In search of obsession, the discovery of something far more powerful inside the...
It’s ten to eight in the morning when I arrive in the English village of Bray and I’m nervous. I’m going to roast a chicken with Heston Blumenthal, whose restaurant, the Fat Duck, has three Michelin stars (only two others in Britain can claim the same) and has been called the best in the world. As I head for the test kitchen, which sits in a small house in a parking lot across from the Duck, I remember how CLAPTON IS GOD was scrawled on walls around London in the mid-sixties. In an age when chefs have replaced rock stars, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar legend reading HESTON IS GOD.
"Cup of tea?" he asks pleasantly when I get inside. In his late thirties, a chunky, balding, unpretentious guy with specs, Blumenthal reminds me of a young John Malkovich. On the counter of the modest sunny kitchen is a chicken, which Blumenthal regards with serious pleasure. He has researched the best fowl, and though there are many good varieties he prefers poulet de Bresse. Each of these birds lives on ten square meters of French countryside on a diet of natural grains; they are the only chickens in the world to have a government-issued AOC designation. "Start with a poulet de Bresse," he says to me, "and it’s hard to go wrong."
Food isn’t just Blumenthal’s profession or passion—it’s an intellectual pursuit, it’s magic. He’s been called Dr. Frankenstein, Salvador Dalí, and a culinary Harry Potter. At the Fat Duck you can famously taste the results of his experiments, often termed "molecular gastronomy" or "culinary alchemy": the bacon-and-egg ice cream, the salmon with licorice, the snail porridge. And he can do more than just wacky haute cuisine; his pub, the Hinds Head, just down the street from the Duck, serves traditional English dishes such as pea-and-ham soup, Lancashire hot pot, and sherry trifle. Blumenthal is a master of playing the molecular and the secular off each other, as if he were a boffin in the kitchen literally inventing new ways of cooking and then using them for the everyday celebration of it. Which is why we’re making roast chicken—but making it his way: very, very slowly.
"We’ll roast it about six hours at a low temperature," he says. "A chicken is mostly water and you want to keep in as much moisture as you can. Ideally, you’d brine it for twenty-four hours first."
Six hours? Twenty-four hours?! I try not to hyperventilate. He grins. "My wife, who makes the Sunday roast chicken at our house, doesn’t bother with brining," he says.
Blumenthal picks up a large knife. "I like to remove the wings first, chop them up, and save them for making gravy." The chicken goes into the oven, which has been preheated to 140 degrees, to be cooked until the internal temperature of the bird also reaches 140. No basting; there won’t be much juice. The gravy comes later.
"One really important thing," Blumenthal says, "is to make sure you use an oven thermometer." Ovens, he claims, even the most expensive, are never really accurate. You also need a probe for testing the interior temperature of liquids and solids. The chicken’s in now. And so, on to the potatoes.
"You want to use quite large potatoes so you can quarter them," says Blumenthal, holding one as gently as if it were the Holy Grail. "The more edges it has, the more it will soak up the butter and the better the crust."
We peel. We put the skins into a muslin bag. Blumenthal boils up a saucepan of salted water and puts the bag in along with the potatoes. "The skins give them a very potatoey flavor," he says. "And you boil them until they’re very soft, almost falling apart, about twenty minutes," he adds. "They’ll have all those little fissures, like old ladies’ skins, that soak up the butter." I covertly inspect the skin inside my arms.
Olive oil goes into a roasting pan and so do the spuds, and when they’re covered with the oil it all goes into the oven for an hour. (Shake the pan every 20 minutes or so, and add garlic and rosemary at about 50 minutes.) Meanwhile, Blumenthal prepares the veg: the carrots (sauté them in butter, no water) and the broccoli florets (boil them until they’re soft enough to soak up still more butter). That he uses tons of butter isn’t surprising; after all, he first fell in love with food in France.
Blumenthal never thought about being a chef until his parents took him to Provence at 16. A true autodidact, he came home and learned to cook merely by reading books and experimenting. (He even taught himself French along the way.) Blumenthal compares himself to a car nut who strips down engines to see what’s inside.
