Nature's Bounty: A Heady Feast

A cutting-edge cuisine engages senses beyond taste.

By Katie Robbins, published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

With three Michelin stars, it's considered one of the finest restaurants in the world. But at the Fat Duck, playground of British chef Heston Blumenthal just outside London in the village of Bray, dishes are more than just plates of food. They are entrées to a multisensory experience that leaves delicious in the dust. "You hope they deliver more than that," he says. "There's a memory, there's an emotion there that you can portray through either smell or sight or sound—or something."

"Something" might lead to oak moss and truffle toast. Or salmon poached in licorice. Not to mention nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream. These are just a few of the fantastical dishes that Blumenthal has served up over the years.

Although he himself eschews the term, Blumenthal is part of a movement often referred to as "molecular gastronomy," in which chefs explore and manipulate the chemical elements in food. Alongside the Devon mussels and the butter and cream, the Fat Duck's larder is stocked with ingredients that wouldn't feel out of place in a chemistry lab, such as liquid nitrogen and maltodextrin, from which the celebrated chef creates unique textures, aromas, and sights, such as puffs of smoke that waiters produce tableside to dazzle diners.

Perhaps no other item exemplifies the surround-sound philosophy that envelops diners like one of Blumenthal's signatures, which arrives halfway into the Fat Duck's four-hour tasting menu. It's a plate of shellfish, seaweed, foam, and faux sand concocted of baby eel, vegetable powder, and ground ice cream cone. It aims to bring to the table the beach, the surf, and every pleasant association you have had with these things since childhood.

Just as you might have to wade into the surf to find such treasures as oysters or clams, Blumenthal tucks pieces of seafood beneath the seaweed and sand. "When you remember foods that you eat or memorable meals," says the chef, "it's the location, the occasion, the company you're with, and that is because we take in the stuff around us."

To fully evoke the seaside experience, Blumenthal deploys a sense he hadn't incorporated into his menu before—sound. Alongside each plate of artfully constructed edible seascape is a conch shell, inside of which is hidden a tiny iPod playing a loop of recorded sea sounds and giving the dish its name, Sound of the Sea.

The idea for the conch grew out of a meeting between Blumenthal and Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, who examines the influence of sound on people's perception of food. Spence had found, for example, that people perceive chips to be fresher if the sound of their own crunching is amplified through headphones. When the sound was turned down, however, subjects described chips from the very same bag as stale. "We think your brain can't evaluate just the food on the dish. It's always taking in other elements," contends Spence. "If those cues are congruent, they might enhance the flavor."

"I got excited by the role sound could play," says Blumenthal, and together the two men began toying with various permutations of Spence's theory. Sound of the Sea was born after an experiment showed that tasters rate oysters as markedly more flavorful and satisfying when listening to the sounds of the ocean than when listening to farm noises. Sure, Blumenthal says, he could simply have shown his diners a seaside image—but that would have imposed his vision of the shore on diners rather than directing them toward their own beach memories. With sound, he says, "it's almost as if you give the guy the framework and the canvas and the paints and he paints his own picture."

Perhaps a dozen Fat Duck diners have been brought to tears by Sound of the Sea, says Blumenthal. "As a chef it's the most amazing thing anyone can actually say. But it's nothing to do with me. It's what's happening in their memory."

The Fat Duck is more often filled with laughter than tears, as Blumenthal typically cooks up surprise. In a dish called Orange and Beetroot Jelly, diners are presented with two jellied candies, one bright orange, the other a brilliant red. At the waiter's suggestion, the diner tastes the orange one first, experiencing a moment of confusion. Defying expectations, the orange jelly tastes like beet, the red tastes of orange.

Diners loved the dish so much, Blumenthal kept it on the menu longer than he had originally planned. "People were bringing friends back," he says, describing how return customers watched in glee as their unsuspecting companions registered the moment of surprise on tasting the tricky candies. "They were playing host to that dish," says Blumenthal, "having a bit of a laugh."

The fun behind the Orange and Beetroot Jelly is rooted in the science of surprise, just as so many other dishes draw on science in some way. Still, the Fat Duck is a restaurant and it must deliver on the dining experience. Says Blumenthal: "Eating, to me, it doesn't matter how gastronomic it becomes, it should be informal, relaxed, and generate a sense of fun."

A Savory Serving of Science

In The Fat Duck Cookbook, chef Heston Blumenthal offers not only the recipes for his most famous dishes but also the psychology and neuroscience behind them. Here are a few of the theories in play at the Fat Duck.

  • Flavor release. When an ingredient is evenly dispersed throughout a dish, the brain registers its flavor slowly. To create a more dramatic impact, Blumenthal often incorporates "flavor bursts," heavy concentrations of the ingredient. In the nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, for example, bits of coagulated egg create intense and unexpected surges of flavor.
  • Sensory dominance. With dishes like the Orange and Beetroot Jelly, says Oxford psychologist Charles Spence, "your eyes set up a strong expectancy about what each colored jelly should taste of." When that expectation is defied, the brain must take a moment to take in the actual flavor of the food, giving that dish its signature moment of surprise.
  • Superadditivity. To avoid sensory overload, the brain picks and chooses what to pay attention to. However, says Spence, when the ear and eye detect congruous information simultaneously, the brain takes notice. Dishes like Sound of the Sea take advantage of such harmony, mixing the right combination of flavor and sound that together create an experience that is even more powerful than the sum of its parts.