Video: Salted Media

When the text came from The Sugar Club executive chef Josh Barlow at 2am, “Does Heston have any dietary requirements?” I realised, that in the mad panic to get my mitts on Heston, I’d forgotten to ask. Surely not? How hard can this be? Heston is escorted in, microphones and cameras are put in place and he launches into a fascinating story about a frog who needs to think to breathe. “I think we take our breath for granted.” On that note, my painstakingly crafted questions are all discarded, but fortunately Josh arrives with our snacks…

Homemade pringle with cured hapuka roe taramasalata, smoked with manuka Kaipara oyster cream inside pearl barley wafers, topped with bronzed fennel and wild scampi caviar

Green pea wafer, dry aged Wyld lamb, smoked Lot Eight olive oil

Perhaps the idea of recording an interview over lunch was a bad one. How could I eat that crispy, homemade pringle without drowning Heston out? “What do you cure it in?” Heston asks. “Salt and sugar,” replies Josh. Thank God, Josh then bravely went on to introduce his clever oyster sandwich, as my tongue is still stuck to the roof of my mouth, courtesy of the pringle. Then they’re off, two chefs eager to talk and curious. Josh explains his rule-breaking process of throwing the oysters into the blender, adding shallots and Champagne and folding through whipped cream. Heston laughs, “See, I love that. I think we’ve become less human and more robotic in restaurants. We should all just chuck it in the blender.”

We immerse ourselves in that briny, creamy, ocean sandwich. The scampi caviar scattered on top has vivid tones of electric blue and I have to ask why. Heston’s first theories involve photosynthesis and chloroplasts. I decide to skillfully steer the conversation away from this dangerously scientific area by asking him not to use the word cyanobacteria in front of me ever again.

When I ask him if he takes a stand on not serving certain species, he points out that he stopped serving Mediterranean cod about 18 years ago. He stresses the importance for human beings to become aware of being aware.

I ask about his perception of New Zealanders and our attitude towards food. “I love that if you want to drink Nescafé or have a cappuccino at lunchtime, you do it, because it tastes good and makes you happy. You don’t appear to be as judgemental about food here. Another thing to celebrate in New Zealand is that you are still connected to your food. If you work to get your food it becomes a thing of value.”

The Vegemite vs Marmite debate has to be had with the next dish. Sadly Heston prefers Marmite.

Garage Project pale ale bread with whipped Marmite butter

In response to a question about the current role of women in hospitality, Heston says he thinks men are kind of losing their way in modern society. My cue to jump in, “So are you saying it’s our time?” “Yes,” he replies. “Without a shadow of a doubt. Male energy is more binary, female energy is more creative. Women have constantly had to come up with ways to keep the next generation protected. And women have developed a much more acute system of smell, which leads me to this barbecue I’ve been working on…” I think I may have just been manipulated. “Men went out and bashed their chest and went hunting, so men have a better sense of direction than females. But we don’t need to do that anymore because we have a GPS.” I wonder if I should tell him that I had to change the voice on my GPS to female as I couldn’t bear to have a man tell me where to go. I do however raise the fact that it irks me that at our home barbecues I do all of the prep, the salads, the dressings and the marinades. I roast garlic and whip it through crushed cannellini beans and add feta and fresh  sage and smear it onto crispy home- baked crostini, then the husband turns  up for the final moments, turning the skewers and flipping the steaks and he gets all of the credit. “Yes, that is exactly it. The hunter swans in and makes a fire, while the woman picks berries. It’s time for change. However, I need to tell you there is a danger here that by developing this versatile barbecue range we (men) will become exempt.”

The Everdure range by Heston Blumenthal is being called the perfect modern barbecue option. His new baby, the 4K is described as the Michelin star of barbecues. There seems to be nothing this baby can’t do. Smoking, roasting, grilling, pizza, desserts. It has a built-in probe that tells you not only the internal barbecue temperature but the temperature of what you are cooking. AND you can control it with your mobile phone. As we are discussing the latest in innovation, the most beautifully cooked asparagus dish quietly arrives. Heston stops eating to wipe his head.

