Friday, January 29, 2010

Can Celebrity Chefs Learn From El Bulli?

Interesting news that El Bulli is to shut for two years so that Ferran Adria (pictured right) can dream up some fresh recipes and trail-blazing ideas.

He said he has got as far as he can with the “current format” – after all if you’re consistently voted the best restaurant in the world, the only way is down – and wants to get some creative juice back. "It's like telling John Galliano to go work in a factory," a tired-looking Adria said of the last few years.

When you’ve got food writers hanging round you like groupies, it’s easy to sit back on your laurels and stay with a tried-and-tested formula, and train up protégés to do the hard work for you while you swan around stuffing your face with Jaffa Cakes, and I think many chefs would applaud the 47-year-old for not taking the easy option.

In fact, many would applaud him for escaping the hellish prison of running a three-star Michelin restaurant and the whirlwind stress of constantly having to do better to satisfy clients.

I think celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal, owner of the second best restaurant in the world, could take a (no doubt edible, exploding, nitro-green) leaf out of his recipe book – well another one at least anyway.

When I worked at the Fat Duck nearly four years ago, some of the chefs felt they were on a treadmill just banging out the same immaculate but identical dishes year after year – a common complaint in Michelin-starred eateries. There was little creative buzz or inspiration, just long hours standing on your feet in a cramped furnace.

They longed for a la carte orders, but most customers stuck to the famous tasting menu (only a pompous fool with the ‘gentlemen’s disease’ calls it a degustation menu) and they longed for a revamp of that.

The Fat Duck is sometimes described as being a restaurant you dine at once in your life – mainly because of the expense and tick-it-off mentality of trainspotting gourmets rather than the quality of the cooking – so it doesn’t really matter if the menu remains the same for decades. But isn’t it good to take a chance and bring in fresh ideas – especially from the brigade doing the cooking for you?

Although I never managed to get in there, I have it on good authority that Blumenthal has a laboratory above the prep room run by elves who experiment with wondrous dishes such as poached cockatrice eggs that allow you to fly round the garden, and dormouse wine gums that send diners back to early Roman Britain. But it seems to be more of a prop for his TV shows.

I dug out an old tasting menu in the 'stagier handbook' they gave me during my stage at the Fat Duck. Comparing it to the present degustation menu (oh, the gentlemen’s disease!) it seems very little has changed in those years.

The nitro-green tea and lime mousse, pommery grain mustard and gazpacho, and snail porridge dishes were still there. As was the egg and bacon ice cream.

And there were small tweaks to some of the other dishes. The quail jelly was now served with crayfish cream rather than langoustine cream. The salmon poached with liquorice was served with golden trout roe (there was no mention of the dreaded grapefruit – had they finally taken pity on those poor, deformed stagiers locked away in the dungeon?) The poached breast of Anjou pigeon pancetta was now a 300-year-old dish called powdered Anjou pigeon. And the parsnip cereal was still there.

The new additions were roast foie gras, mock turtle soup (a sort of crazy, deranged tribute to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party), something called taffety tart (circa 1660), and whisky wine gums. In fact, not much had changed but the price – a 50% increase in just less than four years.

Explaining his reasons for throwing in the apron, Adria said he was finding the gruelling, 15-hour days at El Bulli “difficult” and it was impossible coming up with new stuff while spending your whole life toiling over hot ovens. And I think Blumenthal should follow his example. Give up working noon and night, and reward himself with a well-deserved break to recharge his batteries. Those TV programmes can be hard work.


Auldo said...

Jaffa Cakes. I was just writing about those!

Thoughtful article and is just the sort of ting I wonder about. I started searching out menu's online, save them and then compare them and must say I know few (if any) restaurants that serve the same menu the entire year(s). The Fat Duck gave up on its a la carte menu, so this makes it even more, like, in your words, a factory line. The problem is, I think, that the names of the dishes (snail porridge anyone) became more famous than the actual food, so there is a pressure from customers to keep serving these dishes, especially since most of the people dine there once. Restaurants are in essence part of the service industry, but in the case of The Fat Duck it could very well be the thing that holds back the entire operation.

Andrew said...

Very good article. Thanks Lennie.

Indeed, restaurants should continuously innovate, lest they die a sudden death, one day. However, customers are often part of the problem, as they complain if they see "their usual" disappear from the menu.

I've heard that the Fat Duck and other Michelin awarded restaurants get around 45% of their revenue from regulars. The sort who have no ability for independent thought and so clutch on to their connection to the Michelin World. Knowing the maître d's name is everything, them knowing your name is simply sublime for the nouveau riche.

Also, one has to question whether, despite all of the experimental showcasing on TV, (how to make a burger 100 times more complex to make for only a probable 10% better flavour etc) the Fat Duck has already reached it's pinnacle, and so there is a fear that there really isn't anything they can do better, and change equals loss of business and kudos for it's owners.

I know it's TV, but I've always noticed that Heston Blumenthal seems to have a rudimentary knowledge about World food. It perhaps highlights his lack of classical training. No doubt he's clever, but I wonder whether he's got what it takes to grow, the knowledge? His American lab chef's don't seem to be much better, and the guys that were on his Little Chef team were terrible. It could be the glass ceiling for Fat Duck.

As for El Bulli, doing what Ferran Adria is for his customers is very brave, but costs a lot of unnecessary cash loss. He still has to pay for the premises, he will presumably either have to pay the same rates for his team, or risk losing them all. So, I wonder what the real deal is? Why would Adria have to close El Bulli while innovating? Why lose all that revenue and the solid team? Why risk the Michelin stars?

Shouldn't there be continuous improvement and gradual change for the menu. Is it a mid-life crisis? Does he want to back-pack around the world. However wealthy Adria is, I think there is something else going on there...

Anonymous said...

"His American lab chef's don't seem to be much better, and the guys that were on his Little Chef team were terrible. It could be the glass ceiling for Fat Duck."

I find this a bit of a loose and ungrounded statement. What are your arguments?

Andrew said...

@ Anonymous "I find this a bit of a loose and ungrounded statement. What are your arguments?"

I didn't want to go on, but perhaps you should see the Blumenthal series' to understand better?

His main lab chefs as shown on ISOP are American. Not a crime in and of itself, but I am somewhat surprised that Blumenthal saw it fit to import and employ chefs for his laboratory, who have apparently little or no knowledge as to the behaviour of basic ingredients. They are seen to explore and question the most rudimentary of combinations. I realise it's TV, but it always looks like the blind leading the blind with the experiments. Even Blumenthal's questions and reactions are odd.

As to the Little Chef programmes, his Fat Duck chefs really let the side down, and made Blumenthal look like a poor leader. They were so arrogant and failed to see their job would have been made far easier, had they been decent enough to recognise the sensitivities present when consulting on someone else's turf.

Instead, they behaved like the worse type of Brigade underlings, and didn't even stop short of openly calling the Little Chef staff idiots. I would have sacked them instantly for doing this. Instead, Blumenthal seemed to condone this outside representation of his Fat Duck organisation.