While I’ve been sharing my dining experiences on this blog for three years now, the art of truly evocative food writing is still beyond my grasp. Words like tasty, delicious and more-ish pepper my food vocabulary – a more refined choice of wording escape me.
I feel woefully under-qualified to write this particular blog entry. How does an amateur paint a sufficiently detailed picture of the very exclusive Chefs Table experience at the Fat Duck Melbourne? Only 9000 people will ever dine at the Fat Duck in the six months that it spends at the Crown Towers Melbourne, and only five hundred of those will get to experience the Chefs Table. I’m in rarefied company.
I’ve decided to highlight parts of the evening and present a large photo gallery at the end of this entry which will hopefully paint a fuller picture of our experience. Warning – large wall of text ahead. Please feel free to skip forward to any of the following sections: Entering Wonderland, Meeting the Magicians, Behind the Scenes, Overall, or even skip straight to the Tasting Menu or Photo Gallery.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is one of the themes that features in a dining experience at the Fat Duck. The Mock Turtle Soup, drawn from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland mythology, is well known through Heston’s many television programmes.
Immersion in Wonderland starts right from the beginning though, not just as one of the courses served on the night. As we entered the dark hallway that leads to the Fat Duck restaurant, we walked along a yellow walkway that gradually narrows, leading us to a LCD screen at the back of the hallway displaying a door that gets smaller…and smaller…and smaller. I almost believed that I had taken one of Alice’s enlarging potions!
Once we figured out how to enter the restaurant itself (hint, it’s a hidden sliding mirrored door on the right), we were greeted by the wait staff. Before we were shown to our table, we were shown around the remarkable renovated space with large windows overlooking Southbank.
The first stop in the dining area was at a large pocket watch-style clock suspended on the wall. Instead of numbers, the hands of the clock indicate the passage of time that the Fat Duck will be located in Melbourne – from February through to August. At the time of our reservation, the hands of the clock were suspended almost perfectly at the halfway point. The intention is to take the clock back to the United Kingdom once their residence in Crown Towers is over, where it will feature in the dining room as a memento of their time in Melbourne.
The second stop is at a half-completed mural which takes over an entire side of the dining room. As I got closer to the mural, I realised that it was made up of jigsaw pieces. The design is gradually telling a story of their time in Melbourne, and the intention is to auction the mural off for charity at the end of their stay. “Each guest gets to play a part in the mural,” our waitress announced to us. “And you’ll find out how with one of your final courses tonight.”
My dining companions for the evening were Kieran, and two of his friends – Neil and Michael. Years ago, they vowed to mark their 30th birthdays with a meal at the Fat Duck. All three of their birthdays passed before I was able to make it a reality with the announcement that I had secured the exclusive Chefs Table for the Fat Duck Melbourne. The slightly higher cost ($675 per person rather than $525) wasn’t a deterrent as we were all determined to make this meal happen.
As our waitress guided us through the normal dining room and took us to our special table located within the Fat Duck, it became clear how valuable this particular Chefs Table really is. We walked through the kitchen and were introduced to various key peoples – head chef Jonathan Luke, pastry chefs, sous chef, our sommelier for the evening…
It wasn’t just about the personal introductions either. As the night went on, it became clear that we would be getting special treatment, with head chef Jonathan personally bringing many of the courses to our table and talking us through the different elements and the philosophy that lay behind the creation of the dish. It’s a level of intimacy that many people would never get to experience as the chef made a special point of coming over to us at various points throughout the evening for general chatter and to answer whatever questions we had.
We also got special attention from our sommelier, who spent a surprisingly long amount of time with our group. Part of it was professional, but much of it was personal as well. We talked of the difficulties that Fat Duck staff had faced in the six month move – for example, our sommelier’s wife was still overseas, and they would be apart for most of the time that he would be in Melbourne. There were positives to the move as well though – his wife had been there with him for the first month and they had had the opportunity to travel around Australia and take a short holiday.
Behind the façade of a highly professional, technical, and magical experience at the Fat Duck are some very human people with real passion for what they do.
Over the course of the evening, our waitress and head chef shared bits of random trivia that really highlighted the difficulties of bringing such an enterprise to life.
