Heston Blumenthal, Claire Smyth, Stephen Harris and Asma Khan on their culinary epiphanies

The Staff Canteen

Speaking to The Guardian, some of the UK’s top chefs reveal the meals and experiences which made them want to cook. From leg of lamb to lemon tart they all feel they had a moment when they knew the path they would take.

Heston Blumenthal: leg of lamb, L’Oustau de Baumanière, Provence

Chef owner, the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire

The pivotal memory for Blumenthal himself, the one that made him want to become a chef, is of a meal in Provence in 1982, at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière. His family usually holidayed in Cornwall, where Blumenthal remembers eating crayfish off Formica tables by the seaside. But that summer his dad, who ran an office equipment company, decided to mark a good year at work by taking the family to France.

>>> Read more about Heston Blumenthal here


Leg of lamb is the dish that is most imprinted on his memory. “It was wrapped in puff pastry and carved at the table. It came with some dauphinoise and green beans. We had a mullet dish with basil and tomato. Dessert was a crêpe Baumanière, baked with a soufflé filling.”

>>> View the full feature on The Guardian here


The impact was immediate. “Back home, I became absolutely obsessed with the great chefs of France and I would hoover up their cookbooks – I remember translating the Troisgros brothers’ Nouvelle Cuisine into English word for word with a French-English dictionary.”

Clare Smyth: fennel velouté, Gidleigh Park, Devon

Chef and restaurateur

“I was fascinated by cooking,” she says. “Most kids are into pop stars, I was into glamorous chefs.” To her parents’ dismay, she left home for catering college in Portsmouth. Smyth earned some first-class experience – at Bibendum in London, and St Enodoc hotel in Cornwall – but it wasn’t until, aged 18, she interned with Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park in Devon that she “really began to understand food”.

What opened her mind was a fish dish – monkfish, she thinks – but it wasn’t the fish that made the permanent impression: it was the fennel velouté (a light stock thickened with a roux). “Fennel is such an elegant flavour,” says Smyth, “but I remember being surprised at the other ingredients he used, like dried orange peel and star anise – and I think some Noilly Prat [vermouth] as well. All quite aromatic flavours, but balanced perfectly. I’d never tasted anything like it. I knew right then that I wanted to cook at that level.”

Stephen Harris: lemon tart, Nico at Ninety, Park Lane

Chef owner, the Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent

When Stephen Harris was served the lemon tart that set him on course to becoming a chef, the first thing he did was bang the plate to watch it wobble. “It was a perfect triangle of tart with a crisp, brown crust and an amazing lemon custard that magically kept its shape.” Then he tasted it and all decorum fell away. “I just started laughing like a madman. It was totally inappropriate, but that was the only reaction I could have, it was that good.”

Asma Khan: dum biryani, Kolkata

Cook, Darjeeling Express supper club

Khan was 18 and had never so much as boiled an egg. “I come from a royal family – Rajput on my father’s side, Bengali on my mother’s – where none of the women knew how to cook,” she says.

The troublesome dish was a Kolkata dum biryani: layers of rice, mutton, potatoes, saffron and spices covered with a dough seal and heated over a wood fire for 12 hours. When Khan – “in all my finery, dressed head to toe in jewellery” – rushed into the kitchen to help, the cooks were breaking the seal. “I had never smelled it this close before,” she says. “By the time it comes to the table, it has already lost a lot of the fragrance.” She describes the moment in almost spiritual terms. “The aroma hit my soul. I was mesmerised. The chef put a grain of rice in my hand. I tasted it and thought, I’m going to cook like this one day.”

We want to know when you had your ‘culinary epiphany’ and what instigated it. Comment below and we’ll feature our favourites!

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd August 2016

Heston Blumenthal, Claire Smyth, Stephen Harris and Asma Khan on their culinary epiphanies