Heston Blumenthal came to Australia to open a restaurant and left a changed man. Melbourne, writes Michael Harden, gave Heston his groove back.
Heston Blumenthal is talking mindfulness. In his case it involves playing ping-pong with a robot that fires a barrage of balls at him, and doesn't stop. "I love it because it really focuses your mind," he says. "You can think of nothing else." And then there's the other thing that gives him perspective: Australia.
"Every time I get off the plane here, I feel like I can breathe," he says, looking fit and relaxed in the dining room of his new Melbourne restaurant, Dinner. It's this clarity that has allowed Blumenthal to step back up to the plate anew.
The success of The Fat Duck gave rise to books, television, endless appearances, awards, honorary doctorates, an OBE and tabloid scrutiny of his private life. Blumenthal is by inclination a man of action, and tends to have a lot going on all at once. He didn't miss a service for the first eight years that The Fat Duck was open and admits there are times when he forgets to sleep.
He's currently contending with a broken wrist sustained after losing his keys and trying to get into his house without them. The injury hasn't healed properly and needs to be re-broken and re-set. He already has metal in his hand, shoulder, hips and legs (kickboxing, falling off a roof, kitchen wear and tear), and has also had to weather suggestions that with so much going on, his eye has been off the ball.
This year he has taken The Fat Duck from Bray, just outside London, to Melbourne and then back again, relaunching it after a six-month renovation that cost £2.5 million (around $5.3 million). At the same time, he has opened a branch of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (the first to follow the Knightsbridge original) at Crown Melbourne on the former Fat Duck pop-up site. And he made a documentary about the whole process along the way.
Blumenthal says that, despite undertaking the enormously complicated task of opening two restaurants at the same time, he's clearer and more focused than he's ever been. He's back in the game, and he attributes the clarity to his time in Australia.
"There's this sense of breathing and space - headspace - that I need. It allows me to be vulnerable, something that's necessary and something that's hard to do when people are looking down their noses because I'm doing something in a way they perceive as wrong."
But why Melbourne? "When I decided to take the Duck somewhere else in the world for six months I had about 15 offers from all over," he says. "I'd been to Melbourne before and knew that there was this food explosion happening, plus I was mates with John Alexander [Crown's executive deputy chairman]. But the biggest factor in making the decision to come to Melbourne was the Australian public that we'd experienced both at The Duck in the UK and when I'd visited in the past."
Australian diners, Blumenthal says, are full of enthusiasm and excitement for what's on the plate, and they're not shackled to classic ideas of perfection, to the idea that there are definitive rights and wrongs. They've given him the freedom to look at the bigger picture afresh. He says that for the past five years he had "all the pieces of this amazing jigsaw puzzle", but couldn't find the right way to put them together until he moved The Fat Duck to the other side of the world.
"Being in Melbourne was like a circuit-breaker for me. It has massively influenced what we're now doing at The Duck in Bray," he says. "Not in a literal sense of 'look, now I have quandong on the menu', but something much, much bigger than that. My head is clearer."
This clarity has seen Blumenthal push the idea of theatricality at the new Fat Duck so that a meal there is now about a story, a journey. The kitchen has tripled in size, and the dining room holds one table fewer, but the real change is that Blumenthal has worked out a way to put all those jigsaw pieces together in a completely different way.
Where Dinner in Melbourne pushes the boundaries with chef Ashley Palmer-Watts finding ways to take the British historical brief in new directions by incorporating elements of Australian culture, at the rebooted Fat Duck, the rule book has been torn up all over again.
There's no menu now, just a map and an itinerary, and lighting that brightens and dims according to where you are on the journey, based on a daytrip to the sea. There's an illusionist on staff and a dolls' house on wheels that puffs smoke through its chimneys and delivers sweets via a series of automated drawers. Research is done into every customer's history, which is then worked into the meal's journey. Giles Coren, a critic for The Times, recently admitted that just such a moment made him cry.
Blumenthal says he's trying to create memories. "The Fat Duck is very personal to me, so what I'm trying to do is to make it become very personal to everyone who goes and eats there," he says.
There's less method acting needed at Dinner in Melbourne. It's a restaurant that plays engaged historian to The Duck's whimsical storyteller, with every dish given a brief history on the menu's reverse side.
So far, the dishes are mostly historical Brit imports: the much photographed "meat fruit", a play on a 15th-century trompe l'œil mandarin fashioned from chicken liver parfait; duck with ale and artichokes; the pineapple-based Georgian tipsy cake.
Some of Dinner's London dishes have been given a local twist ("rice & flesh" is made here with kangaroo in place of calf tail; the savoury porridge features abalone instead of frog's legs), but the lamington is the only Australian dish to be given the full Blumenthal treatment, reimagined as a lamington cake with grilled raspberries, toasted coconut and cocoa ice-cream (you can see the dishes and dining room in our preview of the restaurant here).
The clarity Blumenthal gets from being in Australia could well see the influences ramp up.
"With Dinner in London I've started to realise that we don't just have to stick with the distant past," says Blumenthal. "We can also deal with the history that people still remember, that they have memories of. And the way that Australians are in embracing new things, I think that would get done a lot quicker here than it would over there."
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Crown Towers, level 3, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Vic, (03) 9292 5777