For months now rumours have swirled, speculation has mounted and countless theories have done the rounds. And within a brief but upbeat 10-minute announcement at Crown yesterday, world-renowned UK chef Heston Blumenthal managed to throw even his own team with the type of announcement that very few could have predicted. Not only will he be temporarily closing his flagship, three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, he’ll be relocating it – staff and all – to Melbourne for six months and will later follow it up with a (permanent) outpost of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal come August 2015.
We were lucky enough to be invited to speak with Heston to hear more about his plans for bringing The Fat Duck to our shores and to share his views on what he loves about Melbourne.
Leanne Clancey: We’re very excited about your announcement; it’s such a huge coup for Melbourne to be named the new home of one of the world’s most highly rated restaurants.
Heston Blumenthal: Absolutely, it’s really exciting. In fact, before the press conference I had another really important announcement to make, which was to tell all of my staff at The Fat Duck in Bray. I wasn’t able to tell them before I left [the UK] in case the news got out, but I really wanted to see how they would react. So we organised for them all to come into the restaurant on their day off, and there was champagne, wine and music, but none of them had any idea about what was going on. They saw me come up on the screen and were obviously thinking, “What are we doing here?” So I made the announcement and told them what was going to happen and there was just this silence, which was worrying. At first, I thought it was because they were all just taking it in, but as it turned out, it was just the time lag. That was [eventually] followed by a large applause and celebration, so it’s gone down really well.
LC: How many of your staff from The Fat Duck will be coming to Melbourne?
HB: We’ll be bringing the whole team – which is somewhere between about 60 to 70 staff. Though there are some who have children and families to consider, so it might be a little tricky. Whatever happens though, we will deal with it individually to make sure that everyone’s happy and we’ll place them into the other restaurants in the UK if needed [Blumenthal now has four restaurants in the UK – The Fat Duck, The Hinds Head and The Crown at Bray – all in Bray, Berkshire, and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in London].
LC: Will any local chefs be employed in the Melbourne restaurant?
HB: The Fat Duck here in Melbourne will be entirely staffed by our existing team from Bray. There’s a chance that we might need a few extra people, in which case we will employ some [local chefs] with the idea that we will train them up so that they can stay around for Dinner as well.
LC: Will there be much difference in seating capacity between The Fat Duck in Bray and the new one at Crown?
HB: We do 42 at the Duck, and here it will be around 45. With Dinner it will be more like 120 covers and the kitchen will be modelled on the one in London – it’s a fantastic kitchen. The way that we’ve planned it is that The Fat Duck at Crown will be built inside Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. When people come in initially, they’ll come in to The Fat Duck (which will be a much smaller restaurant), and after six months, once that’s finished we’ll then take that down and leave behind an entirely different restaurant. What that means is that we’ll have a kitchen here in Melbourne much better than what we currently have at The Fat Duck in Bray. The refurbishment of the Bray restaurant will be a four-to-five month job, so I’ll be moving back and forth a lot – I’ve got four restaurants back in the UK plus other commitments so it will be a busy time.
LC: Are diners likely to see you on the pass when they visit The Fat Duck in Melbourne?
HB: On the pass? Yes. On the pans, no. I will be here at the very beginning at least for the first few weeks quite solidly, but after that I’ll be going to and fro. But yes, diners will definitely see me milling around in some shape or form.
LC: What can you tell us about how you view Melbourne’s international reputation as a food city?
HB: I think that once they actually come here, anyone would be surprised by Melbourne’s dining standards. The vibrancy of the food scene here is just amazing but I still think that people don’t quite realise how diverse (and good) the food offering is here. It’s just really eclectic and if I was to name my top international dining cities then London, New York, Melbourne and Sydney would definitely be in there.
LC: Is that opinion shared by your peers and other international chefs in your circle?
HB: Yes, definitely – but generally only if they’ve actually been here. In London we’re still trying to fight against some outdated prejudices about our food [from the rest of Europe]. The French still think that English dining is back in the ’70s – unless they’ve actually been and tried it for themselves. And they probably think the same thing about Melbourne. Just the coffee here – it’s incredible, no matter where you go. I keep telling people, there is a reason why Starbucks never really took off in Melbourne – you can go anywhere here and get great coffee. You’d have to have part of your brain removed to not understand that when you actually come here.
Australian dining has just got such a great energy and there’s this really excited, open-mindedness about food here. I love that we have people calling our reservations team in the middle of the night [from Australia to England] to make a booking at The Fat Duck – I mean, talk about enthusiasm!
There’s a really nice confidence here too, which probably comes down to the fact that it’s so geographically disconnected. Australia has some of the best produce in the world and the restaurant culture here is just about as good and as exciting as any other big, international city and you guys know it, but not in a cocky way.
LC: You once said that you, “like a good kebab as much as the next person”, which I’m sure has endeared you to many new fans. Have you taken in any notable late-night dining experiences during your visits to Melbourne?
HB: I tell you what I have done, those kind of toasted sandwiches with funny fillings. Kind of like a toasty but with things like bolognaise or chilli con carne inside.
HB: Yeah, they were good.
LC: What is the one question that you least like to be asked when being interviewed?
HB: The most common question I’m asked is usually something about what I cook at home or the perils of getting invited around to people’s houses for dinner. But what I’ve recently realised that it’s actually worse the other way round. So for example, if I was to invite someone over for dinner and I didn’t know them very well and I just do something like a simple carbonara or a burger on the barbeque or something they’re always a bit let down and disappointed.
The Fat Duck will open in February 2015, to be replaced with Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in August 2015.