About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Friday, November 30, 2007
Perfection, Fooled You
A recent article by the The Age's food writer John Lethlean caught my eye. It seems he had been watching Heston Blumenthal's Search For Perfection with the same interest that I wrote about on this blog, but John took things a step further by actually attempting one of Heston's techniques for roasting a chicken, something that involved, amongst one of many procedures, roasting the bird at 60c for 4.5 hours.

Heston has also been known to cook a joint of beef at a low temperature (50c) for 24 hours, in which he first blow torches the beef, not just to give it colour and the accompanying flavour boost, but even more importantly, to kill any nasty bacteria that may be lurking about, which may be inclined to go about their business during the extended cooking time at this low temperature.

If you are thinking chicken, you must also think about salmonella, which finds one of its most convivial places of residence on chicken meat and is one of the highest risk foods for salmonellosis (food poisoning) there is. The USDA recommends an internal temperature of some 74c (165f) as safe for cooked chicken, which is some 14c higher than what Heston thinks is perfection and his 60c is only some twenty degrees hotter than what is considered an ideal temperature for salmonella survival, though it must be said that salmonella quickly succumbs to heat.

Even though John confessed to not using an oven thermometer as instructed, it was no real surprise when he wrote...'It wasn't exactly pink, but you wouldn't have called it white, either.' He then did what any sane person would and bunged it back in the oven at a somewhat higher (safer) temperature. Now, it would be quite easy to conclude that somewhere along the journey to a perfect roast chicken, that John had erred. But what is the point of a recipe, which has so little margin for error, when it could lead to serious consequences for your health? Is the payoff really worth it?

I seriously doubt it.

What's more, I've started to doubt that what Heston is searching for is actually perfection and has more to do with theatre and entertainment than what his statement in the introduction, 'I prefer to think of it as good old-fashioned cookery, with a bit of science thrown in for good measure,' would lead you to believe. So why is it that this series no longer appeals to me, after I wrote that I liked what he did in the first episode?

Just to be sure, I watched that first episode again and did in fact still enjoy it. But in subsequent episodes, what Heston was suggesting to be perfection, seemed in more than a few cases, far from it, and he looked like someone who has lost touch with the primacy of food, the seminal moment for me being when he attempted to reinvent fish and chips. Now, I may not have the best restaurant in the world, but bet I could do better than he did and suspect quite a few others could as well, with a lot less, unnecessary, fuss.

Peel the spuds, chip, rinse, dry, cook 'em twice, once at a low temperature, drain & cool, then cook again hotter and you've got perfect chips. Too easy. But when Heston put his stamp on chips, they were actually falling apart from all the extra attention he gives. Then, when he started mucking around with the fish, not just any fish, turbot mind you, it all seemed to unravel, though watching you might not think so. He used a Japanese technique for making batter crispier, by dribbling on more batter whilst the fish was frying to increase the thickness of it. Trouble is, this technique is designed for a much lighter batter than was being used, making the result excessively thick and if you look at the fish when he cuts it open, you will notice that this thicker coating has delaminated, leaving a large air pocket between batter and fish for the hot oil to leak into, which then deprives the fish of the batter's protection.

Perhaps it would be illuminating for his food to be placed in a blind tasting, nestled against other examples, tested by people in the street. Gordon Ramsey does it, why not Heston? It takes some arrogance to say you can make a classic dish perfect, by doing it your way, but it just might turn into a case of the emperor's new clothes.
  posted at 11:44 am

At 2:38 pm, Blogger Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I love the idea blind taste-testing this food. To my mind, undercooked chicken is undercooked chicken, whatever the overly-theatrical method used to cook it. Perfection, a la Mr. Blumenthal, isn't part of the reality of day-to-day cooking for most of us.

At 12:38 am, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Since I have taken care of children from 1 month to 18 years in the hospital with said salmonella, that would be very far from my idea of perfect chicken. Your last line may say it best.

At 7:40 am, Blogger Gigi said...

Any cooking method that wanders too far afield of the ultimately earthy goals of sustenance and pleasure in pursuit of some abstract (and considerably more complicated) ideal eludes me. I like what you say about losing touch with the primacy of food. Perfection seems a rather icy mistress in any case.

