Oliver Peyton has been a fixture on the London restaurant scene since he opened his first restaurant, The Atlantic Bar and Grill, in 1994. A string of successful venues followed, with his current collection of eateries centred on some of London’s most elegant attractions – Somerset House, The National Gallery, Kew Gardens and St. James’s Park, to name but a few. A judge on Great British Menu since it started in 2006, he has been well placed to observe the changes in British chefs and their food over the past decade. Meeting at his latest opening, Keeper’s House at The Royal Academy, he told us how the contestants have developed over the years, why the show has such enduring appeal and what he loves about it after all these years.
‘My earliest memory of the Great British Menu – I was sat down next to Prue Leith – it was winter somewhere off Fleet Street, I had a big coat on and I was freezing and I thought ‘what am I doing here?’ Prue Leith put her hand on my knee and leant over and said “You’re a very nice young man”. Neither he nor the other judges thought the programme would run for more than one series, but run and run it has – five days a week, for eight weeks, over the past ten series, not to mention the spin-offs.
In the beginning, he told us, it was focused on celebrity chefs, with Antony Worrall Thompson, Marcus Wareing and Gary Rhodes among the contestants: ‘At the beginning it was very hard to find British chefs regionally, because the market didn’t exist outside of London – mainly because city centres didn’t have a vibrant culture, other than nightlife and boozing. Obviously, city centres have reinvented themselves – the gastronomic scene in Britain has changed dramatically in London and outside London. In this latest competition you can see the quality of chef, they are actually working in the regions and being successful in the regions, which is really great. Also, a lot of the chefs are younger and that’s amazing. That’s what Great British Menu has been about from the outset, and what I really like about the show, that evolution in food culture.’
‘In the past, most of the chefs had been trained in France or by French chefs, so a lot of the food was French-ish in orientation. But now when you look at this series, you realise that they haven’t been trained by French chefs, they’ve been trained by British chefs. Some of them have never even been to France and they’re completely free of foreign influence in terms of their training. That doesn’t mean that they don’t like French or Indian food, or whatever the food is that they’re interested in, but it’s truly British food now.’