Confit organic asparagus from Cambridge, native NZ spinach, miso hollandaise, puffed quinoa and white sesame seeds

“I have a sweaty head. I’m not sure how busy anyone else’s head is, but the faster my brain goes, the hotter my head gets.” An ADHD diagnosis a few years ago brought welcome insight for Heston. He says his ADHD is extreme and yet the diagnosis enabled him to be able to understand the why. To be increasingly aware of becoming aware. “Who knows where it will take me, but it’s exciting and I wouldn’t change anything.” I suggest that his condition has been a big part of what has driven his focus and his success and wonder how he has coped with the pressure cooker of high expectation that comes with being named the world’s best. “You know, perfection comes from a Greek word that means complete. I’ve been awarded best chef in the world, world’s best restaurant. If you get a mark of ten out of ten, that is supposed to mean you are complete. But that’s not emotional! Food should always bring a connection with our emotions. The World’s 50 Best [Restaurant Awards] began with asking 20 chefs to list their favourites. And look what it has become! Can you imagine how a kitchen full of people, that have worked their socks off to get to number 42 on that list, feel when the next year, they are not in the top 50? That can be devastating. It is so flippant. So unconnected.”

I get that, but I also know that the industry needs feedback and recognition to be able to evolve. We talk about our Cuisine Good Food Awards and I ask Heston how we can do it better. He replies that in his opinion Michelin is more relevant. One star is worthy of a stop, two stars are worthy of a detour and three stars are worthy of a journey. But Michelin doesn’t ever say that three is better than one. “It’s just that you can go to a one star more often because you have to work less for your reward.”

I ventured that I sometimes feel that the two stars are where the most experimentation and risks are being taken, and often where you see the most creativity, whereas with a three-star restaurant there is no room for mistakes and they must deliver the complete seamless package. Heston agreed. “Exactly! And then fear of failure starts to creep in and it starts to take over.” Josh appears with our main course and Heston eagerly eyes the plates and then looks at Josh. “This has all been fantastic buddy, so fantastic.”

Hawkes Bay Wagyu hanger steak, from a collective of farmers called ‘First Light’, smoked bone marrow sauce, wild garlic gremolata and pickled crosnes

Josh tells us his wife picked the wild garlic on Friday morning and happily dropped it into The Sugar Club kitchen, as the drive provides a precious hour for their baby to sleep soundly in the car. Heston is delighted by this. “Great ideas can evolve via necessity. That’s how lots of good things start to happen!” Talking about the fear of failure has obviously struck a chord with Heston as he takes us right back to it… “When we re-did The Fat Duck, which is still not done by the way, in the end I was screaming at myself. I realised that I’d created such a linear, precision kitchen that the team couldn’t be creative. It was ultimately my responsibility because they didn’t want to fail. Fear of failure.” Our last course is brought to the table.

Kaikoura fromage blanc, burnt white chocolate, Seville orange, condensed milk sorbet

Josh calls it, “kind of like an ice-cream sandwich” and is stoked to see Heston dive in with his fingers. I’m conscious of the cameras and remark that Heston obviously has a bigger mouth than mine. Heston insists that every human being has the capacity to open their jaw to the width of their own three middle fingers. Unfortunately, the video camera doesn’t stop while Josh and I experiment with this theory.

I ask Heston if he feels that the perceived value of food is diminishing and challenging the sustainability of our restaurant industry. “We expect to pay more for our houses and our cars but expect our food to be cheaper. How does that work? Say you buy a chicken, build a pen, sell some eggs, eventually kill the chicken, pluck the chicken, clean and gut the chicken, package the chicken, transport the chicken… How much money would you want for doing all of that? We should be paying more for our food and eating less! Let’s say we paid 20% more and ate 30% less. Then we would value what we eat. We don’t have to climb a mountain anymore to get water or fight an animal to the death to feed our kids. When we were hunter-gatherers we worked together, collectively, to survive. Then we moved to farming and we owned things we could potentially lose. Nowadays, human beings have become scared of losing stuff. If you’re prepared to lose everything for what you believe in, wonderful things can start to happen.”

All in all, I get a sense that Heston is re-exploring his priorities. In his own words, he is reverse engineering his life; living in Provence where he was first inspired to cook and setting up a research lab; fixated on underground water, growing mushrooms, fishing and wanting to make wine. A top priority has become sneaking butter onto bread for baby daughter She (pronounced Shay) when mum Steph is not looking. Gone are the days of Heston the hamster on the wheel and his endless race to perform. Slowly diminishing is the constant fear of failure and rejection. Heston says he has finally become self-aware of being self-aware. Heston can finally love Heston. I love that…