Celebrity Chef Heston Blumenthal On The Future Of Food
The Englishman opens up about the science behind his cooking, plans to educate the next generation and his latest obsession—water
Before we can even settle down into our seats, Heston Blumenthal is cautioning us about his frantic, tangential interview style.
“I’ve got ADHD, so my mind can go all over the place,” says the British chef, when we catch up with him at the Milken Institute Asia Summit 2019, where he's been invited to speak about global trends in food and agriculture. “Sometimes I think and talk at the same time. It’s almost like I’m subconsciously learning how to clarify what I’m thinking, both inside my mind and by saying it out to people. And because of this, I’ve had people look at my chin, my ears and my nose, and they are probably thinking, ‘What are you on?’. So hopefully, I can close the loop in our conversation.”
Regarded as the Willy Wonka of gastronomy, the fictional character that also happens to be his childhood hero, Blumenthal is behind Michelin-starred restaurants such as Fat Duck, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and The Hind’s Head. Also a characterful TV personality and author, he is best known as the poster boy for molecular gastronomy. "Chefs are practical physicists—we bash stuff, we mix stuff, we cook stuff. We do stuff that changes the molecules, we’re doing something physical to food," he once said in an interview with the Michelin Guide.
Here, Blumenthal shares his thoughts on how we form our perceptions of what we eat, how AI will affect creativity in the kitchen, and the future of food.
How bias affects the tastebuds
"I discovered in the late 1990s that what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch heavily affects your perception of food. One of my pivotal dishes, for example, is the crab ice cream. These days, not many people will bat an eyelash at the thought of crab ice cream. But back in the '90s, people were shocked. Yet if it was called a frozen crab bisque, the response was very much different.
Later, I worked on a research paper with two professors from the University of Sussex—Martin Yeomans and Lucy Chambers—where we fed our test subjects smoked salmon ice cream. We told half of them that they were eating smoked salmon ice cream and the other half that it was smoked salmon mousse, and asked them to rate the perceived saltiness. The dish turned out to be 10 to 20 percent saltier when it was called smoked salmon ice cream.
This is because your memory tells you that ice cream is supposed to be sweet. So this is what we call the nocebo effect, which is the opposite of a placebo effect, where your negative thinking or expectations actually bring about negative effects. Twenty five years since that crab ice cream, I've come to realise that even by changing the name of a dish before people eat it will change the way they perceive it and the relationship they form with it."
Discovering his love of cooking
"For the past one and half years, I've been living in a small village in the Alpilles, a small range of low mountains in Provence, in the south of France. It's just 15 minutes away from the restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière, which first inspired me to cook.
I moved away from London because I wanted to bring my focus back to what I believe in. I had previously just been running faster and faster on the hamster wheel, and I wanted to stop. And I could do that because I've got a team of people in each of my restaurants that I can depend on to run them well. Moving to Provence was like a process of reverse engineering—I'm returning to the place that inspired me in the first place.
I remember visiting L’Oustau de Baumanière on a holiday in France with my family when I was 16. I wasn't aware of the concept of a Michelin-starred restaurant and neither was my family. But my dad read about the place from somewhere, so we decided to try it. I remember the experience felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole and into a multi-sensory wonderland. I remember the sound of crickets, the feet of the waitstaff crunching on gravel, the smell of lavender in the air, the clink of glasses, the sommelier with a handlebar moustache and leather apron on... I remember what I ate, yes, but I remember those other details more vividly. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a chef."
The pros and cons of machines
"We are moving towards a species without a gut—one where robots can do many of our tasks. I've just gotten involved with an AI company and one of the things I hope to do in the future, whether it's with a restaurant or a food show, is to demonstrate what robots can and cannot do.
I think we need to redefine the word 'intelligence', because it's not just about having a grasp of the basic subjects, such as mathematics, but also being creative and imaginative, and being able to work together as a group—all of which the AI world has not yet mastered. Without imagination, we cannot create systems of working together. In turn, this means we won't be able to create objects, from cities and buildings to water bottles and mobile phones."
Why we don't understand water
"A few months ago, I set up a lab to study all kinds of things. Currently, we're looking at water, how it can carry information in its different physical states—information such as emotions, memories and other types of data. For example, when you're cooking with gratitude or love, these emotions are projected as energy vibrations, which are in turn transferred to the food you're cooking via water, which exists in the air as a gas.
I think my fascination with water stems from the fact that we know what to do with it—we drink it, wash things with it, cook with it, buy it, need it for survival—but we don't actually know what it is exactly. It behaves differently to just about everything else."
Nurturing the next generation
"We need to start thinking more about eating, and not think about eating more. The traditional education system was so successful in what it was put out to do—promote English and mathematics as the two main subjects in the world—but it was at the expense of other subjects such as the arts and cooking.
Through the new food and nutrition syllabus, which I've developed for the GCSE level in the UK, I want to establish this mindset. Cooking is quite possibly the only subject that every other subject comes under—physics, chemistry, biology, geology, geography, mathematics, language, and even creativity. I want to make cooking a mandatory subject [in English schools], and give kids more options to choose from in terms of career. We want to teach kids how to eat, and not what's right or wrong because food is about what you like so there's no right or wrong. The more aware they are about what they eat, the more they can connect with and value the food that they eat.
Before we can talk about being sustainable, I think the biggest problem that needs to be understood is that we don't value food as much anymore as compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, because there's just too much food available now. If we value food more, we'll naturally eat slower, eat less and more happily. And this will, in turn, have a major impact on all our discussions about food shortage and sustainability."