Some weeks ago, I had dinner at the Fat Duck in Bray, near London. I was ready to spend half a month’s salary and prepared to be blown away by the great ambience, friendly waiters and food orgasms. And blown away I was; it just wasn’t because of the food. It was the ice-cold appetiser that hurt my teeth, the tiny candy shop that was wheeled to our table, the wine disco and my personal low point: the sounds of screaming seagulls while I tried to eat the fish course. The experience left me confused, agitated, and crying before I even saw the bill.
Money is just money. Food, on the other hand
So that you know: I don’t go to multiple-star restaurants every month. Le boyfriend Peter and I had recently discovered a rather high surplus on our shared back account, so we decided to spend it all on one single bucket list experience. After all, money is just money. On the other hand, food can be an experience, and it’s what I live for. We decided to go to the Fat Duck, one of the best 3-star restaurants in the world, because of the genius of owner Heston Blumenthal, a pioneer of multisensory cooking. I needed to be in England for work anyway, and as it was my birthday, Peter flew in to celebrate with my colleagues and me. I’m very proud to announce that I received my very first Colin the Caterpillar chocolate cake, which means I’m now officially British. Or at least, so I’ve been told.
Simple times at the Hind’s Head
On March 2, we drove to Berkshire for the experience of a lifetime. Unfamiliar with the UK rush hour, we left early and arrived early. Luckily, I had been phoned by the Fat Duck’s – yes – storytelling team weeks before to prepare me for the evening and to answer any questions. The amiable guy on the phone told me we could kill time in the Hind’s Head, a pub next to the Fat Duck that was also Heston’s. I don’t want to spoil this story before it even started, but that pub was the highlight of my evening. Peter and I ordered virgin cocktails and a Scottish egg and laughed with the staff, a couple of guys that made it their life’s goal to make people choke on their drinks. In a good way.
Then, the time came to start the actual experience. Despite the cocktails being virgin, we couldn’t find the main entrance to the restaurant and needed to be saved by one of the waiters that happened to step outside. He led us to a colleague who guided us to our table.
I remember the restaurant being smaller than I had imagined. It was dark, and the lighting differed per table. Waiters and sommeliers ran around ant colony-style and managed not to break stuff on their way. We sat down in a corner, and I felt my chair wobble on a plinth. I longed for my comfortable chair in the Hind’s Head and thought about how life was simpler then.
“Please use your imagination”
The first waiter of many came to our table to welcome us. She handed me a handwritten birthday card that all staff members signed. I loved this personal welcome, and I felt my muscles relax. We were in good hands; all was good.
All was not good.
As if someone pushed a button, the Fat Duck programme started. One after the other, waiters came to our table to tell us to keep an open mind, to use all our senses and, most importantly, to “use our imagination.” This was very important and repeated throughout the night. And although it sounds good on paper, it made me feel uncomfortable. I could use my imagination at McDonald’s, too, pretending my hamburger was a Wagyu steak. Didn’t I come to the Fat Duck for an actual, real-life experience?
Multiple waiters used the word ‘storytelling’ in their speeches. Now, I don’t know squat about restaurants, but I do know a thing or two about storytelling. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s to never actually say you’re telling a story. That’s not storytelling; it’s meta-communication, and you’re basically giving yourself away. Yet, ‘storytelling’ was everywhere, and I caught myself questioning Heston’s sincerity. Everyone who came to our table talked to us, not with us. They just did what they were told to do, which was to use many words without leaving room for interaction. I caught myself feeling relieved when we were left alone.
Please relax and think of the beach
Alongside many dishes that did taste good, we were given a lot of side materials. A waiter brought a mysterious coin and a stack of cards to play a game, which would help us decide on our dessert. I didn’t want to play cards, and I also didn’t want to pick my dessert. I wanted them to choose my dessert and then hand it over and leave. It was all I wanted and the only thing I couldn’t have.
