Great food, highly skilled chefs, a ticking clock and judgement day. This is the haute cuisine of TV dinners.
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I’m not usually a fan of TV cookery programmes, to me they seem to be polarised into either the ridiculously macho (Gordon Ramsay, Hell’s Kitchen and the two obstreperous numpties who present Master Chef) or the simperingly yummy-mummsy (Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson). Although while on this soap-box I must say that I think Heston Blumenthal is the estimable exception to the usual TV fodder. His food may be impossible to replicate, but his shows are informative (particularly his recent historical series), always highly entertaining and his knowledge and passion for his subject are indisputable. Plus his originality put him in the top tier of Great British eccentrics and that is rarefied ground.

So, Blumenthal aside,  given my usual indifference to telly cooking I’ve surprised myself by becoming addicted, for the second year running, to the BBC series The Great British Menu. The basic premise of the program is professional chefs (many of them Michelin starred) compete to cook a dish at a four-course banquet. Last year’s event was a showcase of modern British cuisine served to a group of the world’s greatest chefs, this year the theme is ‘a taste of home’ and the guests will be service men and women returning from Afghanistan. This may be a BBC/armed forces PR exercise (don’t mention Iraq) however the presentation is admirably un-jingoistic and a-political whilst still paying respect to the risk and hard work that individuals at the front-line have taken.

One of the reasons I like the Great British Menu is the food, not the chef’s egos, is centre stage and while the cooking may be aspirational it is very inspiring. This week Northern Ireland competitor, Danny Miller, served soda farls topped with sautéd chicken livers as a side order to a chicken broth. It looked so delicious and doable that I skipped off to the kitchen and whipped out a skillet. Opposite him three-star Michelin chef Claire Smyth’s comments on presentation and her beautifully refined Irish stew have made me re-think some of my more ‘homely’ concoctions.

There are, however, other dishes which have left me open-mouthed with amazement at the skill involved in their execution: one being Alan Murchison’s caramel globe filled with raspberries and cream and the other being Daniel Clifford’s smoking smoked egg and duck breast starter. I wish I could cook as well as that.

What is also interesting is how the program works as a litmus paper for the fads and fashions of food. Last year’s ubiquitous foams and powders have been replaced in 2009 by smears of sauces. And the cooking method du jour seems to be vacuum packing meat or fish and poaching it in a water bath. I can see that it is a very delicate way of maximising flavours although I wasn’t surprised that the method provoked sneering ‘boil-in-the-bag’ comments from overseeing chef, Richard Corrigan. Own smoking is also popular this year and while I think this would add an interesting flavour component, I imagine it is damn hard to do judiciously.

Thankfully last year’s endless ‘surf and turf’ obsession seems to be waning; surely good fish should be delicious enough by itself without the addition of stewed beef or offal. And on the subject of offal while I agree that the whole animal should be used, and it is hideously wasteful not to use all parts of the beast, there is no need to underline this point by putting the whole carcass on a single plate.

So while everyone on Great British Menu knows they are here for the food, chefs of this calibre inevitable have big characters and true personalities will always out at this level of pressure. One of the funniest unscripted moments was when, after five days of backbiting in the kitchen during the Central England heat, Daniel Clifford proclaimed ‘we have had a friendly week.’ Fellow competitor Glynn Purnell just turned and looked at him.

My favourite characters of the programme so far are: Scottish overseeing chef Jeremy Lee who is erudite, camp and vaguely posh: characteristics rarely seen in a professional kitchen; Richard Corrigan who while overseeing the Northern Irish heat, mugs away to the unseen TV audience, expressing his delight or disagreement and Claire Smyth who is the epitome of calm, preparation and ability.

As for the judges, I suspect that Prue Leith would do a perfectly good job by herself and doesn’t need her two side-kicks Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. However Peyton’s sartorial misjudgement alone is worth turning the telly on for and Matthew Fort undeniably knows his scoff although I am sure he is more of an eater than a cook.

So there are another few weeks of Great British Menu to go which means: some great and some ridiculous dishes; more overworked food getting shot down for being pretentious; more seemingly banal dishes e.g. a cheese and pickle sandwich, being transformed into something magical; more over-wrought chefs starting to sweat as they try to pull off seemingly impossible culinary feats and all summed up by ex-royal reporter Jennie Bond’s tweed skirt and no knickers commentary. It is great cooking, great TV and I’ll be watching.

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