Great British Menu 2015: North East heat final

by Food Urchin 12 September 2015

Food blogger Danny, aka Food Urchin, walks us through this week's heat final. North East chefs Michael O'Hare and Tim Allen battle it out in the kitchen to win the vote of judges Matthew, Prue and Oliver, with special guest Kirsty Bowen.

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Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin. When Danny is not busy digging holes to pit-roast lamb or hanging marrows in tights to make rum or foraging for snails in his garden to throw into paella, he is often left in charge of a pair of cheeky twins; with sometimes disastrous results in the kitchen. A former nominee for Best Food Writer at The YBFs Danny has decided that one day, he might just write a book about food.

Two chefs, representing the North East are making their way to the kitchen studios, getting ready to film the judging segment for the Great British Menu. One is traveling down the motorway, in style and comfort, in a Jaguar, all sophisticated, tailored, with tie done up and with Terry Wogan whittling on in the background. The other is traveling by hot air balloon, shaped in the form of a pink elephant and having caught a brisk wind, is hurtling haphazardly across the sky. Ingredients keep falling out of the basket, Def Leppard blares from some ghetto blaster hidden inside, and a fair few chimneys get knocked down along the way.

Yes, if there were ever two chefs more disparate to each other, in the way they approach things, it would have to be Tim Allen, formerly of Launceston Place, and Michael O’Hare, who runs The Man Behind The Curtain.

Throughout the week, it was hard to call who was going to get through actually. With Marcus Wareing at the helm, who is a tough cookie to crack, all three chefs had their share of highs and lows. Ultimately, it came down to the wire between Michael and Mini Patel, head chef at The Pointer. Despite coming up with a risqué-sounding but delicious pheasant dish called ‘Showing you a bit of breast and a bit of leg’, Mini lost out to Michael’s avant-garde stream of consciousness. Which certainly mesmerised Mr Wareing at some points. But I did wonder how the hirsute chef from Middlesborough was going to get on with the judges. Especially conservative Prue and Matthew.

Would they get it? Would they understand his vision? Could they see past the hair? He had a possible ally in youthful Kirsty Bowen, who is president of the WI in Sheffield, the urban WI, no less. But still, it was all looking rather perilous last night and I have to admit, I had to partake in a large scotch to settle my nerves throughout the show. Lorks a lordy it was tense (that is my excuse and I am sticking to it).

Shaky Tim looked like he could have done with one too.

So to kick things off, we were treated to Michael’s ‘Everyone I ever ate with’, a nod to family dining and Tracy Emin. Now, I know his remit was to conjure a modern menu for a modern institute, but when I saw the waiting staff shuffle out these giant eggs that housed his dish, I couldn’t help but be transported back to that 70’s classic Mork and Mindy. However, his twist on a prawn and melon ball starter did win approval. A concoction of langoustine tartare, lavender purée, salted cucumber and ham fat went down well with the judges, but I suspect that they could have also been left slightly tipsy from the gin sour cocktail.

'The food looks truly disgusting' was Prue's first reaction to Michael's starter, before she tasted the 'perfectly seasoned' langoustine.
Kirsty Bowen said Tim's version of ham, eggs and chips was 'home cooking, but the best it can be' and that's what the WI is about.

Tim’s ‘Preserving the past’, a risky take on ham, egg and chips, on the other hand delivered a really top-drawer response. With compressed tomato, pickled onion, onion jam, shredded ham hock, topped with pork scratchings, ham stock sauce, maple jelly AND a duck egg (phew!). It looked like a fine plate to launch a banquet to me. Prue might have sniffled that it was too big and too sweet for a starter but I would say this to Prue: 'NO! PRUE! YOU ARE WRONG!'

With the fish course next, Michael delved further back into his childhood and the dark, industrial corners of his mind. Emancipation was to be the theme and the name. A canvas, splattered with dashi and squid ink, littered with scorched baby gem and gold sprayed shoots. And in the middle, a black porcelain hand, holding delicate morsels of cod loin. Kirsty got the symbolism straight away: the importance of women in the family, combined with the brave struggle to break free from that bond. A key message in the WI. Matthew on the other hand exclaimed 'It’s fish and chips!'

