Heston Blumenthal talks barbecues, the power of fire and human connection
Gastronomical scientist and chef Heston Blumenthal talks barbecues, the power of fire and human connection with Ella Walker
Heston Blumenthal might be a gastronomical marvel, inventing dishes like his infamous snail porridge and tricksy meat fruit (chicken liver parfait impersonating a mandarin), but when it comes to barbecues, he's pretty much just like the rest of us.
"I'm an English bloke," says the chef (52), "and Britain has an interesting association with barbecues, because we've got to take the sun when it comes - or take the lack of rain when it comes."
He's as inclined towards "standing outside with an umbrella in the pouring rain in a baseball cap, can of beer and sausages" as he is towards running his globally acclaimed three Michelin star restaurant, The Fat Duck.
"I've always been a massive barbecue fan," says Blumenthal, who has a new 4K design out with Everdure (his range of barbecues), but ask him what he puts on his and he says he likes "the idea of doing less".
Burgers, chops, steak and corn on the cobs, all chucked on together, are all well and good, but what, he asks, about baked Alaska and pots of stuff, rather than meat just sizzling on the grill?
"You can do desserts on the BBQ, you can do a paella or a risotto, and just let the smoke sort of waft over the top, until almost the flames and the smoke lick the food," says the dad-of-four. "It's about versatility."
A barbecue isn't just a tool for getting raw food into an edible condition either. "It's more than that," notes the London-born chef. "It brings people together. I can't imagine a party - a group of mates - all standing around a microwave; it's connection."
He believes that in many ways we have lost "intimate human connection, the ability to really feel and connect with another human being," the way our ancestors did. The cavemen of our past interacted in smaller family and community groups, whereas now, social media has us connecting on a "more surface level, with many more people".
Blumenthal adds: "Humans have an innate need to connect to something - connect and bond." And when it comes to food, little else connects people so well as a barbecue - whether you're a caveman or living today.
Between "the noise of the little crackle, the glint and the light" and "the smell that comes off it", as well as the physical warmth of standing beside one, smoke in your eyes, drink in your hand, barbecuing provides a "connective hub" for people, and is inherently fun says Blumenthal: "It brings people together."
He also loves how building a fire or firing up the barbecue respects the old, and the new at the same time, and encourages you to live in the moment.
"We have become so advanced now that we take food for granted," muses the chef. "We all spend more time being anxious about what we should and shouldn't eat, that we throw food away.
"I think we don't value our food anymore," he adds, "pop it in the microwave and that's it, but I believe we need to value our breath, because we're not here without breathing; and the next thing is, we need to eat."
Finding value in our food, whether in the garden under an umbrella with friends, or eating a sandwich out of a box on our lunch break, is an idea he's become increasingly occupied with.
So what can we do, as individuals, to re-establish our relationship with food? "A really simple thing would be to - this might sound a bit weird," says Blumenthal, breaking off, "it doesn't to me because I've been thinking and working on it for a couple of years - but to give gratitude to it."
Give value and thanks to every mouthful, and consider what's gone into growing every grain of rice - and remember: "Cooking and eating food makes us human."
Everdure by Heston Blumenthal 4K Charcoal BBQ is available from most garden centres. Visit www.kettler.co.uk/4k for details