The Great British Menu

Al James reviews GBM and finds it uplifting and delightful, without the negativity and angst of similar series. December 2020.

A truly delicious series!
The new Christmas series for 2020 is here!

It was a desert of talent across the commercial television series featuring want-to-be chefs and cooking shows, until along came Great British Menu, premiering in 2006 and now in its 16th season. 

Featuring actual chefs, the majority having a Michelin star on their now-famous restaurants, GBM can be brutal, heart-breaking, inspirational, and always with an undercurrent of both humour and a foundation of true professionalism.

To see these rare birds in action – without their support staff, without their normal kitchen set-ups, exposes their raw talents and knowledge for all to see. 

For a chef can never blame their tools, blame the oven, or make excuses for their failures.   The plate must be delivered, and in this series, exactly on-time. 

And yet GBM manages to do this in an uplifting, delightful and cheery way – without the negativity and angst of similar series. 

This year’s well-known chefs ready for the competition

The beneficiaries of their Herculean efforts are almost always community-service, health, and beneficent societies, working for the public good.    

Diners of a previous NHS Dinner

This year, it is the valiant workers of the NHS who are being saluted with a Christmas Dinner prepared by what are undoubtedly a team of the best chefs in Britain.  

These current episodes now on BBC Two are unique in the series, where normally chefs are first scored by the judges on each one of four courses.  In some years an amuse-bouche is included ahead of the starter. 

But for this special Christmas edition, it is the chefs themselves who score each other first – indeed a high bar to pass.   The judges then give their scores, [spoiler alert!] and this year the quality is clear with three “10” scores being awarded to the starter canapés, resulting in all threegoing through to the banquet – a series first. 

The fairness, collegiality and even-handed opinions given on their colleague’s dishes is gratifying.   There are no snarky pot-shots, no drama injected for ratings, and only gentle ribbing when someone makes a little mistake.   

GBM reflects the best of “reality television”, because there is only rarely an effort made by the producers at Optomen to push the participants into a bit of silliness or making a “moment” out of an otherwise rather ordinary incident in the kitchen.   

Optomen have deep experience in the culinary slot, having produced the Good Food network, and the Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay’s F Word, and MasterChef series, starting out with a personal favourite of mine, Two Fat Ladies in 1996.   

Unlike with the clumsy amateurs on “MasterChef”, the chefs on GBM are, decidedly, master chefs.   The contrast between the two series is stark.

The actual drama in this stunning series comes from the “can they do it?” angle.  

Far more complicated that it looks, this canapé holds a host of methods and flavours

The choices of each chef for the starter, the fish course, the main and the dessert produce world-class and extremely hard to reproduce centrepieces.  The sheer technical skills required are astonishing to behold, with sous- vide, tweezers, liquid nitrogen and blowtorches being common kitchen tools for these superstars of cuisine. 

The second draw of this series is experiencing the eating, with judges Matthew Fort, Andi Oliver, and Oliver Peyton.   The staunch Prue Leith featured on earlier series.

Andi Oliver, Oliver Peyton (brother-in-law to Alex Polizzi), guest comedienne, and Matthew Fort

Their running commentary and excellent descriptions of their personal experiences in consuming the creations gives you a very good idea of the taste, texture, and feel of the dishes they (usually) eagerly consume. 

When something just does not hit the mark, there are usually nods all around, perhaps with Matthew Fort being a rather overly optimistic dissenter (the man is craven for cream and mired in the custody of any custard).

To even things out and offer the audience the reassuring comments of a lay person, a guest chef is introduced in each episode, to give a bit of “real-world” balance to the impressions of each dish. 

This guest judge and NHS nurse
got an unexpected burst of flavour
from the plate dust on the mushroom
starter.

As the show is ordered by the courses, the scoring after each course demonstrates rather clearly who is in the lead and who still has work to do.  This horse-race pace does add to the excitement, with viewers having their personal favourites, and you end up most pleased when your chosen chef pulls ahead. 

The life of the Mushroom starter, a delighful stack of flavour.

Again, avoiding the commercial television bent of sensationalism, GBM is surprisingly light on the criticism, with judges, chefs and the presenters alike only making very brief supportive comments, and almost always to the point of how the dish could be even better.  

“A bit tart on the finish,” comments Niall about Lisa’s smoked salmon tartlets for the canapés.   

Chef Lisa dutifully took her notes, and for the judging round, lowered the acid level in her little pearls of lemon caviar she made by using an eyedropper into a nitrogen bath.  

Lisa also did very well in the scoring as a result, as did her onion consommé with foam gel and a cheesy brioche on the side. 

The final decorations are affixed by other chefs on Lisa’s amazing Onion Consommé as Lisa finishes up her preparation. Check out how it was served in the episode!

Similarly, judge Matthew Fort only makes a passing comment that “the only thing that could have made it better was a little glass of champagne!”.    Refreshing candour like this makes the show so positive and affirming throughout. 

In all, it is a festive show entirely appropriate for the holiday season, and certainly restores faith in how food binds us all.

Well worth a watch!

SPOILER ALERT!

Yes, Lisa did indeed shine for that gorgeous little smoked salmon tartlet.
A rare perfect score!
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