Even more props were brought on board for Tim’s fish dish, who cooked up a ‘Sole Jubilee’, a dish fit for a queen. Queen Elizabeth in fact. He had previously made this for Her Maj for her 50th celebrations, so expectations were high as the judges sat at the table, with crowns jauntily perched in Christmas Day pose. On paper, it had a lot going for it. Sole, with lemon sole mousse, scallop ceviche, champagne leeks, finely chopped chives, truffle, more champagne and puff pastry promised ‘OOMFTH!’ and ‘Wallop!’ but alas, it was all too nice and safe for the diners.

Michael's outstanding and very rock and roll fish dish, celebrating women's emancipation in society.
Whilst Tim presented a luxurious sole Jubilee fish dish to honor the Queen's role in the WI.

Tim’s main course ‘Not all Jerusalem and jam’, again, didn’t seem to impress. A homage to a particular favourite of a particular Calendar Girl, his construction of poached chicken, jerusalem artichoke with chicken thigh and a roast chicken vinaigrette was, well, too chicken-y, I suppose, with Matthew labelling it 'safe and nice'. Tim’s classic direction was beginning to leave him behind, whereas Michael’s inventiveness left him surging ahead.

And there is definitely something inventive about using connective pork tissue in a dish and calling it ‘My mother is single and is looking for a well-dressed man’. I mean c’mon, connective pork tissue? The scrubbings and nuggings of piggy that are often found on butchers’ floors? How on earth is that going to work? But make it work he did. Dressed on perspex, with a garlic and almond sauce, beetroot powder, anchovies, purple salt-baked potatoes and deep fried pig skin, along with frozen flowers, the plate amazed all the judges. And left Matthew wanting to propose to Michael’s mum.

Tim's chicken thigh was cooked 'just right' according to Matthew, but Prue thought the skin wasn't crisp enough.
Michael's floral tribute to his mum, which scored him a 10 from Marcus earlier in the week, was judged 'an explosion of colour and design.'

Not wanting to give up the fight, and this was described as a slug-fest at one point, Tim slammed one home with his dessert. Called ‘Frugal flowers’ in reference to the WI’s leaning towards economical cooking, he delivered a very pretty looking dish built from cheesecake mix with an apple compote centre, crumble, apple roses, crystallised honey and apple balls. All topped with a little buzzy bee, made from honey ice cream with black meringue stripes and antennae. 'We have some fun on the plate at last!' yelped Oliver, whilst Kirsty acknowledged the link to thriftiness. So suddenly, Tim was back in contention.

Michael then countered with his ‘Centenary cookbook in 4D’, a happy mess of burnt white chocolate, chewy artichokes and sliced pear, salted caramel and popcorn ice cream, chocolate-dipped artichoke skins and chunks of soufflé; all buried within the pages of a Marguerite Patten cookbook and to be viewed with 3D glasses. The quirkiness didn’t impress Oliver, who doesn’t like anyone messing with his soufflé and Prue had some misgivings about his ice cream. “Too salty,” she said.

'I don't even like cheesecake, and I like it' said Oliver upon tasting Tim's dessert
Kirsty saw the interesting side of ripping up the soufflé, but Oliver didn't quite agree.

So again, for high drama, as food telly often demands, we were left high and dry for a second or two. Was precise, concise cooking going to win the day? Or would rock and roll win the day?

I think we all knew the answer and it was quite obvious that Michael was going to go through, much to his visible shock. Still, it was nice to see him embrace Tim for a final man hug at the end.

And as Tim’s head disappeared into that dark, flowing mane, I did wonder if they would make Michael wear a hairnet, should he get through to the banquet. Or will they let it roam free to soak up all those strange, yet brilliant ideas that are floating out there, somewhere in the galaxy?