The logistics of moving signature cookware and dishware to Australia. All cooking equipment, crockery, and cutlery was packed up carefully and shipped to Melbourne. “We have to be especially careful with each piece of crockery here. Because they’re made overseas, we can’t just call to Europe for a replacement plate if one were to break. The customs and import charges would make it unfeasible.”
The adjustment of signature dishes to the availability of Australian ingredients. “Our sous chef spent about two months here in Melbourne before we officially moved. He spent every day meeting with Australian chefs and suppliers and trying out things in our test kitchen. Not every ingredient we use in England is available in Australia, or even if it is, the taste and texture may not be exactly the same. We needed to make sure we were creating a Fat Duck dish, using Australian ingredients. The marron dish for example, is one you wouldn’t find in England as we simply don’t have marron available.”
The benefits of the larger industrial kitchen in the Crown Complex. “Our kitchen in Bray is very small, and the layout isn’t great because we’ve added onto it over the years. Having this amount of space in Crown is amazing, and we’ve even brought on a few kitchen staff to help as we now have the larger space. The test kitchen we have downstairs is incredible as well, it’s doubled the space we normally have available.”
The ability to experiment a little bit in Australia with areas they don’t normally dabble in. “One of our chefs has just been experimenting with baking our own bread. He makes it with burnt flour from his home region in Italy, and we’re trying it out here in Melbourne before we make a decision about whether or not to take it back to Bray.” (For the record, the bread was fantastic!)
The man, Heston Blumenthal himself. “Heston was last here in Melbourne two weeks ago to film an episode of Masterchef. He won’t be back for a few more weeks. He has a really hectic schedule – even his personal assistant only manages to sit down with him in person once a month. He doesn’t get much opportunity to actually cook either as he spends most of his time flying around checking on all his different restaurants and businesses.”
The Fat Duck offers a dining experience unlike any other. The experience of their diners is top of mind, and they will happily accommodate any requests that may be thrown at them.
As many people know, I’m alcohol-free by choice. The Fat Duck managed to do matching juices and teas for me instead, and impressively managed to make the underlying flavours of the juices similar to the matched wines. Now, it doesn’t sound that impressive because anyone could serve a juice right? Their point of difference is that they approach juices with the same amount of sophistication and focus as they would their wines. Juices are infused with a variety of herbs and spices for a day, strained, mixed with other juices…the process for creating the perfect matching juice is just as detailed as finding the perfect matching wine. Nowhere else have I encountered this dedication to dining perfection.
I honestly can’t talk up the experience of dining at the Fat Duck enough. For the full five hours we spent on our Chefs Table, we were wined, dined, and entertained with food as more than a meal – it was food as a full theatrical experience. Each course had an element of theatre about it. Whether it was the use of liquid nitrogen, seashore sounds played through a conch shell, or dissolving a gold pocket watch in a teapot of hot water, it was never anything as simple as setting down a plate on the table.
A lot of people would be turned off by the price tag of the Fat Duck Chefs Table, but I’m glad that I paid for this experience. The way I reason it, it’s simply a matter of personal priorities. Some people drop $100 or more every week at the pub or bar – I don’t do that. Other people buy coffees two or three times every day– I don’t do that. Everyone has their priorities, and dining out for special meals happens to be my priority and my indulgence!
While K and I probably couldn’t afford to visit the Fat Duck again later this year while we’re in the UK, I think we’ll probably try to stretch to having a meal at Dinner by Heston in London. I can’t wait until our next Heston Blumenthal experience!
On the menu on the evening (as pictured in the photo gallery below) was:
- Aerated Beetroot
- Nitro Poached Aperitifs (Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Tequila and Grapefruit)
- Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Ice-Cream
- Savoury Lollies – Waldorf Rocket, Salmon Twister and Feast
- Jelly of Quail, Marron Cream with Caviar Sorbet, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
- Snail Porridge with Joselito Ham and Shaved Fennel
- Roast Marron with Shiitake, Confit Kombu amd Sea Lettuce
- Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich
- “Sound of the Sea”
- Salmon Poached in a Liqourice Gel
- Lamb with Cucumber, Green Pepper and Caraway
- Hot & Iced Tea
- Botrytis Cinerea
- The Not-So-Full English Breakfast
- Whisky Wine Gums
- “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”