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June 27, 2005

Thomas Keller versus Heston Blumenthal

The Fat Duck's Crab risotto. A thin layer of Passion Fruit Jelly
is crowned by a scoop of Crab Ice Cream.
Photo © The Fat Duck 2005. All rights reserved.

Keller vs. Blumenthal

By Bruce Cole June 2005© All rights reserved.

Iron Chef match up we'd like to see: Thomas Keller of the French Laundry restaurant (Yountville, CA) versus Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck Restaurant (Bray, UK).

{Note: using quotes directly from the chefs themselves, we've assembled a little dialogue of culinary one-upmanship and pseudo-insider jokes that even the most jaded kitchen-technique-freaks can appreciate.}

Iron Chef Host: Welcome to the match up of world famous chefs Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal! You might call it a battle of old-school versus new-school, or California Cuisine versus Molecular Gastronomy. What ever's the case, let's see who wins! Today's theme ingredient: green vegetables!

Audience: Thunderous applause. A standing ovation from the crowd!. A voice shrieks out "HESTON! NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE!" Another calls out "SMOKED BACON AND EGG ICE CREAM!" It's beginning to sound like a rock concert with fans shouting out their requests for favorite hits. Faintly in the background, a KELL-ER! KELL-ER! chant slowly comes together. The camera pans the crowd and zooms in on Nigella Lawson, cradling a bowl of chocolate cake frosting in her lap, she deliriously licks her fingers.

Host: It's time for the All-Clad (insert Google ad link here) Stainless Steel Pan toss! Blumenthal calls tails and wins, as the spinning 14" All-Clad Stainless Steel Fry pan lands face down (Keller called "heads", probably relying on first hand experience from throwing pans at line cooks who scorch the butter-poached lobster).

Blumenthal, clutching a handful of green beans and holding them up to the camera, lays down the gauntlet with his declaration that adding salt to boiling water used for blanching vegetables is completely unnecessary and pointless.


"You do not need salt in the water in order to keep your vegetables green. There, I have said it - I have committed the cardinal sin of questioning perhaps the single most unquestioned act in the kitchen. People have been stoned for less."

Keller on his way to the refrigerator to grab a bunch of Robert Blanc's Brigitte Asparagus, stops in his tracks and gives Blumenthal a glare icy enough to freeze a foie gras parfait.

Blumenthal (loudly):

"The colour of green vegetables can change during cooking - this is due to changes in the pigment molecules in the vegetables - these are largely affected by the acidity (pH) of the water and by the hardness (mainly Calcium content) of the water. Neither of these are much affected by the addition of salt. If your beans lose colour when cooked in unsalted water adding salt won't make any difference - you could try cooking them in bottled water."

Keller lets out an audible "harrumph", and strides over to a large stock pot of roiling water, motioning for the camera man to zoom in on the surface of the boil:

"First, blanch in a large quantity of water relative to the amount of vegetables you're cooking, so you won't significantly lower the boiling temperature when you add the cold vegetables. If you lose the boil, not only do the vegetables cook more slowly, but the water becomes a perfect environment for the pigment dulling enzymes to go to work (these enzymes are destroyed only at the boiling point). Furthermore, using a lot of water means the pigment dulling acids released by the vegetables will be more diluted."

Keller, reaches into a bowl next to the stove and throws a big handful of salt into the boiling water:

"Use a lot of salt-about a cup of salt per gallon of water. The water should taste like the ocean. Salt helps prevent color from leaching into the water. A side benefit is that the vegetables will be uniformly seasoned when they are done."

Audience: Faint clapping builds into noticeable applause. Nigella looks up from her bowl of frosting and reaches with her tongue to pluck off a bit that's stuck to the tip of her nose.

Host: Damn! Keller is firing on all burners! He's already got the crowd in his grasp...What's this? Blumenthal is motioning back stage for some one to join him. It's Peter Barhman, fellow molecular gastronomist from Bristol University!

(Who is Peter Barham, and what the heck is molecular gastronomy?)

Barham, drops a handful of green beans into a boiling pot of water:

"The standard way chefs are taught to cook green vegetables is to take a pan of water, then get it to a roiling boil. You are told to then put in some salt and that makes the water boil more rapidly. You then put in beans, but only enough so not to stop the water boiling. Heston said that if you follow these instructions he could only get in six beans before the water stopped boiling.

Host: Well, maybe if he used something bigger than a 2 quart sauce pan...Blumenthal jumps in.


"When you drain the vegetables nearly all the water runs off - the only salt that remains is that which is left after the tiny amount of remaining water evaporates. This is very small and unless you use vast amounts of salt in our cooking water you are unlikely to be able to detect it."

Audience: Shaking their heads agreeably...Blumenthal seems to have made an excellent point. He hands out blanched green beans to those seated in the front row.

Host: The host is busy reading Mimi Sheraton's eGullet Gourmet Magazine rant on his laptop, and looks up with an embarrassed grimacing smile as someone hands him one of Blumenthal's cooked beans...

