The Petri dish of the day

January 23, 2004

A synergy between kitchen and laboratory has helped a British chef to win a third Michelin star.

Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant, in the Berkshire village of Bray, is the fourth to gain the culinary accolade in the UK.

Yet the 37-year-old chef accredits much of his success to an unprecedented collaboration with a growing network of scientists.

Their advice and ideas have inspired Mr Blumenthal to develop an adventurous menu featuring dishes such as smoked bacon and egg ice cream with tomato jam and tea jelly.

They have also prompted new techniques, the use of scientific equipment, and the debunking of culinary myths, such as the practice of adding salt to the water while boiling green vegetables.

Among the first scientists Mr Blumenthal contacted when he began seeking scientific advice was Peter Barham, reader in physics at Bristol University and an experimental amateur cook.

"I can tell him about the basic science but not the cooking - this man can cook," Dr Barham said.

Mr Blumenthal said his childlike inquisitiveness prompted him to ask questions that other chefs would not contemplate. These might focus on the psychology behind taste or how to make elements of a hypothetical dish combine properly. The scientists he talks to all share his enthusiasm for cooking with an ability to communicate ideas.

Len Fisher, an honorary physics research fellow at Bristol and another collaborator, said: "To find a chef who was really interested in science was just wonderful."

The Fat Duck's menu now proclaims: "Hopefully, this approach will herald a new era of communication between chefs and academics; one that will become a breeding ground for new ideas and techniques, continually questioning the way that we prepare and eat our food."

Dr Barham returned the compliment, noting: "Heston is a damn good physicist."

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