[10 May 2010]
“I’m Heston Blumenthal, and I run one of the best restaurants in the world. I don’t do food in an ordinary way. I think food should be fun: a delicious, spectacular adventure, with every bite being a delight to the senses… I’m on a mission to use myth, science and history to create the greatest feasts ever seen… So throw away your cookbooks—and please don’t try this at home.”
—Heston Blumenthal, introduction to Heston’s Feast”
He’s understating things. Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant— The Fat Duck, in Bray, England—holds three Michelin stars, has thrice been named by The Good Food Guide as the best restaurant in the UK, and once by Restaurant magazine as the best restaurant in the world. I’ve eaten there.
I’ve eaten Blumenthal’s ‘Nitro Scrambled Bacon and Egg Ice Cream’, ‘Parsnip Cereal’, and ‘Snail Porridge’. I’ve drunk his ‘Hot and Ice Tea’—which is served in one glass, one half of the liquid hot enough to make you gasp whilst, impossibly, the other is cold enough to do the same. I’ve listened to wave sounds and gull calls on an iPod Nano concealed in a seashell whilst eating his ‘Sounds of the Sea’: a miraculous fish course that looks, and smells, and feels, exactly like a miniature beach, and works as much on the memory and the imagination as on the mouth.
I’ve never really recovered. Every meal I’ve eaten since has been a disappointment, every dish seeming monochrome and two-dimensional by comparison with those served up within the elegant and unassuming interior of The Fat Duck. The brilliance of Heston’s Feast is that it almost—almost—allows its audience to ‘taste’ Blumenthal’s food—and that has to be one of finest, and most unlikely, achievements in the history of television.
Blumenthal believes that the inspiration for the food of the future is contained in the recipes of the past. The first four of the five 45-minute episodes in this series showcase his attempt to create 21st century banquets inspired by the gastronomy of a particular period. We see Heston’s Victorian Feast, Heston’s Medieval Feast, Heston’s Tudor Feast and Heston’s Roman Feast. The fifth episode features a Christmas meal in part inspired by the classic carol Good King Wenceslas.
It’s agonizing to attempt to pick the best of the feasts but, forced to, I’d probably opt for the Victorian: in it, Blumenthal stages a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and serves Alice In Wonderland’s heretofore fictional ‘Drink Me’ drink of five flavours: toffee, hot buttered toast, custard, cherry tart and turkey. This section is the series’ purest expression of Blumenthal’s talent: we follow him from his initial, absurd, inspiration, through the rigorous science that makes it a reality, to his dramatic presentation of the perfect final product. He explains the ingredients and very nearly makes us understand the science that combines them—and even so the resultant liquid seems impossible. Even though we know exactly how Blumenthal’s tricks are done, they’re still sufficiently astonishing to make us suspect they may really be magic.
At each feast, six celebrities experience (and ‘experience’, rather than simply ‘eat’, is the verb that should be used in reference to Blumenthal’s meals) the most outlandish dinner party of their (and possibly anybody’s) lives. Between watching their unblinking incredulity at the theatre around them and the food in front of them, we watch the always engaging—and always obsessive—efforts Blumenthal made to create each course.
What courses they are! A typical introductory sentence runs: ‘On the menu tonight: a huge hog with edible intestines; a savoury custard made of brains; and a titillating ejaculating cake.’ The dishes are designed to sound disgusting: that is part of Blumenthal’s show: as with all great conjurors, his audience (and his dinner guests are as much a part of his audience as we are) is supposed to doubt he can pull it off, that his proposed leap is too long and will end in humiliation, or worse.
Then of course, culinary Knievel that he is, we’re all the more amazed when the landing is safe and spectacular, when the celebrity diners all quiver with delight once they actually eat the edible cutlery, caramel-filled candles and tomato-injected insects.
That is not to suggest that every dish is a success with every guest. The ever-contrary erstwhile editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie (‘I’m more of a steak and kidney pie guy…’), attempts to dislike everything he is served simply to expand his part in the programme, but is fully converted by a miraculous dessert that looks precisely like sausage, mashed potato, peas and onion gravy. (Quoth Mackenzie: ‘He’s a magician. That was absolutely fantastic!’)
High-brow television presenter Mariella Frostrup’s disgust at the idea (but, crucially, not the taste) of a dormouse lollipop (dormouse and mouse meat served inside a white chocolate casing) is more genuine—but is eclipsed in the mind by actress Greta Scaacchi’s almost literally orgasmic reaction to the aforementioned ejaculating cake. (‘I got off on that,’ she says through ruby-flushing cheeks.)
The methods of cooking are as extreme as the ingredients (‘I’m using a paint gun to give an outer layer of chocolate to my dessert…’), and many of the best moments in show come in watching Blumenthal’s naturally unprecedented attempts to actually cook the dishes he’s designed. Much of that cooking cannot be accommodated by a kitchen (even a kitchen like that at The Fat Duck, which has an onsite laboratory) and leads him to such improbable locations for the creation of cuisine as building site and car parks.
Without a water bath big enough for the operation, he decides to slow-cook a whole pig in a hot tub, and this occasions one of the series’ most amusing images: Blumenthal driving the vacuum-wrapped porker past rows of Jacuzzis on a forklift truck before depositing it the kind of watery enclosure in which Hugh Hefner would stage a soiree.
The best moments in the show, however, come as we see ideas exploding behind Blumenthal’s lively eyes, or watch him watch his creations reduce his guests to moaned monosyllables brought about by inexpressible oral ecstasy. Regardless of its outlandish and purely entertaining aspects, Heston’s Feast is a chance to observe, and accompany, one of the world’s great creative talents as he invents, experiments and, ultimately, amazes with his art.
Some small explanation of that art appears in the text biography that is the only extra on this two-DVD set. It’s a shame that Acorn Media did not include more extras (interviews with Blumenthal, for example; a documentary on The Fat Duck; or any of the no-doubt fascinating footage of the chef at work that must have been shot for the show but couldn’t be included in it).
This is the finest food porn in the world and, I think, the best cooking show ever broadcast. Subsequently, it deserves a far more extensive home-viewing presentation than it has been given. Each episode achieves that rarest quality in TV: as it ends, we wish it were longer not because it is some calculatedly inconclusive drama reliant upon contrived cliffhangers, but simply because it so extraordinary we do not want it to end. On DVD, of course, it could and should have been made to last well past the appearance of the final credits.
As a film critic, I strain never to use the word ‘genius’ (it causes dissenting or suspicious readers not to celebrate the abilities to which it is applied, but search forensically for failings within them)—but I would argue endlessly with anyone who contends I shouldn’t apply it to Blumenthal. His is a transformative talent that can scarcely be comprehended and must instead just be enjoyed. Heston’s Feast is not literally perfect – it features footage of one or two animal slaughters at which many will wince, and a couple of the less eminent guests are all but incidental – but it is essentially perfect.
There is no show like this available on DVD (indeed, the only show like this that may ever have been made is Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection). Just as Heston Blumenthal stretches and redefines food, so Heston’s Feast stretches and redefines food television. For as long as the finest of fine dining is celebrated on the small screen, this show will be both influential and essential.
There are some who, afflicted with myopic minds, criticise the show because none of its recipes could ever be recreated in the home—to criticise Heston’s Feast because it does not teach you how to cook is like a criticising a Yehudi Menuhin concert because it does not teach you how to play the violin. The only true criticism that can be made of this programme is that—just as eating Blumenthal’s food can make everything else you taste seem second-rate—watching Heston’s Feast can make every other food show seem suddenly unsatisfactory.