It was an evening of hit or miss for both chefs on Great British Menu, with Chris Fearon and Raymond McArdle competing to represent Northern Ireland in the finals. Our usual cast of judges - Prue Leith, Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort - were joined by comedian and author Charlie Higson to rate the chefs on their gastronomy and their comedy. Laughs were had, all right, but not always in the places where the chefs had intended.
First up was Raymond with his starter of black truffle & wild mushroom veloute with bacon cream, served as a glass of ‘stout’ alongside extra soup in custom stout bottles and wheaten bread rolls. The presentation was superb, if only slightly disappointing to Matthew who correctly suspected that the glasses did not contain alcohol. Otherwise, the judges were delighted. “This is witty and delicious,” said Prue, “what more do we want?”
Chris’ ‘piggy bank’ was not so well-received. The dish, a fragrant prawn consommé with posh pork scratchings served in comic piggy banks with chargrilled scallops, steamed dumplings and langoustine tails, was excessively salty. “Crikey almighty!” declared Matthew. “It’s inedible,” said Oliver. And if that weren’t bad enough, Prue didn’t get the concept: “I don’t understand where the pig and the fish thing is going at all.”
Things improved for Chris during the fish course, but not before Raymond won favour with his ‘a day at the beach’ dish of turbot, ‘sea spaghetti’ seaweed, crab bisque, cockles, winkles, crab claws and creamy dill sauce. “I have never liked seaweed…and this one is utterly delicious,” said Prue. Matthew described the sauce as “luxury”. In fact, their only complaint was temperature. Charlie reasoned, “It must be an English beach where it’s just too cold.”
Chris followed with his ‘stitched up like a kipper’, mackerel stuffed with curried pilaff served with fishing rod props alongside a scotch egg and almond and fennel salad. The judges approved. “Very clean, well-defined flavours,” said Matthew, “he very cleverly got the quail’s egg yolk still runny” (something Chris had failed to do during the heats).
Onto the mains, Chris was up again with his ‘cowboy supper’, a pie of beef cheeks and ceps served with barbecued beans and grilled sweetcorn. It wasn’t much to look at, but looks were hugely deceiving. “I suspect this will be high on comedy but low on gastronomy,” said Prue. But as soon as she cut into the pie she admitted, “I might be eating my words…this is a triumph.”
Raymond’s main, ‘Titanic smoked venison, tongue & cheek’, was baffling, and unfortunately all of the laughs were on Raymond. No one could figure out the connection between Comic Relief and the Titanic, an event which Charlie sarcastically described as, ”one of the funniest episodes in history when hundreds of women and children died a freezing death.” As if that weren’t bad enough, Oliver said “this meat is so over-smoked I can’t tell what it is.” Prue summarised: ”I think we can safely say this is not good.. it has no connection to the Titanic and the Titanic isn’t even funny.”
It was left to the dessert course for both chefs to make up for any prior slip-ups. Chris began with his ‘just like that’ deconstructed Black Forest Gateau whose focal point was a chocolate mousse, frozen in liquid nitrogen. But the “deconstruction” didn’t result in a pretty scene. “That looks a right mess,” said Prue, while Charlie pointed out a dubious-looking brown pile on his plate and said, “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Matthew equated the dish to Jackson Pollack, to which Charlie asked, “Are we agreed it’s a load of old Pollacks?”
Raymond’s Chocolate volcano mountain fared better, even if his sherbet volcano didn’t erupt. ”That’s a bit disappointing,” said Prue. But Oliver was in his bliss: “This looks great…I’m in the love department on this pudding.”
With both chefs demonstrating inconsistent performance throughout the final, it was impossible to predict who would win. Tensions were high for veteran Chris, who didn’t make it through last year, and his disappointment was palpable when the judges declared Raymond the winner. But Chris took the loss like a champ, even pouring Raymond a proper pint of congratulatory Guinness after the show. We’re left to wonder, now, what IS Raymond going to do about that unfortunate Titanic dish? I guess we’ll find out in the finals!