The culinary wizard, whose creations range from snail porridge to egg-and-bacon ice cream, reveals how he climbed to the very top of his trade against the odds.
You’re not really from a foodie background. Is it true that your passion stems from a trip to France when you were 15 years old?
Yes, completely. I’m convinced it had more impact because of my lack of gastronomic upbringing. My mum is a great cook, but I’m a 70s kid, I grew up when the height of luxury was avocado vinaigrette, and the only pasta you could get in the shops was the spaghetti in the blue packets. Olive oil was something you poured into your ears – you didn’t eat it, you had to get it from the chemist. So I’d never eaten an oyster – I’m not even sure I knew what one looked like. So it made the experience of eating in a great restaurant in France have all the more impact.
What do you remember of the meal that changed your life? What was it that so impressed you?
When I look back at it, it was as much about the things that were happening around me as about the food. We were sat outside a restaurant called Baumanière at the foot of this bauxite cliff, the table was candlelit, and there were wonderful waiting staff. I just remember things like the noise of their feet crunching on the gravel, and a cheese trolley that was like something out of a film. It was the size of a chariot. They were pouring sauces into soufflés and carving legs of lamb at the table, and the sommelier had a handlebar moustache, there was the noise of the crickets and the smell of lavender in the air, it had everything. I felt almost as though I’d fallen down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
Duly inspired, you decided you wanted to become a chef. But you never went down the traditional apprenticeship route that chefs are meant to do. Why was that?
When I was 17, I wrote to the top 20 or 30 restaurants in the Good Food Guide in or around London. I only got one positive response, and it was from Raymond [Blanc] at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons. I’d already been teaching myself the basics of classical French cooking, and I suppose I realised that I would have had to spend years and years going through the echelons of a classical French kitchen before moving on to different sections. You’re a small cog in a big wheel, which is as it has to be. But I’d been going through this self-educational process, and I felt I’d learn quicker teaching myself. At Le Manoir you’d spend four hours picking your way through boxes of beans on a daily basis. Doing that you’re getting lots of single bits if a jigsaw puzzle as opposed to piecing the whole puzzle together. So I only did a week there, and then decided I’d get myself a job, keep teaching myself from books, and maybe one day open my own restaurant when I’d earned enough money.
What jobs did you do?
I tried all sorts of things. I was selling office equipment, and I ended up doing repossession stuff. Not a debt collector knocking on people’s doors asking for money, but it was going into companies and picking up franking machines that the lease was finished on, that kind of stuff. My old man had a leasing company, so I then did a basic accounting course and went for him doing the ledger accounts. But at the same time I was still focussed on the self-teaching process, and I’d save and save and save. And then my wife and I would blow nine months’ savings on a trip to France, and while we were there we’d plot a route through France, visiting butchers and fishmongers, bakers and vineyards, vegetable producers, frog-breeders, olive oil mills, anything to help me understand the ingredients.
You eventually scraped together enough money to start up The Fat Duck. Why did you settle on Bray, which already boasted arguably the best restaurant in the country?
It must have looked really arrogant, opening up next to The Waterside Inn. I’d describe the Roux brothers as The Beatles of British cooking, because there really was a type of gastronomy before them and then a new gastronomy after them. I wasn’t looking for a place in Bray – I grew up in Marlow and my wife’s from Beaconsfield, so we spent time looking around the Marlow, Beaconsfield and Amersham area. After two or three years’ worth of searching, when the premises came up in Bray, we sold our cottage, used the money from that and borrowed a bit of money from my old man to set up. And we moved in with my parents, because we couldn’t afford to have a restaurant and rent the house. I had two kids at the time. So everything was sacrificed to set the restaurant up. Everything my wife did was to support my drive. But it must have looked very arrogant swanning into Bray where Michel Roux had been for 25 years.
Did you ever have any idea the place would be such a success?
Not at all. The Fat Duck was small. It’s got one door which all the deliveries and staff have to go in, and all the customers, and then everyone has to come out the same door. My plan was to have a bistro serving simple but good French cooking with an English influence. You could go in and have a pint and some oysters or a glass of red wine and some pate, that kind of stuff. I thought that maybe, one day, I could get a Michelin star. That was the extent of my ambition. If I’d have had the funding, and thought that I was going to get more than one Michelin star, I’d never, ever, ever have chosen The Fat Duck, because it’s too small, the accessibility is not enough, we have an outside toilet, there’s no parking. The list of things that actually get in the way goes on for ever. The ceiling’s too low, it’s so cramped in there, and there’s not room to swing a cat in the kitchen.