Then, the fish course came. Clearly, Heston and his staff found fish too mundane, so they devised something. That something was a seashell that had a small mp3-player inside. If you’re curious about what this looked like, there’s no need to use your imagination. It was just that: a seashell with an mp3-player put inside and a pair of earbuds. Again, we were told to use our imagination, to listen to the sounds on the mp3-player and to think back to our fondest memory at the beach. Because, so we were told, Heston loved the beach, too.
We put in the earbuds and listened. There were sounds of waves, the wind, and, very loudly, seagulls. I took a bite of the fish course, and all I could taste was salt while a bird was, quite literally, screaming in my ears.
That’s when I snapped.
I felt tears in my eyes and a knot form in my stomach. Peter, who, by the way, loved the experience, looked up from his own beach memory and asked me what was wrong. A tear ran down my cheek, and I whispered I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t taste the dish. A girl sitting at a neighbouring table looked up and pointed at me. I didn’t care; all I wanted was to leave. To go back to our hotel, home, or McDonald’s, I didn’t care.
A waitress came and asked us about our experiences. I told her the fish course wasn’t my favourite part of the night, and she gently smiled and said: “That’s very normal; many people can feel overwhelmed by a great memory.” I wanted to tell her she didn’t understand what I was saying, but she had already left.
When you think this article is almost done: dream on. By the time the fish course had come and gone, we were only halfway through the night. We had seen people at different tables leave and then come back with mysterious smiles because they had seen something we hadn’t. When it was our turn, a waiter led us to a small attic next to the restrooms, which was introduced to us as ‘the wine cellar’. We were both given a glass of red wine (very nice), and the woman that led the experience asked us to take a sip and describe the flavours. We did and murmured some words about cherries and spices.
Then, the woman announced she would put on some music, so we could taste the wine while listening. The music turned out loud and bombastic, and my taste buds cried and refused service. When I told the woman I couldn’t taste anything because of the music, she smiled and said: “Exactly! That’s the impact that music can have on your senses!” She led us back to our table and left us in disbelief. I started to see cracks in Peter’s mood, too.
The giant doll house
Dessert came. But it wasn’t a nice-looking plate with lemon tart and macarons, which, by the way, wouldn’t have mattered as my taste buds had disappeared into the night. It was a giant doll house, wheeled to our table by yet another waiter. After a long speech, it turned out Heston had recreated the candy shop from his childhood, and our dessert was hidden somewhere in the doll house. The mysterious coin we were given at the start of the evening turned out to be our candy money; we had to pay for our desserts. This is very funny (and by funny, I mean ironic) because we felt like we had spent enough money for ten dinners already. We handed in the coin, and the doll house came to life. Small boxes opened, and our waiter showed us what was inside: some candy with flavours we had picked out at the start of our meal using the stack of cards. The triumph on her face was so intense that I played along and cheered. The woman left, pleased. She had enchanted yet another customer.
Cappuccinos and toast
The next day, Peter and I went out for breakfast in Leamington Spa, near Birmingham (where I work). The restaurant was quiet and peaceful, and a very friendly Italian woman was waiting on us. I ordered a cappuccino and some toast, and it tasted perfect. The milk was foamy, the coffee was strong, the toast was crispy, and the jam was homemade. Also, it cost me around eight pounds in total.
That’s when it hit me. I remembered that night in the Mugaritz in San Sebastián, and the similarities with the Fat Duck were canning. The Mugartiz, too, had multiple stars. They, too, had asked us to use our imagination and pretend we were taking a walk in a forest. They, too, had asked us to stand up between courses to show us something. And they, too, had loved messing with our senses by turning everything upside down. I had written a piece about that night called ‘Caught by the dark side of the Mugaritz‘. But was it really the Mugaritz, or was it me? Was I caught by the dark side of yet another three-star restaurant, or was I simply not cut out for it?
While drinking my cappuccino in Leamington Spa, I realised that if most multiple-star restaurants make me cry, I probably shouldn’t continue to go there. This realisation cheered me up. If I stopped going to over-the-top restaurants and saved the money, imagine the places I could go! Imagine the number of homemade jams I could taste.
And, oh wow. Imagine the cappuccinos I could drink.