If there was ever a chef synonymous with wild imagination, creating things no one had thought possible, it’s Heston Blumenthal. So who else would appear on a cooking show where contestants forage ingredients from a giant, entirely edible ‘enchanted garden’ to create dishes that play with the mind and the senses, and judges who sit at a cloud dressed as food ‘Gods’ in all white?
“I didn’t want someone else making these incredible, edible sets! I wanted to be part of it,” says Blumenthal. “Also, this is a cooking competition that really puts imagination – throwing caution to the wind, taking a leap of faith – first.”
The 53-year-old, whose restaurants include three-Michelin star The Fat Duck and two-Michelin star Dinner by Heston, is joined by Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt, American chef Carla Hall and comedian host Jayde Adams, for new Channel 4 show Crazy Delicious.
In true Willy Wonka style, the set includes edible blossom, chocolate soil and a drinkable babbling brook. Each week, three cooks compete to be awarded the Gods’ ‘golden apple’ – it could be elevating a hot dog to new (weird) heights, or celebrating the humble strawberry (think, strawberry cheesecake chicken wings).
“One guy took half a watermelon and skinned it but kept the white pith, basted it, barbecued it, and when you cut it, it was like a big steak with fat on the side,” recalls Blumenthal. “Another did something that looked like a burger, but it was deep fried ice cream – there was a wide range of creative craziness! Some were delicious, some made no sense.”
“One of the things I’d love to see with this series is people thinking, ‘If they can have a go, why can’t I have a go?’” he adds. “Many people today are scared of failing – and that gets in the way of creativity.”
The series’ contestants are amateur cooks, a few food bloggers and Instagrammers, but Blumenthal believes a lack of professional training can help independent thinking and imagination blossom – after all, he was never trained in the classic sense of the word. He didn’t work in other people’s restaurants and taught himself the basics instead.
“On the plus side, I didn’t have anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do. I just about believed everything was possible, and I questioned everything. It’s probably not just kitchens, but you’re not paid to think [working in restaurants]. It’s, ‘This is the right way, do as you’re told’,” he says. “On the downside, at the time it meant my kitchen organisation skills… well, I had no idea. It was chaos.”
These days, anyone can show off their home cooking credentials and artistic flair on Instagram. However, “one of the things social media has encouraged is that it’s all about aesthetics,” he says, “but if you’re not going to eat it, it becomes a piece of art. What we wanted was a ‘wow’ when you look at it, and put it in your mouth and also go ‘wow’ – then bingo.”
Although, he admits he doesn’t really ‘do’ social media. “My feed is generally particle physics and the evolution of smell,” he laughs.
This is the man who brought us ice cream curry, snail porridge, meals served with sound effects, and devised a canned bacon sandwich astronaut Tim Peake could eat in space, and he’s often cited as the chef who’s single-handedly changed the way we think about what’s possible with food.
He’s not overly comfortable with that label though. “It’s flattering… it’s hard to talk about,” he says, embarrassed. “Now if I go to a restaurant, I’ll go into the kitchen and say, ‘Hello,’ but it took me a long time to be able to do that because I thought, ‘Who the hell am I? Who the hell am I to go ‘hello, look at me everybody’?’ In fact I’ve realised it can have a positive effect on younger chefs, but it took a while to feel comfortable doing that.”
In 2016 he was diagnosed with ADHD and, crucially, he doesn’t see it as a drawback. “I wouldn’t change me for the world,” he says. “But the education system doesn’t favour ADHD, autism, OCD.
“I was late and I don’t like being late, but [it was because] I’d leave the house four times, I’d go upstairs to get stuff and come down with an armful of stuff and forget what I’d gone up for in the first place. If your head gets busy, it’s like a tumble drier, there’s continually new things knocking other things out.”
Finally getting diagnosed and having a ‘greater awareness’ of himself has helped him enormously. “I look at myself as a walking experiment… It’s a continual learning, and that’s very different from being a victim.”
Today he’s based in France with his wife Stephanie, with whom he had their first child (his fourth) in 2017. There he has a laboratory entirely dedicated to food-based science experiments to develop dishes for his restaurants.
“I did question, ‘Why did I stick my head above the parapets? Why didn’t I just cook steak and chips?’ Life would have been easy. But I didn’t because there was something much more exciting out there that I believed. I didn’t quite know what I was searching for, I was searching everywhere and experimenting.”
And he’s not done pushing the boundaries yet. “This is probably the most ambitious, motivating, exciting, period of my life.”
At Dinner at Heston he’s harking back; soon a meal there may be based around the Titanic, or entail an Alice In Wonderland theme, while at The Fat Duck he’s trying to trigger diners’ personal memories (“It was really hard to get the team to buy into that!”) while in the lab in France he’s looking at changing the structure of water, to give it a different texture, and applying that to cooking. “It’s like going back to the beginning with water but using all the techniques I’ve developed over the years and starting again.”
Welcome to the world of Heston Blumenthal – where absolutely anything seems possible.
Crazy Delicious starts Tuesday, January 21 at 8pm on Channel 4.