IN GOOD COMPANY: Why Heston Blumenthal moved his restaurant to the other side of the world

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Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Melbourne.

Opening in a foreign country is a challenge for any business, whether it’s the language, currency exchange or local laws. But when you’re seeking to recreate one of the world’s most famous restaurants on the other side of the planet, it leads to some unusual problems.

Global supply chains deliver consistency, but when your philosophy is about working with local products it creates new challenges, as Heston Blumenthal found out when he decided to relocate The Fat Duck from England to Melbourne’s Crown Towers.

For starters, Australian seafood is very different to Atlantic varieties, which meant throwing out nearly everything his team thought they knew about cooking seafood and starting again.

“There are almost no fish in the UK that you get in Australia,” Blumenthal explained to Business Insider. “The fish are completely different, so we needed to cook them in completely different ways to get the best out of them.”

As a chef who’s made a career out of breaking the rules of cooking and redefined the meaning of restaurant in the process, getting a mystery box of ingredients is all part of the fun.

Blumenthal’s culinary epiphany came when he was just 16 and dined at one of France’s top restaurants. It was the quintessential Provencal experience, from the scent of lavender to cicadas chanting in the summer heat and waiters theatrically carving lamb at the table. Another 13 years would pass – and career diversions as photocopier salesman and debt collector – before his ambition was realised when he bought a 1640s pub in Bray, on the outskirts of London.

When The Fat Duck opened in 1995, Blumenthal had just three weeks of experience in professional kitchens. He was a self-taught cook – his talent fueled by voracious reading and annual gastronomic excursions to France. It was typical of the man, who is willing to risk everything for an idea, although the rewards eventually caught everyone, especially him, by surprise.

When “The Duck”, as he calls it, first opened, the menu was classic French bistro, although his love of science had already found its way into the triple-cooked chips with steak.

There were setbacks: the oven exploded on the second day. He narrowly escaped serious injury, and continued cooking with a bag of frozen peas strapped to his head. Then there was the time a chocolate birthday cake he’d spent days preparing crashed to the floor just before the guests arrived. He was saved by Michel Roux, a godfather of modern British cooking, who ran Waterside Inn, a nearby Michelin 3-star restaurant and sent over a spare cake.

The Fat Duck in Melbourne.

The Fat Duck’s incredible rise to fame was rapid. In 2000, Blumenthal refurbished and began offering his first degustation menu. In just nine years, a record, it went from being a last-resort pub after you’d been thrown out of everywhere else, to only the third British restaurant with three Michelin stars. After starting with just one other person working beside him, the chef had 50 looking after 45 diners.

Blumenthal’s genius is questioning accepted wisdom and using science to challenge the boundaries of possibility. It was a lesson he learnt early on by tackling one of the most basic kitchen rules – searing meat to “seal in” the juices. It’s bunkum, yet regularly cited as kitchen wisdom. The chef doesn’t just slaughter sacred cows, he then goes in search of a better way to cook them.

The search for a home

The coup of The Fat Duck coming to Australia was a matter of perseverance, yet the perfect fit for his first overseas venture.

The restaurant turns 20 in August and the 475-year-old building needed work. Blumenthal was searching for the right opportunity for a decade and the restaurant’s success – it was named the world’s best restaurant in 2005 – meant there was no shortage of offers coming in.

“We’d looked at Dubai, we’d had several offers from Vegas and came very close to going to St Tropez five years ago,” he said.

He’s been busy in the meantime, opening The Hinds Head, a Michelin-starred gastropub, also in Bray, and in 2011, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, serving historical British dishes, at the Mandarin Oriental in London. Dinner is No. 5 on the world’s 50 best restaurants.

A giant jigsaw is part of the design in Melbourne.

“With the Mandarin, we looked at doing a second Dinner by Heston – the plan was always to have five or six of them – and New York would be the second one.”

Instead, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal will open at Crown in Melbourne after The Fat Duck’s tenure ends in August.

Blumenthal talked with his colleagues in the Big Apple, including Thomas Keller of Per Se, and Daniel Boulud, who has eight New York ventures, as well as restaurants in Singapore, London and Canada. They warned him about the heavily unionised labour force.

“The advice I got was: ‘If you can’t operate outside of the union, don’t touch it with a barge pole’. It’s a big issue there. Daniel even had his restaurant picketed by unions,” Blumenthal said.

The right man in the right place at the right time just happened to be one of James Packer’s right hand men, John Alexander, Crown’s food-loving executive deputy chairman.

“John’s been a mate since 2002 and I’d been staying at Crown and doing more and more stuff here,” Blumenthal recalls.

“We started talking about the possibility of a second Dinner, then it dawned on us about moving The Duck here.”

The ducks were in a row for Blumenthal who’d become a local celebrity thanks to his appearances on Masterchef.

“Series 2 of Masterchef was one of the major catalysts,” he said. “I don’t I’ve think ever seen a country that has exploded so much food-wise and that explosion has been so open-minded.”