Blumenthal continues:

"In fact I often carry out a simple test in public lectures on the science of cooking. I prepare green beans in three pans - one with no salt, one with a pinch of salt and one with a generous handful of salt. I then divide these into six samples (two from each pan) and ask the audience to taste all six and state which came from which pan. Very few people manage to tell the first two apart and many fail to identify the beans cooked in very salty water."

Audience: The crowd nods approvingly. Those audience members wearing Fat Duck logo aprons stand up and do the wave. Someone from the back shouts out "SARDINE ON TOAST SORBET!" Keller sporting a devious confident grin, motions off-stage, and uber food scientist Harold McGee, author of the landmark book, "On Food and Cooking", strides onto the set.

McGee, clipping a microphone to his lapel, begins:

"One thing that Thomas Keller knows instinctively, and that I've done experiments my self, is that it has to do with osmosis. You have stuff inside the bean cells, that account for or produce it's flavor and color. If you drop those cells into pure water, the stuff inside goes out to even out the unbalance, if you put salt in the cooking water, then the liquids inside the bean and outside the bean are balanced so you don't get that flow of cell contents from inside the cells to out."

Keller, visibly relaxed, and just killing time by dicing his way through a case of shallots with a razor sharp MAC PKF-50 5" Professional Paring Knife , raises his head and nods to McGee again.


"One of the things I find about professional scientists that become cooking mavens is that, what they imagine as being possible is influenced by their scientific background and it tends to cloud their appreciation to what's really going on in cooking. Cooking is really complicated. Sometimes just doing the experiment side by side and using your sense of taste and smell can tell you a lot theories aren't going to tell you."

Audience: Thundering applause! Fans in the back rows begin to chant KELL-ER! KELL-ER! The camera again zooms in on Nigella, who is using a few cooked green beans to wipe her frosting bowl clean (Our camera man is obviously obsessed with the beautiful Brit, the lone food celebrity here to support her countryman). Blumenthal and Barham confer. Visible panic sets in. Barham, wiping his brow, goes for a quick drink from a pitcher on the counter but Blumenthal grabs his arm just in time! The pitcher is labeled on the other side "Liquid Nitrogen", one of Heston's favorite kitchen tools.

A loud buzzer rings out - (RING!) and the contest is over! Here it is...And the word from the judges is...Keller has won!

Audience: Standing ovation and many cheers! The KELL-ER! KELL-ER! chant starts up in earnest, although the fans in the very back are waving a black flag with white "NOR CAL" lettering. Must be the surfing contingent. A scattering of boos is heard as Blumenthal's fans head for the exit, some throwing their aprons on stage is disgust. Nigella is seen furiously scribbling in her notebook, pausing to lick off a bit of chocolate from her wrist. She must be working on next weeks NY Times Food section article...

All right, so we rigged the whole thing so Keller could win. Whatever. Call it home field advantage. That said, we've long admired Blumenthal and his molecular gastronomy bent. His landmark series of articles for the Guardian UK in 2001 (link - ah yes, vintage Saute Wednesday...) have been a constant source of inspiration. Now Blumenthal has probably forgotten more about food than we'll ever know, but we simply don't agree with his theory on salting. He does, however, go to great lengths to examine the whole topic scientifically, which we find completely fascinating. And why, just last night, we had 8 quarts of roiling salted water on the stove, and it took the addition of at least 12 big broad beans to halt the boil...

Admittedly, we are fans of both chefs. Keller, more for his cookbooks, (the French Laundry restaurant isn't exactly in our price range for a dinner out). If you want to elevate your every day dinner a few notches, both the Bouchon and FL books are ripe with precisely written and simply explained cooking methods that easily translate to the home kitchen. Besides Keller's "big pot blanching" technique, which is the focus of this little fray, his method for essentially squeegeeing the surface of fish scales to extract most of the moisture (for an incredibly crisp fried skin - pg. 147) has been adapted by many home cooks.

Keller's restaurants: The French Laundry, Bouchon, Per Se.

Blumenthal's restaurant: The Fat Duck.

The Sunday Times article on The Fat Duck.


Try Blumenthal's famous green bean test yourself - download the pdf.

Video: Thomas Keller demonstrating his big pot blanching technique here (Firefox users: open Real Player, File, Open location, paste in the link).

Video: Heston Blumenthal discusses the salt water theory with Peter Barham here:
Quicktime, WMV.

Papers on molecular gastronomy from the August 2004 workshop:

Herve This (pdf)

Peter Barham (pdf)

Harold McGee (pdf)

Thorvald Pederson (pdf)

All of the dialogue above was formed from actual quotes.

Keller: The French Laundry Cookbook / Artisan 1999

McGee: Interview with Bruce Cole for 7x7 Magazine, 2004

Blumenthal: Guardian Unlimited article, Saturday November 17, 2001, and Discovery Channel UK Kitchen Chemistry (link).

Barham: Discovery Channel Kitchen Chemistry.

Barham's discourse on Molecular Gastronomy (pdf)

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Posted by Bruce at June 27, 2005 10:07 PM

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