Molecular Gastronomy is dead. Indeed, if Heston Blumenthal had his way it would never have been born in the first place. He accepts that, early on, the term let punters know something curious was going on at his restaurant, the Fat Duck, in Bray; that it gave people trying to make sense of a menu of grain-mustard ice cream, white chocolate with caviar or palate cleansers cooked in 'liquid nitrogen' an easy label. But he still thinks the term creates artificial barriers. 'Molecular makes it sound complicated,' he says. 'And gastronomy makes it sound elitist.' Blumenthal isn't keen on either. Plus it doesn't mean anything. 'It was dreamt up in 1992 by a physicist called Nicholas Kurti who needed a fancy name for the science of cooking so he could get a research institute to pay attention to his work,' he explains. Kitchen science didn't hack it. Hence: Molecular Gastronomy.
Blumenthal slips two tightly printed sheets of paper across the table towards me. It is, he says coyly, something he has been working on for nearly four years now, with a few of his pals. His co-authors are Ferran Adrià, chef of the uber-modernist El Bulli in Spain, Thomas Keller of Per Se and the French Laundry in the US, and Harold McGee, the writer whose book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen has provided these and so many other chefs with the technical understanding they needed to help them create their dishes. In short it's written by the very biggest names in the business. I ask Blumenthal if it's a manifesto. 'That sounds a bit grand and cocky doesn't it,' he says. 'Because we're definitely not trying to come up with a doctrine. It's just...' He hesitates. 'A statement.'
They want to emphasise what they have in common with other chefs, he says, not what separates them. They accept that a new approach to cooking has emerged recently but argue that parts of it have been 'overemphasized and sensationalised, while others ignored... Tradition is the base which all cooks who aspire to excellence must know and master. Our open approach builds upon the best that tradition has to offer.' As to the methods they use, it's all just cooking. 'We do not pursue novelty for its own sake,' it continues. 'We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous vide, dehydration and other non-traditional means but these do not define our cooking. They are a few of the many tools that we are fortunate to have available as we strive to make delicious and stimulating dishes.'
It all seems a bit curious coming from Blumenthal, the man who has been on our TV screens this autumn in the BBC series In Search of Perfection, using pressure probes to detect the crunchiness of batter, blow-torching beef before cooking it at 50°C for 24 hours, and beating up ice cream in a bowl of liquid nitrogen. But, he says, look at the dishes he was doing those things for: fish and chips, steak and salad, treacle tart. You can't get more traditional than that. 'We can get too hung up on gadgetry. Once there was just the knife if you wanted to chop things. Then along came the food-processor. But that was still cooking. Now I use other tools - centrifuges, desiccators - which you might not associate with the kitchen. But that's cooking too.' To prove a point, we are talking in an upstairs room at the Hinds Head, his traditional dark-wood pub across the road from the Fat Duck, where the menu is all potted shrimps, oxtail-and-kidney pudding and Eton mess.
Still, there's no doubting that it's his interest in science, and his ability to popularise it, which has turned him into a star - and in a relatively short period of time. It is only just over a decade since the self-trained Blumenthal, who turned 40 this year, opened his own restaurant - the only one he has ever worked in, apart from a few stages in a handful of other establishments. Back then the Fat Duck was a simple bistro, serving classic French dishes. His more unusual creations came later, winning him his first Michelin star in 1998, his second in 2001 and the all-coveted third in 2004. That year the Fat Duck also came top of the annual 50 Best Restaurants in the World list, voted for by his peers.
Today he is getting used to a new-found celebrity, and the knowledge that his book of the series is a Christmas bestseller. 'I do get stopped in the street,' he admits. 'But I suppose if it's alright for a chef to write a book it's alright to do TV. To be honest I was very surprised by the positive response.' After all it's a TV cooking show which is actually about cooking. Viewers - particularly men, who are not big watchers of TV food shows - have been taken by his enthusiasm and his geeky attachment to experiments. 'The main thing for me was how much I learnt doing the series,' he says. There will almost certainly be another.