At 9:36 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi lydia, you nailed that. What he's doing just isn't reality for home cooks and belongs only in his restaurant and not on television, an inexperienced cook could get in a bit of trouble. I'm not saying that Heston undercooked his chicken, I didn't see that episode, but that someone followed his recipe and finished up with undercooked chicken ought to be a salient lesson.

Hi tanna, that's what really gets me. I thought playing with liquid nitrogen was dangerous, but this chicken even more so. I wonder if he said, "don't try this at home"?

Hi gigi, he does seem to have lost touch with food, or at the very least, his relationship with it is very complicated. I might pinch your last line at some point, very well said.

At 2:06 pm, Blogger Anh said...

I remember in an interview Macro Pierre White said something very similar to your idea here... I do respect Heston's approach to cooking. But it is not applicable to everyone for sure. Besides, perfection is a subjective matter, don't you think?

Last but not least, his show is entertaining to watch though!

At 2:51 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi anh, I would go even further and say that perfection, just like reality, doesn't even exist, it's all in the eye of the beholder. However, Heston has set himself up as someone who can achieve it and has to answer to that, he's the one trying to demonstrate a connection between himself and perfection, no one else. In chasing down that concept, he has given over completely to his palate without properly considering a basic health issue, that has every chance of making people sick, even dying, who use his method of cooking chicken. You can't even compare it to the Japanese eating fugu, as that at least is an informed decision. Having people taste his food against other versions of the same dish is something that would give him more credibility. I agree totally with you, for the most part, his show is very entertaining and it does make you think. Do remember him smashing the dry ice with a rolling pin? In at least one shot, there is vision of a very black fingernail, oops.

At 8:46 pm, Blogger grocer said...

i have had chicken cooked like this at aperitif in sydney and i have to say it was sensational.

the dish, by david bitton at the time, was a chicken tagine which (from what I could tell and later discussion with him) had lemon, vanilla, cinammon as the key flavours and then additional but few spices.

unlike the vast majority of tagines I have eaten this was subtle in flavour, yet aromatic, and each mouthful involved a crescendo of flavour and aroma...

thus after much nagging he revealed that the chicken was cryovac'ed with it's seasonings, cooked low and slow for hours and then cooked hot on the couscous in the tagine for serving.

the best tagine i have ever had...

(i didn't get salmonella poisoning either. but then again, salmonella poisoning requires (a) the presence of salmonella and (b) poor handling and treatment along the food chain)

At 7:45 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi grocer, your description of that tagine is pure food porn, I was getting fairly aroused reading it!!!

Just to clear something up, I didn't say or mean to suggest that Heston shouldn't cook whatever he likes, how he likes, rather that perhaps it would be better not to publish recipes that have significant risk attached, in case something goes wrong. The article that John Lethlean wrote also suggested there could be a problem and virtually said to proceed at your own risk. My understanding is that salmonella is already present on chicken meat and the low cooking temperature involved is close to the temperature at which they thrive...

At 9:25 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so glad that someone else thinks that there is is a touch of gilding the lilly with all this re-iterpreting. Emperors New clothes for sure

At 10:19 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi gobbler, I found the show a bit like the curate's egg, good in parts. Some of it was fascinating, watching his thought processes especially, but there are times he simply goes too far and falls into excess. I suppose his first priority is to entertain, perhaps he needs someone to tell him when he might have gone a bit far.

Nice flock of turkeys you have there, one of them is going to be on my Xmas table!

At 5:36 pm, Blogger Sarah said...

With undercooked chicken you mustn't forget Campylobacter jejeuni- it's present on almost all chicken, I believe it's more heat-tolerant than Salmonella, and while the infective dose is higher, the consequences can be really serious... there is growing evidence of an association between C.jejeuni infection and Guillain Barre Syndrome.

At 7:26 am, Blogger KatesCountrySkills said...

Hi, really interested to read your post, I've just blogged about Heston's chicken and after a bit of digging on food safety things it's a real worry. A previous commenter said 'salmonella poisoning requires (a) the presence of salmonella and (b) poor handling and treatment along the food chain' but this simply is not the case. Campylobacter is present on almost all poultry meat, and Salmonella on quite a bit of it, and once it's there, it's _there_, and 'poor handling' is exactly failing to get the piece of meat to a safe internal cooking temperature!


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