Heston’s comfort food fix for mile-high fare

It may have started as a UK reality show and came with its own share of mid-air disasters, but Heston Blumenthal says he actually enjoyed his short stint at airline catering, writes FCI’s Will Temple. 

“It was challenging but rewarding, and that is what food should be about,” he tells Food Companion International of his attempts at cooking gourmet dishes from scratch in a cramped British Airways galley. 

Blumenthal has credited his “multi-sensory” approach to cooking to a family trip in Provence, where chirping cicadas, bubbling fountains and the smell of lavender helped define the whole taste experience for him as much as the food. 

He has since conducted his own experiments to show how sound affects our perception of taste, and has even created dishes where diners listen to pleasing sounds over headphones as an integral accompaniment. 

The problem is at 35,000 feet the sensory experience is rather more like an assault. The sound is intense background noise from jet engines, the lighting is poor and the pressurised cabin dries us out, killing about 30 per cent of our total taste, particularly the salty and sweet flavours. 

When faced with the airline challenge for Heston’s Mission Impossible, Blumenthal knew he couldn’t exactly turn off the engines and he’d already tried an awkward saline nasal douche for his passengers. 

But never one to shirk an opportunity for culinary experimentation, the chef finally hit upon a secret weapon. 

The man who cites “looking into the science of cooking” as a career turning point, decided he would introduce umami-rich ingredients to help combat the blandness. It was a solution that pleased airline caterers and most importantly the passengers themselves.  

Australia already has its own experience of Blumenthal’s multi-sensory at The Fat Duck within the Crown Melbourne Resort since February 2015.

It’s staying Down Under while the UK premises at Bray, in Berkshire, are renovated. Blumenthal bought the rundown pub in 1995 after teaching himself cooking while working odd jobs over a decade. 

He says he has “only spent about three weeks in other people’s kitchens” during his career and it is the love of the job that keeps him going - along with drinking tea and getting in “a lot of exercise”.

His advice to the young guns of the future? “Chefs should cook for the love of food,” he tells FCI. 

“Get a deep understanding of the principles of classical French cuisine and question everything. 

“Less and less over the years have I liked categorising. I just want to create fantastic food, that’s all. “Cooking is about drawing in everything around you ... well, the good bits, anyway!” He cites a Big Mac ice cream as the most controversial menu item he has ever made.  

“It wasn’t for public consumption. But it tasted great!”  

But despite his experimental approach, Blumenthal’s top purveyor tip is to keep an eye on the balance sheet. 

“Any chef that doesn’t have a steer on the costings is a fool,” he says.