He has mixed feelings as to his wider influence on food in Britain. He accepts that, by pairing mustard ice creams with red-cabbage gazpacho, sprinkling cocoa powder over cauliflower risotto and making snail porridge, he has pushed back the boundaries on flavour combinations. 'It's the diners who have become most open. Six or seven years ago when I put a crab ice cream on my menu, it was regarded as the devil. Now if something like that was done for the first time I don't think anybody would bat an eyelid.'
As to his influence on young chefs he is less certain. Though he is too diplomatic to name anyone, he is clear that some terrible things are being done to food in the name of innovation. 'The danger is that technology overtakes the value of the dish.' So has he eaten dishes on the future-food agenda which have troubled him? 'Yes. There are people out there who are completely missing the point.' And then he adds. 'I'm really worried someone's going to do something really stupid and then everyone will point at me and say it's all your fault.' It's one of the reasons he and Adrià and the others came up with their declaration of intent. As it says, 'Our beliefs and commitments are sincere and do not follow the latest trend.' That said, they have acknowledged that they have a part to play in what they call 'the history of tomorrow'. Time, then, to ask the man who has shown us the future of food, what else is to come. 'Hydrocolloids will still play a big part,' he says. Hydro-what? 'They're the things which make foams and jellies set or hold.' He also thinks there will be a revolution in our understanding of how the tongue experiences tastes. 'We're quite close to throwing out the theory of five tastes,' he says. 'Researchers have found 21 receptors for bitterness on the tongue. There's a growing argument that fat is a taste.' All of this will change the way chefs flavour their dishes.
But the biggest development will be in what he calls 'sensory design'. No longer will eating out just be about putting stuff in our mouths and deciding whether it's nice. 'Eating is a multi-sensory experience. We're working with Sony to develop a directional speaker to push sound at diners in a particular way while they are eating.' They have also worked with a close-up magician to bring some of his stage craft into the dining room. So far the maître d' has learnt how to turn a rose petal into an egg at the table which can then be cracked into liquid nitrogen to be whisked up to smoky-bacon ice cream. (The egg is back-filled with the ice cream mixture in advance.)
But Blumenthal's real enthusiasm is reserved for what he calls his sweet shop. 'I wanted to find a way to extend the experience of coming to the Fat Duck so it's not just about sitting in the restaurant. I want people to have fun and to do that you have to get them excited. When I'm excited I'm like a kid in a sweet shop.' How then to use that simile to make the punters feel the same way? 'What will happen is that, when they book, they'll be sent a card with a website address and their own special code, plus atomiser.' The website is a virtual sweet shop, complete with tinkly entry bell, and in the atomiser is the smell of a real one. 'Spray the smell, go online, fill a virtual bag full of virtual Fat Duck sweets.' It's all about building anticipation. When they arrive at the restaurant the same smell of the sweetshop will be sprayed on the doorposts, and there will be the tinkle of the entry bell. 'We're may hang candy canes from the trees on the country roads into Bray.' And, as everyone leaves, at the end of their meal, they'll be given a bag of the sweets they chose on the site to go home with.
It will take a lot of work to get it up and running. It may even expand slightly the number of staff at the Fat Duck which remarkably has already topped 50, for a restaurant which can seat only 40 people at a time. But it also sounds like fun, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has been lucky enough to eat at the Fat Duck. Yes, a meal there is delicious and intriguing, but it's also very entertaining. In their statement, Blumenthal and his colleagues quote the 18th-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin who wrote that 'the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star'. Blumenthal may be using kit that would look more at home in the laboratory than the kitchen. He may be combining flavours in a way that will surprise and disorientate. But if it's not good eating, he's not interested, however futuristic it might be. And who could argue with that?
To order Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection for £18 with free UK p&p (Bloomsbury, rrp £20), call 0870 836 0885, observer.co.uk/bookshop.http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/futureoffood/story/0,,1969722,00.html