the observer Sat 18 October 2008
Nobody goes to Heston Blumenthal's restaurant because they are feeling a bit peckish (though it happens that a visit to the Fat Duck will sate your hunger). Likewise, no one should open The Big Fat Duck Cookbook because they are looking for something to cook for supper (though it does contain recipes). You go to the Fat Duck for theatre; for intriguing flavour combinations and cooking techniques that will screw with your head and make you think about the relationship between the way we feed ourselves and our emotions. You go for green tea and vodka palate-cleansers 'cooked' in liquid nitrogen, or snail porridge the colour of grass clippings, for sardine on toast ice cream or a dessert made of all the things you'd have for breakfast (including smoky bacon ice cream).
Appropriately, the book of the restaurant is very much more than a compendium of things you can do with interesting ingredients and nice bits of kit. It is a journey into the mind of the man who has done more than almost anybody in Britain to re-engineer the way high-end restaurants approach the knotty business of cooking for us and feeding us.
From this, it will become clear that I am an unabashed, wet-lipped, tongue-lolling fan of Blumenthal's. In a review of one of his restaurant ventures a few years back, I said I would happily remove my underwear and chuck it at the chef, Tom Jones style. Nothing has changed. The pants are still there for the chucking. If anything, in the years I have been both eating and talking to Blumenthal about his food, my respect for the man has only grown. In the early years of this decade, one to one, he could easily launch into the sort of windy lecture on the curious qualities of certain ingredients that would make even the most diehard food head want to stab themselves in the hand with a fork. Recently, though, as his BBC2 series In Search of Perfection has proved, he has also become a master communicator.
More cobblers will be written about this one volume than almost any other this year. Ignore the name. It is not a domestic cookbook but a document, and fits into a publishing genre that flourishes in Europe if not here: the statement-cum-catalogue by a big-name chef. Pierre Gagnaire, Marc Veyrat and Ferran Adrià have each produced volumes like this, all retailing for more than the £100 being charged for this one, all standing as a definitive statement of the chef's work to date. It was high time for Blumenthal to do his. Few, though, are as elegant, or as complete an object as this, from the duck-feather motifs, through the silver page-edging, to the multicoloured ribbon bookmarks.
What Blumenthal has produced is, in truth, three books in one. At the front is the autobiography, beautifully and wittily illustrated by Dave McKean, who has reinvented the man as the fictional hero of his own narrative, all domed forehead, questing chin and razor-sharp glasses. That said, this is not some grimly narcissistic sleb memoir. If there is an anecdote here, it is because of the part it played in Blumenthal's development as a chef.
Next comes the complete Fat Duck recipes, with the glossiest and filthiest of gastro-porn photography. (Who knew the whipping of a pink spiced pickling foam could look so, well, gynaecological?) These recipes are staggeringly long, involve fiendishly expensive pieces of equipment, are extraordinarily detailed and are probably, for the home cook, completely unmanageable, but that's to miss the point. As Blumenthal himself says: 'To change any part of these recipes so that they are more easily achievable would be to compromise - something this book does not do.'
Even so, they are worth reading, partly because there are sub-recipes that are within reach (try the gratin of truffled macaroni), partly to appreciate the remarkable effort required to achieve the effect, and partly because it's fun to spot unlikely ingredients. Sure, there are references to substances from the industrial food world like the emulsifier lecithin and the protein 'glue' transglutaminase (oh, the things you can do to mackerel fillets with that). But there are also walk-on parts for frozen peas, mass-produced white bread and Marmite. Blumenthal is big on the flavours of our childhood, the easiest way to open the door to our memories, and he is not afraid to investigate the emotional punch of that nostalgia through his tasting menu.
Finally there is the science stuff, a set of explanations so complete and detailed they've had to drop the type size to get it all in. And that, finally, is the point of this book: nothing has been left out; it is all here. It is true that a lot of enthusiastic home cooks will receive this as a gift this Christmas, pore over the pictures, read the text and never once cook from it. But an awful lot of professional chefs will also buy it, study the science section in detail, examine the recipes and let that influence seep deep into their own cooking. Those wrong-headed, appetite-challenged killjoys who are suspicious of what Blumenthal does will regard this as an unfortunate development. As for me, I can only see it as a very good thing indeed.