Reviewer says
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston Blumenthal | 2008 | UK

reviewed by Daniel Chan

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
by Heston Blumenthal
Publisher: Bloomsbury, Country: UK
ISBN: 9780747583691, Edition: First, Year: 2008
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.


It’s 43cm long, 33cm wide, 8cm thick, weighs about five kilograms, has 534 pages, and was one of the most anticipated cookbooks in 2008. From the silver embossed slipcase to the photography and artwork, the writing and the feel of the paper, it would be hard not to notice and admire the Big Fat Duck Cookbook on the shelves of a bookstore.

On initial impressions, perhaps like the restaurant itself, the book appears to be an intimidating creature. Open it and you will be hit by Heston Blumenthal’s passion. Inside is the story of Blumenthal and his restaurant, the recipes and stories behind many of the dishes from the Fat Duck, and a series of essays explaining the science behind the food. Beyond the science, there are journeys into food history, philosophy, personal anecdotes, humour, and the sheer dumb luck that can trigger a great idea. It is a dizzying amount of information in one book. But those who have read Blumenthal’s previous books, his newspaper columns, or seen his TV show will know that he has a gift for explaining complicated concepts in layman’s terms.

Full review

Structure of the book

The book has three sections. The first, “History”, covers the story of Blumenthal and the Fat Duck. Strangely, whilst the index lists significant moments in the story, they are not given headings in the essay itself. The second is titled “Recipes” and contains 30 dishes from the restaurant’s degustation menu and 15 dishes from the à la carte menu. The final section, “Science”, is a collection of 25 essays on the science of food. Curiously, the table of contents is on a foldout page in the middle of the book.

About the author

Blumenthal is a self-taught chef and owner of the three-Michelin-star Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England. He is a columnist with The Times, has hosted television shows, and The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is his fourth book.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

The success of the Fat Duck, el Bulli, and Alinea restaurants has resulted in molecular gastronomy making its way into the popular culture. All three have released books, but where the El Bulli and Alinea books can leave the reader lost about what they do and why, the Big Fat Duck cookbook humanises the science and philosophy behind the food.

After an introduction by Harold McGee comes the section titled “History”. Blumenthal writes about his journey in food, starting from his trip to the three-Michelin-star L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence in 1982. Interestingly, he reminisces about the journey to the restaurant, noting the sights, sounds, textures, and smells as his family make their way there. Its significance is that it is these senses, and the human reaction to memory, that Blumenthal works to understand and manipulate in his food. He writes about the impact the dinner had on him, and how it steered him into a life of food. You learn about his development as a chef, from the books he read to the restaurants he ate at, the experiments he conducted and the sacrifices that he and his partner made. His story of the frustrations of starting a restaurant and how close they came to losing everything is an engrossing one, told with a wistful and self-deprecating humour. When he tells of how and when he received his third Michelin star, it’s hard not to feel happy for him. The section closes with a discussion about how he, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, and Harold McGee feel about the direction of their cooking, and specifically, the meaning and interpretation of “molecular gastronomy”. He includes their “Statement on the New Cookery”, published in The Observer in 2006.

The section “Recipes” contains 45 dishes. A full page is devoted to the name of the recipe, also giving the year in which it made its debut on the menu. There are then up to half a dozen pages with a photo, and in most cases some eye catching artwork, and an essay about the dish covering anything from the inspiration for it to the science behind developing it. Many essays finish with Blumenthal explaining how the flavours and textures should work in the final dish.

A key to the essays is that they often put the dishes into a context that can be understood by our own eating experiences. Take for example, one of his most infamous creations, Snail Porridge. Blumenthal’s essay starts with a story about him asking one of his chefs about what he ate on a trip to New York. Expecting an exotic answer, he got “fish porridge”, which he admits shut him up, but produced the seed for his dish. He discusses snails as a food dating back to Roman times, the coincidence where he gets the idea of cooking snails and oats, and his thought process of presenting the dish in such a way that diners would embrace it. He writes about the difficulties of not only trying to get the dish right, but also of putting it in a context that diners would understand. In what I think is the one paragraph that summarizes his philosophy, Blumenthal writes,

“For a diner it was a big leap into the unknown that, understandably, would be approached with caution. It’s difficult to enjoy a dish you can’t make sense of. And it’s certainly difficult to make sense of a dish that has no clear cut place in culinary tradition or even in personal food memories. Context seemed to me to be the key to unlocking this. Could I create a comfort zone around the dish, render it in some way familiar and, as such, more approachable?”

Whilst dishes like Nitro-Poached Green Tea And Lime Mousse, Sound Of The Sea, and Nitro Scrambled Bacon And Egg Ice Cream all point to a new direction for food, it would be a mistake to think that science is the only factor in Blumenthal’s vision. The most interesting recipes are concerned with the past, and Blumenthal is just as passionate about what people used to eat. He pays homage to the 19th century ice cream innovator, Agnes Marshall with the recipe “Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornet” and delves back to the food of the royal courts with “Beef Royale (1723)”. He opens up a world of lost food concepts, visionaries from the past, and the “food archaeologists” who are working to document it.

Finally, the recipe is presented. Each sub-recipe is titled, the ingredients listed, followed by the method, and finishing with the final assembly of the dish. The sheer scope of a Fat Duck dish starts to sink in. Amongst ingredients that every home cook has used, rare ingredients and chemical compounds stand out. As you read the cooking instructions, the science lab equipment and the precision measurements make their presence felt. There are plenty of other restaurant cookbooks where you require six to ten preparations to make the final dish, but with the Fat Duck, it is the chemicals and equipment that will trip people up.

