When something goes wrong in Heston Blumenthal's kitchen, it goes wrong in profoundly inedible ways. "Foie gras ice cream was probably a low point," says Blumenthal. "The fat crystals were too big, so the mouth feel was terrible. You could taste the sliminess. The smell wasn't lovely either." Of course, in Blumenthal's kitchen it's often hard to tell the difference between wrong and right. Among his signature dishes: snail porridge, salmon poached with licorice jelly and--after failed experiments with goose liver, parsley, garlic and other ingredients--smoked-bacon-and-egg ice cream. "It may not sound better than the foie gras," he says, "but there are scientific reasons why it works."
Ten years ago, Blumenthal was a photocopier salesman. He had never worked in a kitchen, and his knowledge of food came entirely from books. Now he is one of the youngest chefs in history to earn three Michelin stars and, just shy of his 39th birthday, is the leading light of molecular gastronomy, an emerging school of cooking that emphasizes the science of cuisine--like understanding why meat is best slow-cooked at 136° (higher temperatures cause the proteins to tighten up and release their juices into the pan). "The name molecular gastronomy is quite bad," says Blumenthal. But his food, despite its seemingly flagellant ingredient mixtures, is superb. The Fat Duck, Blumenthal's restaurant in Bray, 40 minutes west of London, was named best in the world by trade title Restaurant magazine last week, and if anything, the acclaim is a few years behind that accorded by his peers. "I have never eaten at the Fat Duck nor met him," says Mario Batali. "But I am fascinated with his use of science to create provocative food."
Blumenthal opened the Fat Duck in an old pub in 1995, but it didn't take off until he asked himself, Why do green beans have to be boiled in salted water? "All the books said it was a must, but I couldn't figure out why," says Blumenthal. With no cooking mentors to rely on, he cold-called Oxford University molecular-gastronomy pioneer Nicholas Kurti, only to learn that Kurti had died in 1998. So Blumenthal got the list of participants at Kurti's annual food-science conference and rang Peter Barham, a physicist at the University of Bristol. "The answer is that green beans don't need salted water," says Barham. "Heston had figured this out, but he didn't have the confidence he has now. Having a scientist tell him made it O.K."
With astonishing speed and obsessiveness, Blumenthal created a circle of foodie physicists and chemists and applied their wisdom to the kitchen. Barham exposed him to lab-equipment catalogs. Tom Coultate, a retired food biochemist from South Bank University, explained advanced gelling agents (used in the restaurant's tea, almond and quail jellies). Anthony Blake, a vice president of Firmenich, a Swiss fragrance and flavor company, was most influential. "The first time I went to Geneva," says Blumenthal, "Tony showed me thousands of flavor molecules and extracts in little jars. I was in heaven."