Heston Blumenthal: Keeping an Eye on the Kitchen

While we associate Heston Blumenthal most with incredible gastronomic creations – think iconic dishes such as snail porridge, egg and bacon ice cream and mock turtle soup – they would not be possible without his trademark glasses, with the celebrated chef having suffered from poor vision for many years.

It follows therefore that glasses brand Vision Express should engage the charismatic, triple Michelin-star winning chef and restaurateur to design and deliver his own spectacled creation, in proving that good taste comes in forms greater than what is laid out on a dinner plate.

Perhaps we could just start by finding out a little bit about the influence behind the specs…

Well, I didn’t need glasses until I was 40 years old, almost to the day of my 40th birthday. I remember finishing service one night and looking through the orders, and my eyes started to go. I was as though they felt tired, but I wasn’t tired, just my eyes were.

Anyway, I had eye tests and it was confirmed that I needed glasses, and I think the very first pair of glasses I wore were designed by me… a very handmade job. I based them on a protective pair of engineering goggles. Funnily enough, when I first started doing TV it would be with protective goggles over my spectacles, so it’s come full-circle almost 10 years later because this is the design we’ve come back to!

Why go for that look?

I just thought they were cool because – kind of curved, plus it was slightly in the lab. So my technical partner on the project, Mark, has, off his own back, designed a pair of protective goggles based on my glasses! It’s kind of come full-circle. They’re prescription lenses and you could smash them with a hammer and they won’t break. They are made from the same material as an Apache Gunship! They’ve been tested by firing a ball-bearing at them at 102mph.

Tell us about the process of getting this design to work.

Well going back to my original design, I had this metal wraparound pair. I broke quite a fair few pairs of those… quite a few while skiing and falling over with them in my pocket! So then I changed to another make which was sort of like a tortoise-shell; smaller, flatter, brightly retro-style.

Then, I got approached by Vision Express for a range and the real hook for me was to be able to design my own glasses with an amazing designer. So, this guy called Tom Davies and I started mapping things out… he showed me a pair he had in mind for me and it was nothing like I had. I wanted to morph my first pair and second pair together to do a curved tortoiseshell frame. So we did those and we probably designed 25 pairs, as I kept tweaking this and that measurement, this and that angle, and then gave Mark the unfortunate challenge of actually trying to get the focal range.

„It is more of an aesthetic thing. The first pair that I had, the ones that I designed myself with an optician, were ridiculously thick. It was like I had strapped two magnifying glasses onto my eyes.“

Heston Blumenthal

There’s a big technical challenge when you do that – to get right the whole focal range and the curvature of the lens is really hard; it’s a lot of work. From there, we launched the first batch which was really exciting. The arms had three dots and rivets, and chef’s knives; and the various models had taken various influences from different types of knife handles and blades. Then there’s a line along the top that follows my eyebrows, so we used that too.

Obviously, there was still a lot of playing around, but I think it was the most successful launch in Vision Express’s history, and now it’s a year down the line. They have 100 brands and it’s the second most successful brand.

You must take so much satisfaction from that?

Well what’s happened is that I didn’t realise how much I’ve learned from working with Vision Express. I’ve learned a lot about my eyes, but also the facilities, and the expertise that Mark brings is quite incredible. But I’ve also learned a lot about people wearing glasses which is becoming more and more of a fashion statement.

Wearing glasses is something that can increase confidence because when you start pushing and making them edgier, you build confidence. So my most recent designs are the top end of the range and they are much more akin to the glasses that I wear, certainly more curved, and one of the most technical ranges around. Most people make glasses to be easy and simple, but these are actually designed to mould around and fit the face even if, as I said, it’s a big challenge to get the range and vision right.

Do you wear glasses all the time?

Well, they’re not just for the kitchen, and I wear glasses almost all of the time, yes. But it is more of an aesthetic thing. The first pair that I had – which is pre-Vision Express – the ones that I designed myself with an optician, were ridiculously thick. It was like I had strapped two magnifying glasses onto my eyes – I was just missing the two handles coming out of either side! They weren’t the sorts of glasses you’d want to wear all the time, but we should be in a place where if people do want to wear them all the time (for practicality reasons), then they can.

I did look at contact lenses and I tried them, but I can’t wear them comfortably because, unfortunately, I had a best mate injure me on a lads’ ski trip! He hit me in the eye with a toilet brush when I was trying to shove toilet roll into his mouth, and it scratched my eye. It’s fine now, but I’ve embraced eyewear instead – it seems strange not to wear them now.

With you facing down a lot in the kitchen, do the glasses ever fall off?

Not, in the kitchen. What sometimes happens though is when the heat gets to them, both in the kitchen and when exercising… the material starts to soften and open up, like the handmade ones. And what you’ve got to do is to warm with the hairdryer and pop them into a single glass of water. But that’s only because I get so hot and it’s not the ideal job to do.

Is there anyone who pulls off glasses really well?

Yes, but I think it’s more about realising that certain glasses suit certain people.

Photos: Clive Booth; Alisa Connan (both via InterviewHub)

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