If you drive forty-five minutes west of London along the Thames, you’ll find yourself in the village of Bray in Berkshire. You would have to pass through Slough to get there: TV nerds like me know Slough as the setting for the original BBC Office starring Ricky Gervais. Bray seems like a quaint British village; when looking at pictures, you’re almost surprised to see cars in them. Of the four British restaurants that have earned the Michelin Guide’s highest honor – three stars – two of them are located in Bray. The first of the two is known as the Waterside Inn, and was founded by the Roux brothers. It is the only restaurant outside of France to have three Michelin stars for twenty-five consecutive years.
The other restaurant is called The Fat Duck. It is located at the center of town and is the so-called flagship of modernist cuisine in the English-speaking world. Chef Heston Blumenthal took a progressive approach to developing his cooking style and his restaurant’s reputation: he reached out to food scientists, psychologists, and even perfumers to test, retest, and challenge every facet of conventional cooking wisdom. Can we make oysters taste better if the diner hears ocean waves lapping while they eat? Is it possible to keep hot liquid and cold liquid separate in the same glass, so when a diner takes a sip half of her mouth is hot and half of her mouth is cold? Does the name of a dish have an impact on how it tastes – will someone be disgusted by crab ice cream but delighted by frozen crab bisque? Can we make an ice cream that we can light on fire but won’t melt?
These days, it’s not uncommon to see bacon in a dessert. Even Burger King had an ice cream parfait sprinkled with crispy bacon bits. Bacon-spiked desserts, though, got their start at The Fat Duck when Heston Blumenthal introduced the dish “Bacon & Egg Ice Cream,” a scoop of bacon-and-egg flavored ice cream on top of a slice of caramelized French toast made with brioche. It was served with tomato and red pepper compote, a spoonful of salted caramel, sugared Morels, and a cup full of jellied Earl Grey tea. At the time, Blumenthal called it “without doubt the most controversial dish we have at the restaurant.”
One online review I read of The Fat Duck highlighted that fact. The author of that review said she didn’t like tomatoes, so she asked for the tomatoes to be withheld from the dish. She found the dish to be cloying – too sweet to finish –and marked her experience there down as a result.
Let me step back and talk about conceptualizing a dish on the professional level. The first thing a chef has to consider is that all tastes need to be in balance. As you may know, there are five generally-accepted tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (for the uninitiated, umami is “meatiness.” It is found in meats, tomatoes, and many kinds of cheeses and mushrooms). Sweet and sour, for example, do an excellent job of balancing each other out. Salty and bitter do the same thing, which is why beer snacks tend to be salty. Sour flavors don’t balance well with bitterness, however, nor do they balance well with salt. With that in mind, the second consideration comes up: everything on the plate should have a flavor-oriented purpose. The purpose of the tomato compote in the above dessert was to add sour flavors and umami: sour to tamp down the overall sweetness, umami to complement the bacon flavor, which in turn would make the meatiness more prominent and tamp down the sweetness.
Ultimately, when this reviewer asked to have the tomatoes left off her plate, she threw off the balance of the dish and didn’t like the result. Whether or not she realized that it was her fault, I don’t know. I hope she did. And I hope that if any of you are willing to pay $200 or more for a meal at a top restaurant you will eat the dish as it is intended. But more than that, it got me thinking about the myriad ways we do this same thing in day-to-day life without ever acknowledging it. It could be something simple. Maybe you didn’t enjoy a movie because you were texting and checking Twitter the whole time. Maybe you couldn’t feel comfortable in a new relationship because your heart was still holding onto a previous one. It could also be something more serious. Maybe your marriage is failing because you ignore the fundamental design and balance of marriage as a whole. I guess I can’t speak for you; but for myself, I want to start acknowledging when “having it my way” is what ruins the whole experience.