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Great British Menu 2017: North East recap

Great British Menu 2017: North East recap

by Kate Doran 26 May 2017

Kate Doran reviews the North East heat of this year's Great British Menu, with Tommy Banks, Danny Parker and Josh Overington on the pass.

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As the fourth week of Great British Menu draws to a close, it feels like the competition is really getting into its stride. The heats are becoming more competitive, the scores mere points apart and the cooking some of the very best we’ve seen. But what is it that the judges are really looking for?

Creativity is key, and the use of modern techniques has been lauded by both the weekly guest chefs and panel of judges. As long as the results aren’t more weird than wonderful, mind. Wimbledon is the most classic of tennis championships, so paying respect to tradition is going to get you points. Presentation has been something of a minefield, the contestants treading a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous as they strive to outdo each other. So far miniature barbecues, sawn-off chairs, Champagne bottles and tennis rackets have all served (pun intended) their purpose on the winning menus, so expect plenty more in the way of extravagance and borderline absurdity.

Strawberries have been perhaps the most contentious ingredient. While some chefs couldn’t see a Wimbledon banquet without them – personally I think they might be right – putting them into all sorts of savoury dishes as well as sweet, others have eschewed them as too obvious. And while the judging panel praised last week’s duo of incredible strawberry desserts, I can’t help feeling they may lose their star status by the end of the competition, simply by their ubiquity.

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Despite all the discussion of tradition versus modernity, and the merits of fancy presentation, what it all boils down to in the end is flavour. This food needs to taste incredible for the chefs to be in with a chance of taking it to the banquet. And how best to impart flavour? Take a (home grown, organic, lovingly picked) leaf out of former champion – and this week’s winner – Tommy Banks' book, and douse everything you cook in butter. Kilos of the stuff.

This week’s cook-off saw Tommy compete against best friend Josh Overington for the North East title. In his introductory interview, Josh told viewers how he likes to challenge people eating his food and wants it to get a reaction. Which pretty much set the tone for Friday night’s episode, with the judges by turn in raptures, disgusted and in disagreement with each other over his weird, and sometimes very wonderful, dishes.

Going into the competition just one point ahead of Josh, it wasn’t completely clear that twenty-seven-year-old Tommy was going to win from the off. His Midsummer starter of compressed, charred cucumber, three types of tomato, cod’s roe emulsion and frozen grated goat’s cheese looked dramatic presented on a bed of flames but guest chef Jeremy Lee and the judges alike agreed that the flavour didn’t live up to the expectation the theatre of the dish commanded. Note: copious use of butter had not yet come into play.

Josh’s Strawberries & Ice Cream in the Garden, which scored him a steady eight in the weekly heat, divided opinion with its cold nasturtium ice cream, warm strawberry velouté and savoury granola. Words like ‘curious’ abounded, while Matthew was a little blunter, telling fellow judges ‘there’s a difference between interesting and edible’.

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Turbot with Strawberries & Cream saw Tommy succeed where previous competitors this year have failed – making strawberries work in a savoury dish. Beautiful pieces of turbot – doused with the obligatory kilo of melted butter – sat atop a tartare of vegetables including pickled green strawberries dressed in salt and elderflower vinegar, all finished with fennel pollen. Perhaps not his prettiest dish but a real crowd pleaser to eat. Meanwhile Josh’s Game, Set, Pop! of shellfish stew with truffle and Champagne foam was criticized for being too acidic and overwhelmingly boozy (despite guest judge Judy Murray’s protestation that ‘you can never have too much Champagne’).

The main course is where Tommy began to accelerate into the lead. His perfectly cooked Champions Guard of Honour scored a ten from guest judge Jeremy Lee and on Friday the judges had nothing but praise for the roast lamb, fermented turnip purée and pink fir apple potatoes rolled in buttered breadcrumbs (there’s that butter again, oof). In the words of Judy Murray: ‘Traditional, simple and world-class like Wimbledon.’

For dessert, Josh served a wild herb panna cotta with wild strawberry sorbet, buckwheat honeycomb, crumble and nasturtium flowers. With amazing colours and a lot of care and attention, this was truly summer in a bowl, but Tommy just pipped him to the post with his classic yet inventive Hay Time, which used the biscuity notes of hay to flavour an aerated custard alongside meadowsweet cheesecake, heather honey filo pastry crisp, raspberries and cream cheese ice cream.

As he was busy assembling the hay wreaths his mum had made him and roasting hay from his farm, Tommy told us that ‘when you have an emotional attachment to your cooking it brings out the best’. The North East cook-off was exceedingly close, but in the end Tommy’s series of delicious, original and heartfelt dishes won through. Congratulations to both chefs for a nail biting round, and we could well see Tommy Banks cooking at the banquet for a second year in a row.

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