Merrie Olde Heston
Andy Lynes - May 2011
Employing culinary technology to reconfigure centuries-old English dishes with a modern sensibility, the ever-clever, always-witty Heston Blumenthal hatches the megahit Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London.
A Michelin three-star chef’s first London venture was bound to attract attention, but the interest from media and public alike in Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London in Knightsbridge is unprecedented. Booked three months ahead for dinner soon after the reservation lines opened in early January, the first review of the restaurant appeared on page four of the Times before the restaurant had even served its third lunch service. The London newspaper’s restaurant critic, Giles Coren, called it “the best new restaurant in the world,” which helped spread the word about Blumenthal’s historic British cuisine concept and make “meat fruit” (a chicken liver/foie gras parfait starter that looks like a mandarin orange) an instant best-selling dish that has gone on to gain as many column inches and TV screen time as the snail porridge Blumenthal created a few years back for The Fat Duck, his provocative Michelin three-star restaurant in suburban Bray.
With a string of popular prime time cooking shows, Blumenthal is a TV star in the United Kingdom. He also is the face (alongside TV cook Delia Smith) of Waitrose supermarkets. Both have helped drum up interest in his new venture. But Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is far from being a celebrated chef’s cash-in. Four years in development, a substantial budget running into the millions, a stunning interior design by Adam Tihany, and views of Hyde Park through floor-to-ceiling windows, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has major London destination restaurant written all over it.
“I can’t think of another restaurant where the dining room and the menu are so integrated—they’ve almost become one. There are little stories we tell through the room,” says Blumenthal of the interior design that takes inspiration from the chef’s historical British cookery–influenced dishes. Recipes, sourced from rare antique British cookbooks, are displayed along one wall of the bar behind a one-way mirror and seem to appear and disappear, depending on the light’s reflection. There’s an old English mood to the 10-seat private dining room, just off the main dining area, with its traditional wood-beamed ceiling and rust colored leather-clad walls that reveal small recesses of the underlying old brick wall.
In the main room, custom-made porcelain wall lights are shaped in the form of antique cake molds, while the elaborate antique brass mesh chandeliers and dark weathered wooden floors evoke a medieval baronial dining hall. But the overall effect is unmistakably 21st century sophisticated fine dining, with chocolate brown leather and smoky grey velvet textured seating, ivory painted walls with inlaid leather panels, and a magnificent show kitchen housed within glass walls. A chef’s table for six set in an alcove faces the main pass and is situated next to a smaller kitchen with its own pass that produces all the cold starters. Around the corner and out of diners’ sight is a dedicated pastry kitchen, and further prep kitchens are housed in the hotel’s basement.
“The prep kitchens are based around a small systematic cycle of sous-vide, brining, cooking, and portioning,” explains head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, who has worked with Blumenthal for 10 years and was formerly head chef of The Fat Duck. “But the main body of work—meat, fish, hot larder, cold larder, and pastry—is undertaken by the daily team on that day for that day. I wanted a large daily work force doing daily food for service.” During service, Palmer-Watts leads a team of 25 chefs: 14 in the main kitchen, four in the pastry section, and seven in the prep area.
“Ashley and I work brilliantly together because in some respects he’s the opposite of me,” says Blumenthal, who has made it clear that, although his name is over the door and he was present in his chef’s whites throughout the soft opening, he will not be cooking at the restaurant. “I’m the big kid who thinks everything is possible; he’s more glass-half-empty, looking at practical things like how much fridge space we have and how many covers do we want to do.”
The eight starters, 10 main courses, and six desserts that comprise the current à la carte menu are also used to form the nine course chef’s table and three course private dining room menus. Despite the restaurant’s name—Blumenthal explains he discovered that the word dinner comes from the 13th century French word disner, which initially referred to breakfast and subsequently developed to mean a main meal taken in the middle of the day—there’s a set lunch menu that offers a three course meal with an “either/or” choice of simpler dishes at each stage. Breakfast and afternoon tea are prepared in the hotel’s main kitchens, which are also responsible for room service and banqueting, all overseen by Palmer-Watts.