He’s had long conversations with taxi drivers in Australia about techniques for toasting pita bread and matching the right lettuce with a dish.

Our increasingly food-obsessed nation was fascinated by this real life Willy Wonka and talk of his snail porridge, egg-and-bacon ice cream and Mad Hatter’s tea party. Blumenthal’s TV series were also firing on SBS, and commercial deals with Breville and Coles were in the offing.

And he noticed something when Australians came to eat at The Fat Duck in Bray.

One of the new Australian dishes: botrytis cinera, a dessert paying homage to sweet wines.

“Australia is the totally opposite of Italy – it’s very multicultural and you don’t have any of those historical rules – you just go ‘I think that or this works’,” Blumenthal said.

“The Aussies were walking in with the perfect attitude of any customer that you’d ever want to come into The Duck, rubbing their hands together with excitement. They aren’t bound by the historical pomposity of the French and stuff like menus without prices for women and cloches.”

The challenges of moving

So an ambitious plan to relocate the entire restaurant, lock, stockpots and staff, to Australia was hatched.

It had its challenges, including Australian visa rules for a team of 60. The restaurant’s six month stint was fine, but they didn’t allow for set up and pack down time, which stretched the stay out to nearly eight months, changing the rules on visas.

“For a while it was a really big worry because we thought we might only have half the staff and to train up the other half would take much more time than we had,” Blumenthal said.

Then there’s what Australia counts as skilled jobs. Despite the years of study to understand the $300 billion wine industry and tell a Barossa shiraz from a French burgundy, sommelier is regarded as an unskilled job by Australia.

“They don’t consider, bizarrely, sommelier as a proper job. Head chef was one thing, restaurant manager too, but not someone who’s dedicated their life to studying wine,” he said.

And then there’s the multinational side to restaurants.

“Anyone who did not have English as their main language had to take a serious exam, both oral and written. The oral was fine, but even chefs who speak English are not known for their writing,” the chef said.

Blumenthal is now bracing for a few defections when the time comes to return to England, although he hopes anyone who decides to stay will join the Dinner by Heston team.

Then there was the challenge of the produce. While the seafood was another world, his team spent months searching for the right ingredients to use.

There were unexpected things in even basic ingredients. “The cream over here is very different to cream in the UK, so it doesn’t behave in the same way in preparations,” the chef said.

Roast marron with shiitake confit, kombu and sea lettuce.

Blumenthal believes Australia has the best beef in the world, but the snails were a problem. He wanted to serve his most famous dish, but the locals gastropods weren’t up to scratch. They ended up importing them, canning large batches in the kitchen back in England before heading south.

“It was one of the most ironic things of all. For snail porridge, there are two types of snails and Australia only has the one type and it’s not the type you eat – they have a really earthy flavour,” he said. “So the slowest moving creature on the menu is the one that took the longest time to get here.”

Another challenge was the sheer size of the Melbourne venue. The Fat Duck back home has just 14 tables serving 45 people. Melbourne is designed with Dinner by Heston in mind, feeding around 200 people a sitting. The extra space takes time to tend.

“If every time a waiter makes a journey and they have to take 4-5 extra steps, at the end of the day it means you might lose an hour of service. That took the guys by surprise and you don’t realise it until you have a full operating service,” Blumenthal said.

The Australian reaction also surprised, then scared him.

“We were totally surprised – we knew there would be interest, but I had no idea that the response was going to be the way it was, that huge. It was fantastic until about two weeks before the opening, when I started to get the heebeegeebees. With such high expectations, I was worried that people were going to be disappointed,” Blumenthal recounts.

The opposite is true. Diners are thrilled and that energy has translated to the staff, who are “bopping”.

The lessons learned

Blumenthal says his favourite part is “seeing The Duck in that environment – ceilings twice the size, great view of the river and such a big room”.

As well as revisiting dishes they all knew well in a new light: “It was a great experience that I think pulled us out of our comfort zones and helped break habits.”

At the halfway point in The Fat Duck’s residence, the chef is starting to turn his attention towards the transition to its permanent replacement – Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.

“We’ll start some training behind the scenes soon and hope it gives us enough training time so that when Dinner opens, we’re off and running.”

So what lessons would Blumenthal pass on to any other business looking at setting up overseas?

“You really need know the city, you need to have been there enough times to get a feel for it. And it’s not necessarily ‘the bigger the city the better for business’,” he said.

Sound of the Sea, one of The Fat Duck’s most famous dishes.

The other important thing is a strong joint venture partner, Blumenthal says, singing the praises of Crown.

“You need a partner who is strong and understands what you do so you get the proper support from them. We learnt a lot from doing Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in London, in that now we’re used to working with a bigger company.

“When you’re working for a bigger corporation, sometimes an email gets sent along and it takes two weeks to get a window cleaned, so it’s important that your partner is responsive. Crown has been fantastic and really get what we’re doing,” he said.”

So would he do it all over again?


More from the In Good Company Series:

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