Great British Menu 2016: North East heat recap

Great British Menu 2016: North East heat recap

by Food Urchin 16 October 2016

Danny Kingston takes us through what happened when the North East’s best and brightest chefs showed the UK what they’re made of, with one in particular proving his culinary mettle.

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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.

Whay aye man, it was the turn of the North East on Great British Menu this week, divvin ya knaah and it was reet canny. Although at no point in proceedings, did we get anyone screaming, ‘Where’s me scran? I’m clamming.’ I just thought it would be a lark to kick off with some hackneyed, regional phrases. Not that any of our chefs were actually from Newcastle, mind. Both Mini Patel, head chef at The Pointer and Chris Archer, who plys his trade at the Cottage in the Woods, are from Leeds. And self-taught and Michelin-starred chef Tommy Banks, well he was born and raised in Oldstead, near York and has never left the village, where he cooks at The Black Swan. So there was a missed opportunity here, for the producers to bring on board some Geordie wit to proceedings. I can only hope that for next year, we get to see the likes of the cheeky and cosy Hairy Bikers.

To raise a smile, should Tom Aikens ever appear as mentor again. For that man is serious. Very serious. Though I suspect he also revels in his bogeyman persona and whenever he is trying to put the heebie jeebies through the competing chefs, he is giggling inside like a naughty little schoolboy. I mean who turns around and says things like, ‘I don’t want to put any pressure on you but for my starter when I appeared on GBM, I got a nine.’ C’mon Tom, give the boys a break! Ya radgie, you.

Anyway, moving swiftly on to last weeks action in the GBM kitchen, it was Mini who had the most to prove, having failed to reach judgement day on previous series. His starter was called ‘Charity Begins At Home’ recognising the efforts of people who run food banks and soup kitchens. Using guinea fowl as the star ‘protein’, as chefs often call meat this days, Mini created spheres of thigh and vegetable that were topped with a celeriac puree and accompanied by rarebit toasties. The spheres themselves were then melted by pouring a guinea fowl consomme over the top, which impressed Tom at first but the resultant muddy finish left the dish far from being desired. Tommy did better, a lot better, as he plumped for the Queen Mother’s favourite, calling it ‘Ouefs Drumkilbo 2016’. A dish with origins that suggest it was originally thrown together with no thought, Tommy brought in a lot more refinement with smoked duck eggs, pickled radish and buttered kohlrabi. Which used to be a dreaded no-no for Tom but he rather liked Tommy’s squat-like bulb.

Tom and Tommy
Tom Aikens was one of the sternest judges on the show so far
Mini had something to prove after not reaching the judges round last year

Then Chris entered into the fray with his rather confusing ‘Gold’ – a tribute to the erm, great cyclists of Britain. He used smoked eggs too, along with golden beetroot, crispy sweetbreads and a crystal clear consomme, to be served in a velodrome. But it just left Tom with an even deeper frown on his forehead. Perhaps Chris should have got Tony Hadley along, to sing the theme tune. Or maybe not.

Fish was next and Tom Aikens wanted to see more skill and excitement. Tommy came sidling into the kitchen with his box of goodies, brimming with confidence. His ‘Preserving the Future’ by his own account, was bang on the brief; highlighting the quality of British produce available. The dish he created was certainly elegant. Comprising of blowtorched mackerel and mackerel tartare paired with unusual herbs such as woodruff and oyster leaf, his complex juggling paid off. Tom gave it a 9. However, that was not to be the final word as Mini was also cooking mackerel for his dish. Which meant only one thing – a mackerel-off! Oh my days!

Mini’s approach was a lot more contemporary in style as he used the architecture of the North East as inspiration. When I heard this, I thought it was going to be a bit of a misfire but Mini’s mix of cured fish, scorched cucumber, a beetroot sorbet and garnish of nasturtium leaves, radish seedlings and lemon oil dressing brought high praise indeed. In fact, Mini could hardly believe his score of 9.

