Heston Blumenthal: a modest proposal

In his 1729 essay A Modest Proposal the lacerating satirist Jonathan Swift set forth a method of “preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country”. His solution, closely and logically argued and based on complex and apparently scientific calculations, was to eat them. In an occasional series readers – and the staff – are invited to make similarly ‘innovative’ suggestions. This month managing editor Mick Owen suggests that British coaching needs some alchemy.

Blumenthal: all the right ingredients?

The Leisure Review once referred to Pat Duffy, the then chief executive of Sportscoach UK as “the nation’s head coach”. Since then Pat has moved on and for a while now the nation has held its breath to see who will replace him. With no sign of a job advertisement as yet but with a major calendar event looming in early December, would now be a good time to propose that Heston Blumenthal be given the job? Not as head honcho at Sportscoach UK, of course; what we need there is a steady hand at the tiller and a gimlet eye on the long-term prize of a world-leading coaching system. No, we need Heston in a new role: head coach GB. Anyone with a sense of adventure will immediately see the sense of such a modest proposal. Blumenthal has all the makings of an excellent coach and a way with ingredients that is perhaps best described as matchless.

Coaching is a curious mixture of science and art. The kitchens of the Fat Duck at Bray have long been lauded for their “culinary alchemy” and no one who saw Blumenthal’s television programme, Heston’s Feasts, could doubt his commitment to the aesthetic; it’s a fit. Science is about meticulous attention to detail but Blumenthal’s scientific explorations are fired by ideas that straddle the line between genius and insanity. And scientists, like good coaches, experiment. A coach and coach educator who worked briefly for GB volleyball in the nineties called Ralph Hippolyte used to urge anyone who would listen to treat the practice court as a laboratory. Heston would approve.

As our new head coach Blumenthal would have to work with all manner of big characters. Would he cope? If there is one thing that big names respect it’s a bigger one and not even Charles Van Commenee has managed to generate the celebrity that attends everything Blumenthal does. Even when he gets things slightly wrong – and poisoning hundreds of diners is perhaps more than slightly – he does it in the glare of maximum publicity and the warm glow of an indulgent nation’s approval. Certainty is a seductive trait in a leader and Heston seldom doubts himself. He also gives unbelievers short shrift. It would take a Lightman group employee to tell if the Little Chef’s chief executive was lying about his commitment to rolling out Blumenthal’s innovations across all 193 of the chain’s outlets but the image of Heston chasing the old buffer down corridors and across car parks would suggest that keeping promises is high on Heston’s list of essential characteristics for employees and partners alike.

The days of the solo coach are gone. David Brailsford, GB’s best coach, is a builder of teams and increasingly – according to the UKCC framework at least – coaches are being expected to work in, or run, coaching teams. Blumenthal’s reliance on and respect for his team means that when he makes his television programmes whoever is working with him is in shot. Contrast this to the Gordon Ramsay’s solitary assaults on under-performing premises here and in America and his antagonistic relationships with, well everyone, and ask which one most approaches that most important attribute of any coach, humility. The coach’s job is to support the performance of others and Heston’s handling of Little Chef’s delivery team throughout a long and difficult journey was exemplary.

The very latest title in the coaching firmament, Rugby Edge, makes the case that “good coaches have good players, great coaches have great players”. If they are right how great would our players – and runners and jumpers and pullers and pushers – be if they were coached by coaches who had been “Coached by Heston”. We could get t-shirts.



If you have a Modest Proposal that would solve a problem that the sport, leisure and culture sector is currently facing, please send your contribution to the editor, who can be contacted via the 'contact us' page.

The Leisure Review, November 2009

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“Even when he gets things slightly wrong – and poisoning hundreds of diners is perhaps more than slightly – he does it in the glare of maximum publicity and the warm glow of an indulgent nation’s approval. ”

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