All menu dishes, apart from vegetable sides, are dated, so, for example, hay smoked mackerel with lemon salad, gentleman’s relish, and olive oil is annotated (c. 1730). Inquisitive diners can check the back of the menu and discover that the recipe that inspired the dish came from The Complete Practical Cook by Charles Carter. “It’s taking the principle or an element of a dish or a seed of the idea and making it more refined,” says Blumenthal. “There’s a world of difference from cooking today to even 20, 30 years ago. Go back 200 or 300 years and the difference is absolutely massive. In certain periods there was a lot of sameness in the food; no matter how different the recipes sounded, by the time you’ve got rosewater, dried fruits, and your cinnamon/mace mix, it all tastes the same. So we just take the notion.”
With 126 seats, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is the biggest project the chefs have worked together on (The Fat Duck has just 40 seats, while Blumenthal’s other outlets are Bray’s two village pubs, The Hinds Head and The Crown), so Blumenthal arranged for Palmer-Watts to spend a week researching kitchen design at some of New York City’s high-end, big-volume restaurants. “Daniel is very different from here, but the work flow is very similar,” says Palmer-Watts, who worked closely with designers Sefton Horn Winch to create a space that fuses modern induction and water bath technology with traditional charcoal and wood-fired cooking.
Dominating the main kitchen are two identical bespoke Rorgue island cooking suites. Splitting the suites was a deliberate move to create an additional pathway to the pass. “The work flow is brilliant; no one is in anyone’s way. As we get more established, we’ll have work experience stagiaires who will act as runners; they’ll come up the center and bring the stocks, sauces, and meat and feed the pass,” Palmer-Watts says.
Each suite is fitted with two Menu System multi-point induction hobs. “If you have a solid top that’s going full bore all the time, it generates a lot of wasted heat, for which you need more extraction. That makes the kitchen noisier. Induction is more accurate, efficient, and cleaner,” says Palmer-Watts, who also had controllable heat pads installed on the top of the suites next to the hobs to simulate the residual heat usually generated by a solid top, useful for holding sauces or other gentle cooking applications. Although each of the suite’s two large planchas are turned on throughout service, Palmer-Watts says the reduction in the number of frying pans needed and ease of cleaning—a wipe down compared to pans stacking up in the pot wash—more than makes up for the slight inefficiency. Each suite also incorporates two low thermal energy Alto-Shaam holding drawers used for finishing or resting fish at 50ºC (122˚F) and meat at 55ºC (131˚F). “For the cod in cider with chard and fired mussels, for example, we’ll color the fish, spoon over a load of butter emulsion, and put it in the 50 degrees Celsius [122˚F] drawer to let the outside temperature gently come through.”
Blumenthal has become synonymous at The Fat Duck for sous-vide cooking, so it’s no surprise to find seven 28-liter (30-quart) built-in unstirred water baths in the main kitchen alone. The garde-manger and dessert kitchens also have one each, and there are numerous stand-alone baths in the prep kitchen used mainly to cook the popular beef royal main course, a 72 hour slow-cooked short rib of Angus beef served with smoked anchovy/onion puree and ox tongue.
“I’m not saying waterbaths are the only way to cook,” says Blumenthal. “For lots of things it’s the best way and most controllable, but it doesn’t work for everything. There are other times when good old-fashioned fire will give you a better result.”
One dish that combines both methods to great effect is the Ibérico (black hoof) pork chop served with pointy cabbage and Robert sauce. “We temper the pork in the water bath for 15 minutes at 60 degrees Celsius [140˚F]. We put it on a tray, season it with salt and pepper and a little oil, and put it into our charcoal-fired Josper oven for one minute with the door closed. We turn it over and cook it for an additional minute. When it’s charred enough we take it out, then put it in the Alto-Shaam warming drawer to finish.”
