gateau. 'You're better off at Berni,' ran the advertising slogan. 'We're famous for our steaks,' said another. The chain soon became something of a joke, particularly among food snobs. TV comedy character Alan Partridge once asked a fictional French chef guest on his show, 'Now, you are known as the top chef in your field. You've only got one restaurant; Berni Inn has thousands: jealous?' Straight-talking chef Gordon Ramsay remembers visiting a Berni Inn restaurant in the early 1980s. He summed it up in one word: 'Hideous'.
Blumenthal also recalls sampling steaks at the home of a Portuguese friend – although the most memorable part of the sampling was through his nose. His friend's mother would often fry steaks, and the smell that emanated from the kitchen always captured Heston's imagination. He describes it as akin to the scenes from those classic television advertisements for Bisto gravy, in which the cartoon children hold their noses up high to savour the distinctive odour of the brand.
No Berni Inn restaurant experience back then was complete without a Black Forest Gateau, but Heston would try to pick off just the chocolate part, as he found the gateau experience in its entirety a considerable letdown. He still wonders whether anyone really enjoyed them and later set out to investigate the dish as an adult.
Only on special occasions would the Blumenthal clan normally venture elsewhere. For instance, they would sometimes have picnics in Windsor Great Park, in the shadow of the magnificent castle. A 5,000-acre affair that dates from the 13th century, it is a popular attraction for the people not only from Berkshire – where Blumenthal would later live and work – but also from West London and beyond.
In addition to the al fresco Windsor treats, every year on his birthday, Heston's parents would take him to eat out. They would normally go to the Lee Ho Fook Chinese restaurant on Queensway, West London. Young Heston was always excited by these visits and basked in the sensory overload of the restaurant's exotic cooking smells, the sight of the prepared ducks hanging in the window and, of course, the challenge of eating with chopsticks. It was an exciting experience for a kid in the 1970s when such Eastern wonders were still a rarity. Indeed, when his friends came for dinner, Heston would worry that their pallets would be unable to cope with dishes as out of the ordinary as the Coronation chicken and goulash that his mother served them. She sometimes cooked spaghetti Bolognese, too. He recalls that she believed – as did most people back then – that Bolognese sauce was in essence no different to that of shepherd's pie or chilli con carne. He would find mushrooms and peas in his mother's version of the former. These were simple times for most domestic kitchens.
Excerpted from Heston Blumenthal by Chas Newkey-Burden. Copyright © 2012 Chas Newkey-Burden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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