Nick witnesses glory given, as the tiny Thames-side village of Bray becomes Britain's greatest concentration of Michelin stars.
Heston Blumenthal, chef/proprietor of The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire initially heard that his restaurant was to be awarded its coveted third Michelin star on his mobile phone as he was driving back from a Galician seafood restaurant in Madrid to the 2004 Fusion Gastronomic Conference (of which more next week) at 1715 on Wednesday January 14th.
I know this precisely because I was in the taxi with him alongside his sous chef and his American research assistant who has abandoned his PhD to come and work at The Fat Duck. When Blumenthal turned to me and asked for my advice - I had the distinction of being the oldest in the car by at least twenty years - I immediately became the first person to congratulate him on what is an extraordinary achievement.
This is not simply the case of an outstanding chef finally receiving his just rewards. In not much more than a decade Blumenthal has pioneered a new discipline to cooking in the UK, a scientific approach similar to that adopted by Ferran Adria in Spain, Pierre Gagnaire and Herve This in France who now share their ideas, discoveries and techniques with Blumenthal.
This approach had two seemingly unconnected beginnings. The first was being taken as an impressionable, hungry and obviously fortunate boy by his parents to eat at the late Alain Chapel's restaurant in France. The second was being given a copy of Harold McGee's "On the Science and Lore of Cooking" which, by demonstrating for example that browning meat does not actually seal in the juices as had been thought to be the case, initiated Blumenthal on his scientific quest to explore taste, smell and flavour combinations.
Hence the headline-grabbing snail porridge with jabugo ham, salmon poached with liquorice, sweetbread cooked in salt crust with hay, smoked bacon and egg ice cream or sardine on toast sorbet which appear on his tasting menu alongside less esoteric dishes.
These dishes are all part of a voyage of discovery Blumenthal outlined to an audience of over 600 in Madrid as he experimented with his latest piece of equipment which allowed him to cook with liquid nitrogen, an experiment which prompted one French journalist to ask whether his kitchen had ever been inspected for weapons of mass destruction! And just to emphasise the respect in which Blumenthal is held by his fellow professionals the rapturous applause at the end of his demonstration was led by his neighbour and fellow three star Michelin chef, Michel Roux.
Over lunch Blumenthal expounded on yet another direction he is currently embarking upon. His and other culinary/scientific experiments are bringing together professionals and experts from the worlds of science, flavour enhancement, perfume (Blumenthal has already given demonstrations at the University of Oxford and the Royal Institution) and he hopes this one day will yield answers to the highly complex questions of what and how we taste and retain the memory of certain smells for so long.
This new award is unlikely to affect Blumenthal's charm and modest personality. His wife and three children, to whom he dedicated Family Food, his book about cooking for children, solidly remain his biggest and most critical fans.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray Tel +44 (0) 1628 580333 thefatduck.co.uk
Bray is also home to Michel Roux's three-star Waterside Inn, and Heston Blumenthal's even more relaxed Riverside Brasserie at Bray Marina.