The Wild Duck | Why Heston Blumenthal Loves Skiing Almost As Much As He Loves Cooking
"I’d had a grappa coffee…. I was listening to some inspirational music on my headphones, and I just went for it."
Words by Arnie Wilson
I thought Heston Blumenthal was a chef, not a ski racer, but I’m on his tail right now on Bivouac – the steepest groomer in the macho ski resort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming – and I can hardly keep up with him. How did he get so good?
Well of course it’s one thing to ski fast and another to become a true ski racer. “It takes years to become a chef and the same goes for ski racing," says Heston. “It means dedicating yourself to hours and hours of practice on the slopes from an early age. Even if it were ever possible to put that much time into skiing, I’m still not sure I’d ever get really good at it. No chance now for me to reach skiing super-stardom!"
“When I opened the Fat Duck, all exercise stopped…"
In his earlier skiing “comeback" years after almost two decades of “ski starvation" when he was building up the Blumenthal/Fat Duck brand he got some valuable tuition during the annual City Ski Championships from the celebrated former British downhill racer Konrad Bartelski. Now it’s down to his Jackson Hole ski instructor Alex Duret, from Argentina.
“I always try to have a lesson or two when I’m skiing, and I think I’ve made a serious breakthrough here in Jackson," says Blumenthal.
Duret agrees. “When we first started skiing here in Jackson, Heston was fighting each turn," he says. “He was trying to dominate the skis." (That’s Heston all over, I told Alex!)
“There was also the issue of my hip," says Blumenthal. “I’d had to have a hip replacement in June 2014 and before that skiing had become painful and restricted."
"I’d almost forgotten how thrilling skiing is. I couldn’t believe it had been so long since I had experienced that wonderful adrenalin rush and joie de vivre."
Typically, he’d postponed the operation till the end of the ski season so he could get his annual skiing “fix" – in spite of the pain.
“Now it’s really just retraining the muscle memory," he says. “It’s no longer painful but it does need more awareness until I've reprogrammed and activated the right muscles."
So although Heston has no discomfort skiing anymore, Duret noted that as a consequence of muscle memory, the chef was “doing Z shaped turns".
He says: “After working on some technique Heston was able to start creating nice C-shape turns, with much less effort. We agreed that we needed to create pressure on the skis at the beginning of the turn and then take that pressure off at the end."
When I first bumped into Blumenthal 10 years ago it was in the Tyrolean ski resort of Ischgl. His famous restaurant had just been named the best in the world. Having worn himself almost literally to the bone building up his repertoire and reputation as a chef he’d almost abandoned the mountains – but here he was in Austria, tentatively trying to rekindle his love of skiing which he’d last tried almost two decades earlier in his 20s. But with so little time for exercise, his fitness had suffered.
“When I opened the Fat Duck, all exercise stopped," he says. “Working 120 hours a week, it was brutal. Standing working, my back took a battering from the various angles. And I was only getting 15 to 20 hours’ sleep a week.
“Some nights I couldn’t even walk properly. I was dragging my leg behind me. My back got worse and worse. I tried acupuncture. I hardly did any aerobic exercise during this period, but I did manage to get to the gym. Then one night I sat down against a wall to try to relieve the pain. And I noticed there was an inch and a half’s difference in the length of my legs. In the end I had to have back surgery. And the surgeons discovered my first disc and my first vertebra had worn down and the sciatic nerve had become trapped."
“I’d had a grappa coffee…. I was listening to some inspirational music on my headphones, and I just went for it."
Yet when he finally returned to the slopes 10 years ago, it was as if he were tasting a dish he hadn’t tried since his youth. And he took to skiing again like a fat duck to water.
“I’d almost forgotten how thrilling skiing is," he said then. “I couldn’t believe it had been so long since I had experienced that wonderful adrenalin rush and joie de vivre. It’s so much removed from being a chef that I found it hugely relaxing - and exciting!" Even when a snowboarder hurtled into him, breaking a pair of those trademark Blumenthal glasses, he soldiered on with a spare pair of mine.
Since then Blumenthal has skied as often as his busy lifestyle permits. One winter he even managed four visits to the mountains. And now, in March 2016, it was Jackson Hole, where he and a mutual tour-operator friend, Amin Momen – who runs the annual City Ski Championships, now in Verbier, Switzerland - are hoping to organise a Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience similar to an event they run every year in the Italian ski area of Courmayeur.
Jackson has some challenging slopes and although we didn’t take on the resort’s infamous Corbet’s Couloir, which involves a somewhat terrifying leap on skis, he didn’t hold back on any of the steeper runs. After cruising down Sundance at anything but snail’s pace, we moved on to sterner stuff in Rendezvous Bowl at the top of Jackson’s iconic Tram (cable car) and then hurtled down Bivouac – so steep it can only be groomed using a winch-cat. Challenging? It certainly is – but no problem for Heston’s derring-do!
"My skiing companions said they’d never seen anyone ski that run so fast who wasn’t actually racing… others might call it ‘being out of control!’"
Five years ago, in Val d’Isère, he got rather carried away during a descent of the Olympic “Face" run. “I’d had a grappa coffee," he admits, “but the snow was ideal and the light was just right. I was listening to some inspirational music on my headphones, and I just went for it. Just as the music hit a crescendo a little track I hadn’t noticed catapulted me into the air. I went flying, spinning and bouncing into a compression and fell heavily. Result: a broken rotator cuff in my shoulder. My skiing companions said they’d never seen anyone ski that run so fast who wasn’t actually racing. It was certainly too fast for my ability. Others might call it ‘being out of control!’"
Blumenthal only became aware that his legs and back were not properly aligned when Graham Bell (during a Ski Sunday special) and Warren Smith (the British ski guru) exposed a weakness in his right hip. “I carried on training with increasing pain," he says. “Finally an X-ray showed I had two cysts and no fluid at the top of my right leg – so it was bone on bone."
His new hip has given him a skiing renaissance. But what was his Argentinean instructor’s secret? “Skiing is a very dynamic sport," says Alex. “The skier should always be moving to affect the skis. We focused on trying to manage the pressure between the skis and the snow throughout the entire turn by extending the legs during the first half of the turn and flexing the legs during the second half of the turn. The extension enables you to increase the pressure on the skis, while the flexion allowed us to decrease the pressure.
These movements help compensate for the external forces (mainly gravity and centripetal force) creating a dynamic balance of the internal and external forces."
Gosh. Sounds almost like a scientific cookery lesson! But a menu that has given the amiable chef skiing wings wherever he goes.
“I love skiing anywhere really," says Blumenthal. “One day I’d love to ski in the Andes, but I love Courmayeur and Zermatt. And Jackson Hole too now I’ve made my first visit. Hopefully it won’t be the last if we can get the Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience going here. We’re hoping there might even be a TV show to go with it."
To read the rest of Mpora's Wild Issue head here