Great British Menu has been essential viewing for me over the past five years. During the several-month duration of each series, it screens weekdays on BBC2 and features top British chefs competing to prepare four courses for a prestigious themed banquet. Each week is a regional heat, with the competing chefs cooking their starter on Monday, fish course on Tuesday, main course on Wednesday and dessert on Thursday. On Friday, the chefs cook all four courses again and present them to the judging panel of Prue Leith, Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. One chef each week goes through to the finals, and ultimately the four winning dishes are chosen.
The themes for the first five series’ – and the concluding banquets – were:
- series 1 (2006) – cook for the Queen on her 80th birthday
- series 2 (2007) – cook for the British Ambassador to France at the British Embassy in Paris
- series 3 (2008) – cook a banquet to be held at the Gherkin in London, hosted by Heston Blumenthal
- series 4 (2009) – cook a celebratory dinner for British troops returning from Afghanistan
- series 5 (2010) – cook at a banquet hosted by the Prince of Wales for outstanding local food suppliers
- in 2006, a “Great British Christmas Menu” special featured the four winners of series 1 competing to prepare the best Christmas feast that could be cooked at home
- there’s a full episode guide here, but beware of spoilers!
Perhaps understandably, the first series featured some familiar celebrity chefs, such as John Burton Race, Antony Worrall Thompson, Nick Nairn and Gary Rhodes. The later series’ contestants have been mostly new-to-TV chefs, and this is one of my favourite aspects of the programme. This year’s theme is food to be shared, which has been inspired by The Big Lunch – an initiative “to get as many people as possible across the whole of the UK to have lunch with their neighbours in a simple act of community, friendship and fun.” The concluding banquet will be a lavish street party held in London’s Leadenhall Market.
I’ve loyally watched every episode of all five series’, but I found myself caring less about the results of the last two. I think that’s partly due to the food that has been on offer but also due to some truly irritating chefs such as Danny Millar and Alan Murchison. In contrast, some chefs were very likeable, such as the winner of last year’s fish course Kenny Atkinson (whose breaded mackerel dish was blatantly ripped off by that bloke in MasterChef) – it’s a shame he isn’t competing this year.
The dishes that have stuck in my mind over the years include Jason Atherton’s Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato puree and marrow bone main course from series 3, Tom Kerridge’s Slow-cooked Aylesbury duck with duck fat chips and gravy main course from series 5 and Atul Kocchar’s Indian take on fish & chips from series 2. The highlight of series 6 for me so far is Chris Fearon’s original lemon & liquorice battenburg.
I’m not quite sure why, but this season has recaptured my interest in its first two-and-a-bit weeks. Maybe it’s the excellent food – I found the Northern Ireland heat particularly impressive – or maybe its got something to do with the long overdue replacement of Jennie Bond as presenter / narrator (no doubt she’s busy getting ready to host a patronising show about the royal wedding). Given his current profile, I’m surprised that Curtis Stone hasn’t found his way in as host.
One thing that did annoy me during Northern Ireland week was Richard Corrigan acting like a startled muppet in his role as the week’s veteran mentor / judge. He’s usually quite relaxed on camera so I have no idea what was going on – too much Red Bull, perhaps. Also, this year’s obligatory requirement to raise doubts about each dish – no matter how weak the argument – does have a touch of the Masterchefs.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this season pans out – make sure you tune in when it hits Foxtel in Australia, or give it another chance if you’re in Britain and have left it behind over the last few years.