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An interview with Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton

An interview with Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton

by Nancy Anne Harbord 29 September 2015

We interviewed Great British Menu judge, Oliver Peyton, on how the programme has developed over the years.

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Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

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.’

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I always remember Marcus Wareing's egg custard tart. It was the wobble – and I remember its wobble – as soon as you saw it on the plate, you didn’t have to taste it to know that it was a great thing.

We asked Oliver Peyton what ‘British food’ – a slippery term – means to him: ‘To me, British food is about having British ham, it’s about having British produce, it’s about using what’s around on the earth. When I started in this business, we used to have trucks going to the market in Paris because we couldn’t get produce. Now, chefs are much more experimental about what they can do with their own country’s produce. British food is not about shepherd’s pie or anything like that, it’s about how chefs use the food that is coming out of the ground.’ One thing he thinks the show is still missing, however, is a vegetarian angle: ‘I would like to do a vegetarian one – vegetarian is trendy now, so I feel like it’s coming. Menus and restaurants in London have changed dramatically in the last few years – the nature of menus is changing and I think Great British Menu should reflect that.’

For Oliver Peyton, it is a career filled with hard work and practice that is the secret to success on the show: ‘There's no hiding in terms of skill and I think the great dishes, by and large, have been done by very experienced, skilled chefs who have learned their craft. I always remember Marcus Wareing's egg custard tart. It was the wobble – and I remember its wobble – as soon as you saw it on the plate, you didn’t have to taste it to know that it was a great thing. There have been dishes that I’ve had on Great British Menu where you just know that it’s the work of greatness. Simon Rogan – he put dishes in front of you that were completely unique experiences. You didn’t see any sense of genealogy with Simon’s food. When he was at the pinnacle of the competition he slammed it – he could have put three dishes into the final because they were so strong and so individual in conception. I certainly think Simon is the only really successful person on Great British Menu where you wouldn’t have said that it was a technique thing – it was definitely a soul thing.’

 
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This competition was the longest deliberation we’ve ever had over the winners, by a long way – I’m going to say four hours. I think that’s the rise in quality cheffing

But an understanding of the bright lights of television, and of the pressure that ramps up when millions are watching, is also crucial: ‘I think chefs who have never done it before think in their head ‘I’m Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda or Angelina Jolie’ and then they come on and have a camera stuck in their face, they burn the sugar and it all goes Pete Tong. One of the chefs at the beginning fluffed his main course and tried to have the show reshot. We were all hearing this thinking ‘Are you out of your mind? Are we to wait here another twelve hours for you to reshoot the show?’ But that’s what he wanted to do. People forget it’s a competition – you lost.’

And what, did Oliver Peyton think, was the reason the show remained a hit? ‘I love doing Great British Menu and I look forward to doing it, but it’s not my career, none of us rely on Great British Menu. So we say exactly what we think and feel – I think that is really important. I have a responsibility to the chefs and to the people watching to have a completely unbiased view and people respond to that. Also, the quality of the chefs is getting better and better. Historically, the menu would just sort itself out, but this competition was the longest deliberation we’ve ever had over the winners, by a long way – I’m going to say four hours. I think that’s the rise in quality cheffing.’

After all these years, episode after episode, what does Oliver Peyton still enjoy about judging the programme? He told us: ‘From a selfish point of view, it's when you meet interesting people – people who were involved in the war and have done amazing things, or when you’re cooking for the Queen. You just meet amazing people and that includes the chefs – I love that.’

 
 

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