11:30AM, Tuesday 01 November 2016
Think of the village of Bray and a certain Michelin-starred chef almost immediately springs to mind.
It is, after all, Heston heartland, with three venues in the high street now owned by the culinary wizard.
But Blumenthal is also catering for holiday-makers passing through the gates at The Perfectionists’ Cafe, which draws inspiration and expertise from its Berkshire siblings.
His fifth restaurant, the Cafe is based in Heathrow’s Terminal 2, otherwise known as the Queen’s Terminal, which opened in 2014.
Its motto is ‘fantastic food... fast’ – appropriate when you consider the fact 16.7 million passengers passed through that one terminal alone on 116,861 flights last year – but it shares much in common with the restaurants in the village.
Head chef at the Cafe is Julian O’Neill, who joined The Fat Duck group in 2013 after honing his skills in the kitchens of fellow star chefs the Roux brothers.
While preparing to leave his previous job, O’Neill heard there were plans afoot for a new Heston restaurant and got in touch with Ashley Palmer Watts, executive head chef for the group. The rest is history.
“I’d always been intrigued by Heston’s style of cooking,” he said. “When I worked at The Wolseley (next to the Ritz in London) I remember taking in one of Heston’s books to suggest we look at how Heston makes his pumpkin soup. I really believed Heston’s approach to food was how everybody would be cooking in five years time, and sure enough I was right.”
Preparations for the Cafe’s launch took place here in Berkshire. O’Neill explained: “I worked in both The Fat Duck experimental kitchen in Bray and Tectonic Place in Holyport for 10 months before the opening. I would meet with Ashley Palmer-Watts twice a week for development meetings and tastings and I also carried out 14 days of interviews to find the new team.
“In the four weeks leading up to the opening we needed more space so rented a huge catering tent with a temporary kitchen installed at Monkey Island, which was a challenging few weeks although I look back at it fondly. Everyone we employed was so receptive and extremely keen and excited to work for Heston and The Fat Duck Group, so they didn’t mind that we were working under canvas for a bit.”
But eating at the busy terminal is not quite the same as a meal in the quiet village.
“Some people expect three star Michelin, they’re expecting to see Heston in the kitchen and the sort of food that would be on offer at The Fat Duck. It’s just not going to happen,” O’Neill said.
“We do around 12,500 covers a day and it is an airport after all, so the cuisine is informal and the menu designed for diners who may be short of time. But that doesn’t mean that we jeopardize quality or consistency.”
The menu at the Cafe includes a burger inspired by an oral physiologist who discovered the ‘three-finger rule’ – the fact our first three fingers put together is the widest we can comfortably open our mouths to eat.
Its pizzas are cooked in the airport’s first ever wood-burning stove, while in true Heston style, the fish and chips is served with a small atomiser which can be sprayed directly on the food or into the air to recreate that traditional British chip shop taste and feel, and its ice cream parlour uses liquid nitrogen at -196°C to produce smooth ice cream fast.
O’Neill continued: “We add elements into every dish which reflect Heston’s ethos, elements of zaniness and fun and a degree of science – like the fish and chips – where the batter is made with natural starches and CO2 to make the crispiest and lightest batter. Or look at the pizzas, we didn’t just create those in a day but visited Naples to find the perfect pizza – there’s still a huge amount of work behind every element on the menu.”
Naturally, the restaurant’s location presents its own challenges.
“We start serving from 5am, so the hours aren’t typical, which can take some time for the staff to get used to,” O’Neill explained. “There’s also all the health and safety procedures to contend with and the temperature of the terminal is another thing – it’s far hotter than in a typical kitchen so we had to consider the uniforms carefully.
“As you can imagine we get an extremely diverse demographic of diners – so we’re catering to a wide array of tastes and time zones, and we’re also up against the other restaurants in T2, so it’s important we do everything better and to an exceptional standard.”
But despite their differing locations and clientele, the restaurants have much in common.
“The ethos enshrined in The Fat Duck Group has, of course, transpired to the work undertaken at The Perfectionists’ Café, as has the attitude and work ethic expected of the team,” O’Neill said. “There are actually components that came out of my development work that have been used in some of the other restaurants. For example the recipe we developed for The Perfectionists’ Café fish and chips and the burger has been introduced at The Crown.”
O’Neill works closely alongside the other chefs in the group.
“Ashley is the executive chef of The Fat Duck Group so his involvement is paramount,” he said. “I report to him and The Fat Duck head chef Jonny Lake, helping to provide synergy across the whole group which enables us to move forward with new and exciting ideas. If you try and stay the same, you only go backwards.”
Because of this he continues to draw inspiration from the work going on in the village.
“The people inspire me and so does the atmosphere in the respective kitchens, so getting the chance to spend time with them all is great,” he said. “I go to Bray once or twice a week if I can – I’ve found the time to go more frequently now and I really enjoy that.”
Prices at the Cafe range from breakfast at £2.50-£9.50, pizzas and deli options from £8.75-£14.50, and The Perfectionists’ Grill at £13.00-£22.50.
Visit www.theperfectionistscafe.com for details.
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