Welcome back to 2010, folks.
Been away from the blog longer than expected, but that’s probably a good thing.
At this time of year I always feel sorry for Americans, who only get about three days leave a year. Holiday deprivation can often lead to a blinkered, captive-animal approach to work, shying away from any idea or technique that breaks the templated approach.
And there are few forms of communication as templated as the TV cooking show. An endless parade of chirpy, chatty chefs building their personal brands and cookbook franchises, churning out the same old char-grilled beef fillet drizzled with a balsamic reduction of pan juices etc etc, ‘plated’ up with a wink and a flash of whitened teeth.
All the food’s been done a million times before. There’s no sense of wonder, magic, or even of a special occasion.
Then there’s Heston Blumenthal. Over summer his Heston’s Feasts popped up amid the other shows like a centaur in a pet shop.
The Art Of Messing With Your Mind
Blumenthal, at his UK restaurant The Fat Duck, has taken food to places that few others have dared, or been able to. His work combines science lab techniques, a love of theatrics, and painstaking historical research into recipes from ye olden days. His specialty is messing with your mind using flavours and ingredients presented in forms that make you expect something else: a realistic looking fruit platter that’s actually made from different meats, snail porridge, or edible candles and cutlery.
On each episode of his TV show, he creates a banquet from a different era, and serves it up to half a dozen nervous celebrity-types. It’s absolutely riveting television, full of dangerously mad ideas and terrifying ingredients.
It should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the event industry, and anyone who’s involved in making presentations will learn something useful.
Blumenthal’s fundamental challenge is to get a reluctant table of diners to overcome their fears and preconceptions in order to experience something wonderful. Anyone in advertising will recognise this challenge, standing in a boardroom trying to persuade six nervous people that your strange ideas might actually be good for them, if they’d only try one.
Here are five things that you, the presenter, can learn from Heston Blumenthal.
1. Aim High, Take Risks
Blumenthal is ambitious in his plans for each of the banquets: he wants to create the greatest dining experience of his guests’ life. He’s obsessively driven by that aim, and it comes across in his painstaking attention to detail.
To create an experience like no other, he takes a lot of risks, feeding his guests brains, testicles, grasshoppers and lampreys in various disguises, having faith that the rewards will outweigh the risks. In the end, some of them aren’t major hits. But when one hits the bullseye, you can see the guests eyeballs rotating in amazement and pleasure.
Almost all presentations are put together in the hope of creating as little impression as possible, because that means the lowest chance of any embarrassing mistake or controversy. And that’s fine if your sole aim is to keep your current job.
If you want to achieve greatness, you’re going to have to go out on a limb and try a few things that others are afraid to do.
2. Work With All The Senses
When you’re eating, taste and smell are the basic building blocks of the experience. Blumenthal spends a lot of time exploring how the other senses can color your perceptions. Like a Victorian era ‘edible garden’, with deep-fried crunchy insects, served with the smell of grass and the sound of a lawn mower. Or serving sashimi with a set of earphones playing squawking seagulls.
Likewise, most presenters believe their experience is limited to audio and visual. Why not get your audience touching things, playing with your new product? Theatrical smoke machines can produce different fragrances like vanilla, mint, or coconut. You could use atmospheric sound effects that can take their minds to another place.
Blumenthal describes memory as the most powerful sense, where “the triggers from our past create the most intense flavors of all.” Smell and sound can evoke this at a far more powerful level than words and images. It’s not as easy to stage as a slide show, and you can’t do it for the average boardroom presentations, but for a larger event it’ll create lasting memories.
Part 2 tomorrow, or perhaps the day after.