The last section, “Science”, contains 25 essays, five of which are written by Blumenthal and involve various aspects of the Fat Duck kitchen. The remaining essays are by different people around the world, each with an introduction by Blumenthal. As you would expect, these essays vary in interest and readability. I found the essay “Synaesthesia” by Jamie Ward to be incredibly interesting and easy to comprehend. By contrast, “Twenty-First Century Gums” by Tom Coultate was almost incomprehensible due to the detailed science and the jargon used. Readers will find most of the essays enjoyable and thought provoking.

The photography of Dominic Davies and Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria is outstanding, but both are overshadowed by the brilliant illustrations by Dave McKean. His artwork brings a charming humour to the book and is a reminder that food should be fun.

What problems/flaws are there?

People may find the book to be prohibitively expensive. It is a very large volume, and not something that you can lie in bed to read. The table of contents is a fold out page in the middle of the book, which makes it irritating to use. Some readers will look at the size of the text and ask themselves, “Why?”. Finally, I think the production values of the book will divide opinion, so there will be people who feel that the entire package to be self-indulgent.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

People with an interest in the cutting edge techniques, ingredients, and equipment being applied to cooking, and those who want an insight into how a chef creates a new dish will find plenty of enjoyment in this book. I feel this is a vastly superior book to the Alinea or el Bulli cookbooks simply due to the explanations that Blumenthal provides. The Fat Duck Cookbook will also find a home with those who simply want to read an entertaining story about a chef and his work. For those who are looking to cook something for dinner, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Rate this review
OkayQuite helpfulVery helpful/interesting (Rating: 3.00/3, 1 votes)
Loading ... Loading ...
VN:F [1.9.7_1111]
Rate this book
Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston Blumenthal | 2008 | UK, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

More reviews and announcements that might be interesting:



  1. Lingy
    Posted 04 Jul 2010 at 07:45 | Permalink

    I’ve been keeping an eye out on this book, for discount at Borders and have just recently looked at its contents. There aren’t many recipes (not as many as his new one), but there was certainly impressive graphics, photography etc. Definitely a book I’d leave on the coffee table to entertain rather to be scribbled and having sauces all over the pages in the kitchen hehe. The book has won me, though still thinking acquiring it hehe.

  2. Robin
    Posted 22 Aug 2010 at 20:08 | Permalink

    This book has the same content for a fraction of the price.

Click for all book news

New release: White Bread


How did white bread, once an icon of American progress, become “white trash”? In this lively history of bakers, dietary crusaders, and social reformers, Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows us that what we think about the humble, puffy loaf says a lot about who we are and what we want our society to look like.

[read more...]

New release: Making Soy Milk and Tofu at Home


Why make tofu yourself? Because experiencing tofu’s flavors and textures at its peak–freshly made, creamy, and subtly sweet–is the best way to explore this treasured staple. With minimal equipment required and Nguyen’s clear, encouraging step-by-step instructions, making soy milk and tofu from scratch is a snap for cooks of all levels.

[read more...]

Worth a look: Limoncello and Lemon Water


Much-loved author Tessa Kiros celebrates the heritage of Italy. This whimsically feminine book is a tribute to the women in our lives – mothers, mothers-in-law, grandmothers – and the important lessons we learn from them.

[read more...]

Worth a look: Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales


Discover the flavors of Mexican street food in your own kitchen. Americans are having a love affair with the taco. What began as affection for the fast-food version—that hard yellow shell filled with ground beef and mysterious yellow cheese—has blossomed into an all-out obsession for the real thing

[read more...]

Visit our Buying Books page to find out how to support this site

Worth a look: The Aesthetics of Wine


The Aesthetics of Wine shows that discussing wine within the framework of aesthetics both benefits our understanding of wine as a phenomenon, while also challenging some of the basic assumptions of the tradition of aesthetics.

[read more...]

Worth a look: Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee


In 1784, Thomas Jefferson struck a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James Hemings. The founding Father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along “for a particular purpose” – to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for James’s cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom.

[read more...]

Worth a look: Turkey


Turkey’s culinary customs are as rich and varied as its landscape, and award-winning food writer Leanne Kitchen does justice to them both with more than 170 glorious photographs of the country’s foods and people that make readers want to drop everything and board the next plane.

[read more...]

New release: I’m Dreaming of a Chocolate Christmas


This is the perfect holiday baking guide, packed with 72 seductive and decadent chocolate recipes. Offering perfect inspiration for chocolate lovers and holiday do-it-yourselfers, the book includes tips and advice on ingredients and cooking techniques, as well as on packaging and shipping holiday food gifts.

[read more...]

New release: The Complete Nose to Tail


Now Fergus Henderson’s books are joined together in a compendious volume. With a dozen new recipes on top of 250 existing ones, more than 100 quirky photos and exceptional production values, The Complete Nose to Tail is not only comprehensive but extremely desirable.

[read more...]

New release: The Country Cooking of Greece


The Country Cooking of Greece captures all the glory and diversity of Greek cuisine in one magnum opus from Greece’s greatest culinary authority, Diane Kochilas. More than 250 recipes were drawn from every corner of Greece, from rustic tavernas, Kochilas’ renowned cooking school, and local artisans and village cooperatives.

[read more...]

Visit our Buying Books page to find out how to support this site
Click for all book news

website uptimeNEWSITE