And yet you’ve stayed there.
Yeah. When we had two Michelin stars I spent a lot of time and effort wanting to move, to find somewhere to recapture that feeling I had when I went to Baumanière when I was 15. It didn’t have a bauxite cliff, it didn’t have the crickets and the gravel and the fountain and the lavender and the outside terrace. And then we got the third Michelin star, which came completely out of the blue. I was really shocked by it. And the head of the guide at the time gave me a piece of advice. He said “Don’t change. The Fat Duck has broken the mould. It’s shown you can get three stars without the chandeliers and all of that stuff, and there’s something quite unique about the place, the fact that it doesn’t have any of that. You walk straight into this dining room and it’s like sitting in somebody’s front room.” Moving would have changed everything, and meant more staff, and taken the focus away from the food.
So you think the food is better in a sense because of the limitations of where you are?
The whole multisensory drive for my cooking – the fact that we look at the sounds as well as the visuals, the smells and of course the taste and the flavour – it’s almost as if because I didn’t have my mountain and lake and river and sea view and outside terrace, it almost drove me to do more with the food. So the food was trying to trigger those emotions that I had when I was 15, that sense of a wonderland. So I never would have chosen the place – I went for The Fat Duck because that’s all we could afford. And the style of cooking I’d originally planned obviously went off in a completely different direction. It was almost as if being a little straitjacketed forced me down that road. I think human beings can respond much better in those circumstances sometimes. If you’re restricted in certain areas, it forces creativity. If I’d had an investor and a big budget, it’s a natural human desire to make it as plush as possible. So I’d love to say it was all a grand master plan, but I was just working within what I could afford at the time.
Part of your whole ethos of cooking involves you constantly searching for new culinary experiences and ways of doing things. As a result, do you ever get things terribly wrong?
I have had loads of things go very wrong. But less so now. I think people believe that in the lab we spend our time having great fun and blowing things up, and collecting holograms and magic tricks and theatrical elements to create a wow factor for the food. But I would say 80 per cent of the development time now is spent fine tuning. So we might take an ice cream and do six to eight different recipes by changing the egg yolk content or looking at the difference between using glucose, fructose and sucrose. So it’s more about the nuts and bolts of the cooking. So now the mistakes I make don’t tend to be things going very wrong. But what I need to do is learn to stop flogging a dead horse. I spent four years trying to make savoury candyfloss before I gave up, and I probably should have just given up after six months. I’m starting to realise I need to use the development time wisely.
You spend your life inventing these extraordinary gastronomic creations. What do you eat when you’re at home?
My wife plays a really cruel trick on me. I’ve got a penchant for supermarket prawn cocktail, a tub of cotton wool prawns in a marie rose sauce. So I’ve told her to stop buying it. I get home from work and I open the fridge door and a tub’s just sitting on the shelf. My shoulders drop because I know I’m going to have to eat it. And I love pork pies. I live, breathe, sleep, dream how to get every benefit out of ingredients, and tweak and tweak and tweak and tweak, so eating that kind of stuff sometimes is such an enjoyable thing. I can just switch off. And an Indian take away once a week is lovely. Fantastic.
Are friends happy to cook for you, or do people get too nervous to ever have you round for dinner?
People do often say to me “I could never cook for you.” It’s such a treat to be cooked for by somebody else. You’re at a friend’s house, it’s not work, I don’t analyse everything I eat. It’s like when you go wine tasting, you swill the wine around, analyse it, gurgle it in your mouth, get the air passing over it etcetera. You’re looking for faults. When you drink wine in a restaurant or at home, you’re drinking for enjoyment. It’s the same with eating. The fact that somebody else is cooking for you is such a treat. But I realised a couple of months ago that I think it’s worse the other way around. If I invite people over – it’s fine if they’re good friends, but if they’re fairly recent friends who don’t know you that well, and I serve them cheese on toast or something, they’ll be really disappointed. I think there’s more pressure on me when people come to dinner.