At some point he came across On Food and Cooking by food author and scientist Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry of the kitchen. Now Blumenthal himself spends time with scientists, fooling around with food. He has used an ultrasound gun to make mayonnaise. He uses a centrifuge and vacuum jars in his cooking. He’s entranced by flavor encapsulation, by which a single coffee bean crushed between your teeth while you drink hot water tastes more of coffee than the same bean dissolved in it. He studies scents, like cut grass and leather and tobacco. "I’ve worked with a deejay," he says. "We recorded the sound of sugar. I’ve been recorded eating pickles seven different ways." He amplifies popping candy with headphones. "The crunchier it sounds, the crunchier it tastes."
There are other chefs experimenting with this kind of molecular razzle-dazzle, most notably Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, outside Barcelona, and Homaro Cantu at Chicago’s Moto. They cook to surprise, excite, astonish, épater le bourgeois. With Blumenthal, though, it’s all about taste and nostalgia. On a shelf in the test kitchen is a glass lab beaker marked "Sweet Shop Scent." At the Fat Duck he serves old-fashioned ice cream cornets and sardine-on-toast sorbet. His roast chicken is a roast chicken of longing, the dish he eats every Sunday with his wife and three kids (on Monday night they have Indian takeout and watch TV). It would be his death-row meal except it would make him too sad thinking of his family. Perfection for Blumenthal doesn’t just mean the best poulet de Bresse; it means that every aspect of a meal is just right: the sight, sound, taste, and feel, the romance of it, the memories.
"It’s ready, chef," calls one of his young disciples, presenting us with the chicken that’s been in the oven now for about six hours. It’s almost as white as a vampire victim.
"You could brown it in a big frying pan with peanut oil—just heat up the oil for ten minutes until it’s smoking and use a pair of tongs," says Blumenthal. "But I use a blowtorch."
With the look of a delighted child, he begins to blowtorch the skin so it crackles and browns. The broccoli and carrots are ready. The potatoes are glorious, with a bronzed gold crust that looks like Murano glass. Blumenthal then carves the chicken and puts some alongside the potatoes and vegetables on a warm white plate. He places it on the work counter. I eat. It is more delicious than I imagined chicken could be, dense with chickeny flavor, succulent, moist, rich. The vegetables are buttery, the potatoes golden and crisp. As promised: perfection.
You’re wondering, of course, if I’m really going to roast a chicken for six hours, chop wings, make gravy in an old-fashioned pressure cooker, let alone do the whole brining thing? And will I get myself a blowtorch?
Probably not. But it doesn’t matter. That morning in Bray, I learn something much more interesting. For the first time, I understand cooking. Usually I think, Who cares if you boil potatoes before you roast them? Why do this or that seemingly superfluous step? And what the hell is a reduction, anyhow? But Blumenthal’s enthusiasm is catching, his obsession infectious. I see why things liquefy, solidify, boil, evaporate, change color or texture, and why they taste good and what part memory, or romance, or laughter plays in the whole process. The first time I ate at the Fat Duck, what I loved was that the diners were not intimidated or awestruck; they were laughing. When the green tea puffs made with liquid nitrogen were served, when the mustard ice cream appeared, when the popping candy popped, everyone laughed and laughed. Call it art. Or magic.
Makes 4 servings
- 3 lbs poulet de bresse or best free-range chicken
- 7 tbsp unsalted butter
- 12-13 oz table salt
- 2-3 tbsp peanut oil
Blumenthal brines and blanches the chicken, but he says you can skip these two steps.
1. Remove chicken’s wings at the first joint and set them aside. Discard neck, feet, and wishbone (or have your butcher do it), keeping the wings.
2. Preheat oven to 140°F, checking heat with an oven thermometer. Cook the chicken in a roasting pan until the internal temperature reaches 140F. This takes four to six hours.
3. Remove the chicken from the oven. Let it rest for one hour. The chicken will be pale white, not brown.
4. Chop the reserved wings in coarse pieces. Heat butter in a small pan over low to medium heat. Add the wings and fry until butter is dark brown and smells nutty. Pass the wings and butter through a fine sieve into a bowl. Reserve this juice.
5. To brown the chicken, either use a blowtorch (à la Blumenthal) or heat a large frying pan over high heat for ten minutes. Add oil. When it is smoking, turn the chicken with tongs to brown it all over.
6. Place the chicken on a platter. With a baster, push the buttery wing juice through the skin into the chicken and over its surface. Carve and serve with roast potatoes and vegetables.