Food Geekmad Professor


Where: Bray, England

Heston Blumenthal wasn't the first teenager to be gobsmacked by the wonderful food on a family vacation in France. But Blumenthal took that gastro-epiphany to the level of obsession, hunkering down over French cookery books for endless hours. This was in the early 1980s, when Britain was still hung up on the idea that all great chefs came from across the Channel; it was an uphill struggle for a homeschooled cook.

Still, he persisted, opening his restaurant The Fat Duck in 1995 in the Berkshire countryside where he'd grown up. In only 5 years, he bagged three Michelin stars; in 2006, he briefly stole the crown of best restaurant in the world from Ferran Adrià.

Being a rank outsider actually may have helped Blumenthal doff Escoffier orthodoxy. Instead he found his personal guru in Harold McGee, whose On Food and Cooking excited the novice chef with culinary science. Continually experimenting with freezing, blow-torching, injecting, dehydrating, slow-cooking, what have you, he's still fascinated with manipulating the entire sensory experience of eating -- aroma, taste, mouth feel, texture, even sounds (getting just the right brittle crunch in a homemade potato chip, for example).

Set in a plain tan brick building opening straight off the village high street, The Fat Duck is an unpretentious looking place -- no faux old English clutter or haute French frippery, just an honest square white room, with rough wooden beams and a bare floor; the only colors are the lemonyellow chairs and one long yellow oil painting.

Whether you order from the three-course prix fixe or the tasting menu (warning: both are pricey), you'll be treated to an ever-changing roster of marvels. For starters, there might be the intense taste/texture contrast of a Pommery mustard ice cream accompanied by red cabbage gazpacho, or Blumenthal's famous snail porridge, a witty updating of classic French escargots. A roast scallop dish runs the full scale of textures from silky scallop tartare to caviar to white chocolate velouté. Salmon might come poached in licorice gel; a pork loin pot roast with a gratin of truffled macaroni; a filet of beef with pan-fried foie gras, wild mushroom flan, and beet balsamic jus.

Information:
1 High St., Bray (near Maidenhead); tel. 44/1628/580-333; www.fatduck.co.uk.

Nearest Airport:
Heathrow (26km/16 miles).

Where to Stay:
Langton House, 46 Alma Rd., Windsor (tel. 44/1753/858299; www.langtonhouse.uk). Oakley Court Hotel, Windsor Rd., Water Oakley (tel. 44/1753/609988; www.moathousehotels.com).