What did you want to be when you grew up? A friend dressed as a ballerina to a recent party themed on that very question (it was a strong look with a definite 80’s vibe) and it got me thinking. I have never wanted something so bad that I would dedicate my whole life to it. An ice skater … no, a vet … actually, directing music videos is what I want to do.
Now that I work from home (in none of those fields, sadly) I have the time to plan meals and do a bit of cooking but realised I could never have a career in food when creating a birthday meal for him indoors. He’s all about the beer and food matching and all that jazz so I made a effort … and a monumental mess. The smoke filled air turned blue then I dropped the C-bomb as beer hollandaise flew over the floor and myself. The moment of truth had arrived: I can never apply to be on a cookery show. I think it was Mat Follas who once said if you want the cameras to leave you alone just swear – they’ll edit it out. If that’s the case I would only appear entering the Masterchef kitchen and later in the silent line-up before my name is called and I’m told to leave, “and take your potty mouth with you.”
Which brings me, vaguely, to this season’s Great British Menu. I’m not a regular watcher by any means: I find it confusing. Jennie Bond presented, then there was a public vote, then you got a mentor chef, then … It’s hard to keep track. I probably wouldn’t have watched this year to be honest but I noticed a familiar face in the trailer for the ‘South East’ heat: ‘Rising star’ Lee Westcott. The Typing Room has been highly recommended by friends and I was greatly impressed as he took in the Masterchef cooks for a lunch service recently. He was patient, seemed like a decent bloke and you cannot guess the number of things he can do with a cauliflower. I’m a sucker for open kitchen arrangements (see my love for Pizarro and Konstam (RIP)), it’s near my favourite cocktail bar and judging by his performance thus far ‘Rising star’ Lee Westcott likes a swear or two. “Who turned the [beeping] timer off?” “No [beeping] way did you guys deserve a 5!” No, they fucking didn’t, ‘Rising star’ Lee Westcott!
‘Returning Chef’ Matt Gillen looked like he was about to cry when old boss, Daniel Clifford, complained of soggy, oniony soil and having to eat salmon off a salt block – We Want Plates! But this doesn’t compare to Mark Froydenlund’s frankly traumatic discovery that the dressed salmon brought out each year was not lovingly prepared by his mum after all. The fish course saw Mark update the traditional idea of the fish classic to feature pickled, poached and cured elements along with the obligatory blow torched crispy skin. “It’s based on a family memory of dressed salmon. If we had a birthday or celebration mum would always wheel out the dressed salmon. It wouldn’t be a proper celebration without a dressed salmon.” Cue Chef Clifford’s amazement, “I’m impressed. I only made one and it was a disaster!” Mark explained that he would use the bones as part of the presentation *shudder* and use lobster reduction, “instead of peeled prawns like mum would’ve done.” Mark had a radiant glow about him, one that showed a great amount of pride in his mother’s ability to dress a big fish with cucumber in the 1980’s, a look that said, “I’ve always known what I wanted to be when I grew up and it’s all because my mum was so awesome at dressing a big fish … with cucumber.” Then he paid his mum a visit.
Whilst preparing his own version in Mrs Froydenlund’s kitchen he asked how long it used to take her to put it all together. “Well … I’ve got a confession – I didn’t used to make the dressed salmon, I used to buy it in from the fish mongers, sorry.” Mark could only manage an “Oh, no,” before mum embraced her son by way of an apology. He probably never wants to look at another bloody salmon and neither do I if they look anything like his deconstructed creature. I’m sure the fishy morsels tasted amazing but the sight of cubes of fish speared with different coloured mini forks surrounding the blow torched skeletal remains of a salmon will remain with me for quite a while. As a child I had a book about the Loch Ness Monster with a terrifying under water image of what it might look like. It looked like the charred remains of whatever Mark served up. The looks on the faces of the ‘Rising Star’ and ‘Returning Chef’ were priceless.
An element of GB Menu I have warmed to is the gentle critique of the head honcho. As they taste the starter/fish course/main/dessert the questions are brief and to the point. “Has that turned out how you wanted it to?” “Is that the texture you were aiming for?” “How are you finding the seasoning on that meat?” and so on. The responses are also brief but I would take it further.
“Has that turned out how you wanted it to?” YES
“Is that the texture you were aiming for?” YES
“Are the carrots how you wanted them to be?” YES
“Did you bollocks up your honeycomb?” YES
“Does cep really go with honey?” YES
“Is that goat cooked to perfection?” YES
“Is this the most terrifying fish you’ve ever seen?” YES
“How are you finding the seasoning on that meat?” YES
A potential issue with such a strong theme to each series is how to tell a story with your menu. How personal do you make it? What connection do you have to it if any? In the current ‘Central England’ heat it seems Pip Lacey has all the pressure on her shoulders. The theme is the Women’s Institute! She’s a woman! She works for Angela Harnett! Who is a woman! So I can forgive any chef who may struggle with a relevant theme or revamping a dish from their menu but the judges are, of course, tougher to please. “This feels like a restaurant dish,” is offered as a criticism but I don’t see it that way. I don’t really see how presenting the main course as a vegetable patch can elevate a dish or help in plating up to a banquet of 150 guests. Give me tasty food that looks tasty on a plate. My favourite piece of advice was, “I’m not sure we’re really seeing the connection here. Stick a picture of your nan in there.” Thanks Daniel.
If I was taking part in this year’s Menu I think I would struggle. To my knowledge no member of my family joined the sisterhood but a week of learning about the WI and finally getting round to watching the BBC series on suffragettes has really made me think about the role of women in Britain and how far we’ve come. Or not. Okay, yep, got it … I think I’ve worked out my WI GB Menu theme. A take on the woman’s role at the beginning of the 20th century. A starter of squid ink risotto, “I call this Black Friday.” *silence* (Actually, it sounds like Michael HAIR O’Hare’s amazing Emancipation dish, hahaha!)
Anyway! Back to the ‘Rising Star’, ‘Returning Chef’ and ‘Salmon Man’. Honey was the predominant ingredient in the desserts with honeycomb featuring in Lee and Matt’s dishes. Matt nailed his honeycomb. Good, he’s got a Michelin star, honeycomb sorted. Lee had a go but it didn’t quite work so he had another go. That wasn’t great either but he decided to add it to his plate along with cep crumble. The feedback on the honeycomb wasn’t great but overall Daniel loved it and Lee joined Matt in going through to the heat final.
By this point I had already planned a two course vegan menu for friends that were coming over the following week. The dessert was a chocolate and honeycomb parfait. Bugger. If the ‘Rising Star’ couldn’t manage this crucial element of his dish what chance have I got? Don’t worry, he’ll nail it in the final. “Is the honeycomb going to come out all right this time?” smirked Matt. “There’s no way I can mess this up three times, right?” Wrong. He decided not to add the under par honeycomb to his dessert but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the judges weren’t as impressed as Daniel Clifford and Matt won the week’s heat. One point in it! Well played chaps.
I have booked a lunchtime slot at the Typing Room next month and cannot wait. I only hope I’m not barred 😉