The Josper oven, which can reach temperatures of up to 500ºC (932˚F), is also used to cook the sirloin and wing rib of Black Angus served with mushroom ketchup, red wine jus, and triple cooked chips. But from a diner’s point of view, a more eye-catching element of the kitchen is the bespoke open fire gas rotisserie. The one-of-a-kind large scale chrome and steel pulley mechanism that drives the rotisserie is housed in a glass case on the dining room side of the kitchen’s glass wall and is modelled after the 16th century pulley system designed for the British royal court’s kitchens. Built by the Swiss watchmakers Ebel, the gears and crank resemble the mechanism of an oversized timepiece.
“Right from the beginning of the project, I said to Adam Tihany that I need fire and that I want everybody to be able to see or feel a sensation of fire and smoke because that’s the historical element,” notes Blumenthal. “In the 1800s the British were the leading experts in cooking meat over an open fire. The French used to send their chefs to London and the country houses and stately homes to learn how to harness the fire.”
Presently, the rotisserie is used solely to roast pineapples for a dessert, but Palmer-Watts says that there are plans to extend its use to savory dishes. “We’ve got a veal shank for two or three people and a quail dish that are coming on in the autumn. When everything is settled, we’ll maybe cook the pineapples in the daytime and then in the evening use the rotisserie for meat.”
Blumenthal is arguably as well known for desserts like The Fat Duck’s bacon and egg ice cream as he is for his savory creations, and new items such as tafferty tart have already been singled out in reviews and become best sellers. Induction hobs help keep the temperature down in the pastry kitchen, although the combined convection and twin deck oven that are used to bake a number of items, including the tipsy cake that’s served with the spit roasted pineapples, pushes up the heat a notch or two. As with all the other kitchens, refrigeration is partly provided by Iglu undercounter two- and three-drawer cabinets. “Conventionally, you’d have the cooling element either in the back or bottom of the cabinet and the temperature controlled by a fan. With these, the element is on the side, which improves efficiency and storage capacity,” says Palmer-Watts.
Although Palmer-Watts admits to having his dream kitchen, one thing he would like is more prep space. But even if the basement kitchen isn’t ideal, there’s still room for two bratt pressure pans—one 97 liter (102 quart) and one 72 liter (76 quart)—where all the stocks and sauces are made on a rotation system. “Cooking under pressure is a more controlled way of cooking,” he explains. “You get better clarity because it’s under pressure and there’s no movement through the stock. Because the cooking temperature is about 105 degrees Celsius [221˚F], you’re getting so much more extraction from whatever you’ve got in there, which results in a more intense clean flavor. We cook our stocks for two hours, and you’re getting the most from the ingredients without a really stewed overcooked flavor.”
Next to the pans, two Rationale convection ovens are used for roasting bones and for cooking the eight terrines of chicken liver parfait for the 110 meat fruit appetizers finished in the cold starter kitchen upstairs.
It’s an enviable setup able to deal with the increase to 120 covers for lunch and 180 to 200 covers at dinner that the chefs have set as their next target. “If The Fat Duck were to do a brasserie based on historic cooking, this would be it,” says Blumenthal. “But it’s not a brasserie. Not because of the complexity but because of the finesse of the dishes. A lot of the cooking principles we developed at The Fat Duck are here, so that underpins the whole foundation. But the key to the success of doing the numbers is that the mise en place is very advanced but the finishing has got to be very simple.”
If there’s a suggestion of “diffusion range” to the name Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, then that could very well be deliberate. It’s already been reported in the British trade press that Palmer-Watts is looking to appoint a successor, and Blumenthal doesn’t rule out the possibility of replicating the restaurant elsewhere.
“It’s a model that could work in other countries, not that we’ve actually got a fixed plan to roll it out. If this works well—and it could be six months, it could be three years, it could be never—Ashley would move on to set up another.”