Great British Menu 2012, London and South East Final

Great British Menu 2012, London and South East Final

by Monica Shaw 19 May 2012

Week 6 of Great British Menu had its final judging on Friday 18th May 2012. During the week chefs from London & the South East competed to impress veteran judge Jason Atherton. Monica Shaw guest blogger at Great British Chefs watched the finals. Who would be cooking at the Olympic banquet?

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Monica Shaw's mission is to enable people to feel awesome, through food, life, work and play.

Monica Shaw's mission is to enable people to feel awesome, through food, life, work and play.

The London and South East finals of Great British Menu brought with it an exciting clash of the generations. Having said goodbye to Graham Garrett on Thursday evening, this left the very confident - and very classical - chef Phil Howard to face off with young chef Marcus McGuinness who was out to wow the judges with his ultra modern approach.

But would judges Prue Leith, Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton appreciate Marcus's newfangled techniques, or would they be more comfortable with Phil's classical precision?

Marcus' menu began with a starter of ice lamb's liver parfait, malt loaf, fingerling limes and rose germanium, a beautiful dish, but one which the judges felt offered "style over content", according to a visibly annoyed Oliver: "there's a lack of love." And Prue only seemed to keep eating it because it was interesting, though not necessarily tasty: "I'm not really enjoying it, I'm just interested in eating it because it's so extraordinary."

Phil's starter - a spring salad with goat's milk puree, pickled asparagus and quail's eggs - went the judges sans watercress bavarois (Phil forgot to add it at the last minute). Would that have changed the judges' opinions? All agreed it was enjoyable, but "nothing special" according to Oliver, who added that the gimmicky gold leaf around the celeriac was "absolutely awful - like bling on the salad". "I'm enjoying it but it isn't rocking my world," said Prue.

It was during the fish course that Phil proved his precise execution of classical techniques could elevate ordinary British ingredients. Enter his tasting of Cornish mackerel with oysters, mussels, winkles & samphire. "A beautiful balance between richness and intensity," said Mathew. "The soup is a triumph, the tartar is absolutely fabulous...the dish of the day so far," said Oliver.

Marcus fared much better with his fish course: pollock, peas, coconut and elderflower. "This is just a beautiful thing," said Oliver. In fact, all agreed that the presentation was awe-inspiring, but not everyone enjoyed the flavour. "This is like someone running out for the pole vault and spectacularly soaring below the bar," said Matthew: "potentially delicious but completely ruined by inattention to detail."

The main course did not going as swimmingly for Phil, whose roast loin of lamb with pie and mash, carrots, nettles and mint was "almost perfection" according to Oliver. The problem, according to Matthew, was that it was boring: "conventional stuff given a bit of a makeover with a few blobs on the plate - that is not enough."

Phil Howard and Marcus McGuinness
Phil Howard and Marcus McGuinness await their fate
Pollock, peas, coconut and elderflower
Marcus McGuinness's Pollock, peas, coconut and elderflower

Marcus's main - blade of beef cooked in hay, tendons and beetroot - didn't do much better. In fact, all of the chefs seemed genuinely disgusted, with Prue practically gagging on the tendons. "This dish is a tragedy," said Oliver. Matthew was the only judge to defend the dish, arguing that the tendons worked, but still agreed with Prue who said, "I would be ashamed if we put this down for an Olympian feast."

This left the last stand: dessert. Phil's rhubarb and custard soufflé served with ice cream in Olympic torch cones was "a dish of wonderful quiet pleasures," said Matthew, "but not a dish of fireworks." Oliver agreed: "no innovation whatsoever."

Marcus finished his menu with his radical pudding: asparagus, goat's curd and black olives, not likely ingredients for a pudding, so inherently "boundary-pushing". But did it work? Almost. "The bits are there, they just need to be pulled together," said Matthew. "When you put everything together it's delicious," said Prue. But all agreed it would be better off as an "asparagus cheesecake" rather than a series of individual components on a plate.

No one could argue that Marcus pushed himself to the limit with his menu. But Phil, though not always innovative, did always exhibit a mastery of flavour and technique, and this is what counts in the eyes of the judges who were all smiles as they announced Phil the winner.

Congratulations. Phil Howard! You've demonstrated the importance of substance over style, something all too easily forgotten on Great British Menu.

Next week, it's the battle of the Welsh chefs with contenders James Sommerin, Stephen Terry and Richard Davies.