Heston Blumenthal: ‘We were getting 30,000 calls a day for seats.’ Photograph: Matt LLoyd/Rex FeaturesThe award-winning Fat Duck is reopening and its chef says that it won’t just be a place for dinner – it will be about storytelling.He has pioneered savoury ice-cream, encouraged his diners to wear headphones while eating and even developed recipes for astronauts. Now Heston Blumenthal, renowned chef of the three Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, is taking on his biggest challenge yet: redefining the very nature of the restaurant.
As he reveals in an exclusive interview in Observer Food Monthly, when the Fat Duck reopens at the end of September after a six-month relocation to Australia while the original was being refurbished, it won't simply be a place for dinner; it will be a "story".
"In the sense that we cook food and it's served to people, we're a restaurant. But that's not much, is it?" says Blumenthal. "The fact is the Fat Duck is about storytelling. I wanted to think about the whole approach of what we do in those terms."
As part of the process Blumenthal, who is famed for the whimsy of savoury ice-lollies mimicking the look of children's favourites and for fish dishes eaten to a seashore soundtrack, has enlisted the help of a creative team including Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall. "He looked at the menu and said that, with the ice-lollies and the sounds of the sea, this is basically a holiday. It's about those childhood feelings of adventure, discovery and curiosity," said Blumenthal.
What does this mean for diners? "It means the menu will now be a story. It will have an introduction and a number of chapters and chapter headings that will give you an idea of what is coming."
Blumenthal describes it as the story of his own childhood holidays in Cornwall. While a few of his best known dishes will remain on the menu others, including snail porridge and egg and bacon ice-cream, are coming off. "They had evolved as far as they could. We may put them in a hall of fame."
Blumenthal, 49, has long been fascinated by nostalgia for childhood and has often used the phrase "like a kid in a sweetshop" to describe how he wants diners to feel. Now, he says, he has built his sweetshop, at a cost of more than "£150,000. "It's an automaton, in the shape of a doll's house that will come round on a trolley at the end of the meal and puff smoke rings out the chimney as you choose your sweets."
Those choices will be personalised, as he hopes will other parts of the meal. Much has been made of high-end restaurants googling their guests in advance; Blumenthal says they've been doing that at the Duck for years. Now they want to take it further and have turned to the magician Derren Brown for advice. "I talked to him about how we could find out things about people without them being too aware."
As a result, he is toying with using auto-suggestion techniques so that diners get what they think they most crave. He has also consulted psychologists, font experts and artists.
Blumenthal recognises that he could be accused of grossly overthinking dinner and lurching into pretentiousness. "If people want to think that, it's their choice. You can't please everybody all the time." But he adds that nothing will be served "unless it's delicious". In any case, it won't be open to everybody because none of this will come cheap. When the Fat Duck closed at the start of the year, the multi-course tasting menu cost "£220 a head without drinks or service, but Blumenthal acknowledges that the price will have to go up. "You're getting something that's handmade, and there are more than 70 staff for 40 seats at each service. We won't be making vast amounts of money on this."
Not that he thinks there will be a shortage of demand. "We were getting 30,000 calls a day for seats, so we're replacing the phone lines with an online ticketing system." Although not all details have been finalised, this may include the kind of lottery system used during the Fat Duck's move to Australia.
He answers accusations of elitism by pointing to the large range of products he makes for Waitrose, including ready meals, desserts and spirits. "Exactly the same amount of work goes into those products, which means an element of the Duck is open to everybody."
Still, those wanting to be told Heston Blumenthal's full story will just have to save up.