Which again, sort of left Chris floundering in the wings with his fish course, titled ‘The Beautiful Briny Sea’. Using turbot, langoustines and ‘scraps’ made from beer batter, this was to be another take on elevating the humble fish and chips, and his Yorkshire caviar (mushy peas) and seawater jelly cubes did sound intriguing. But in creating the latter, Chris only needed the juice from an oyster and ended up throwing the actual flesh away. Of course, this is a sacrilege and Tom let rip about this.

Mini's venison buns just missed the mark due to not being rested long enough
Tommy produced fantastic dishes throughout the week, earning him the joint top score ever gained on GBM

Unfortunately, Chris did not show up for the mains rounds due to illness and it would be cruel of me to speculate that the pressure became too much. Although I have to say, things were noticeably calmer in the kitchen for Tommy and Mini for this round. There was definitely a lot more banter. Did they have anything to do with his departure? It makes you think.

Carrying big hunks of meat about the place, it was clear that with both dishes, our chefs were seeking to please Tom’s carnivorous appetite. For Mini, his ‘The Gallant and Brave’ sought to honour our servicemen and women, with a rack of venison. Up on the plate came cutlets, slow-cooked in a water bath with herbs and juniper and then fried off. He also made some venison mince buns, wrapped in caul fat and pastry and scattered a fair dose of savoury granola about, to complement his parsnip rings and sticky red cabbage. For Tom, everything nearly worked but the venison needed resting and the buns were dry.

Tommy went down the Sunday roast route, again another familiar approach on GBM but for once, we had a chef who really did push things beyond the pale. Cooking a Wagyu and Angus crossbred sirloin, his dish called ‘Beef at the Cutting Edge’ really did have a strong streak of innovation coursing through it. By plating up succulent steak with bone marrow, a lovage and wild garlic emulsion, hen of the woods mushrooms and a veritable garden of nasturtium flowers, he looked like he was going to smash it. And he would have got that 10, said Tom, if only he had seasoned his cabbage better. Gutting.

Having seen how far his competitor was edging ahead, for the desserts round Mini had to really push himself and after describing his monolithic sounding ‘Exploring New Frontiers’, it looked like he might just nudge him out the way. For his dessert was to be a mountain, comprising of shards of meringue, with an interior filled with two fruit sorbets (blackberry and kiwi) peppered with soil made from white chocolate and yuzu. However, the end result resembled more of a molehill and he completely cocked things up by over-smoking the hillock with lavender and peppermint oil. A fall from grace in other words.

As such, you would have thought that Tommy only need to rest on laurels, to push on through but for his very personal dessert, we saw him at his sweatiest and busiest yet. Called ‘A Great Briton’ in honor of his beloved granddad, in terms of impact, theatricality and uniqueness (with regards to flavour) this had to be the best pudding of the competition so far. Douglas Fir was the main element and featured in his parfait, sherbet and cocktail, served with lemon verbena gel, white chocolate discs and a ewe’s milk yoghurt sorbet. It was the use of a recording of his grandfather’s voice talking about the Kilburn White Horse that nailed it. A hill cut figure that is situated in the North York Moors National Park, Tommy’s granddad was responsible for its maintenance and as his pride resonated through the speakers, so did the love of a grandson. After blowing on a hanky, Tom gave Tommy his 10. Which in turn gave him the joint highest overall score in the history of Great British Menu.

Mini 'threw the kitchen sink' at his dishes for the judges round, but couldn't match Tommy's incredible food
Going through to the final round, Tommy will be hoping his dishes make it onto the banquet

So as our chefs entered the last hurdle of the judging round, the writing was sort of on the wall. Joining Prue, Oliver and Matt on this occasion was John Williams MBE, who is executive chef at The Ritz, has cooked for the Queen and is a Geordie to boot. Whay aye! At last!

For what it was worth, Mini did put up a hell of fight. As he so eloquently put it, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose so I might as well throw the kitchen sink at it.’ And he did just that, impressing our judges along the way. Prue for instance was more than happy with her venison dish and John found much to sing about with his fish course, despite an overly sweet beetroot sorbet. His mountainous effort for dessert, however, did once again fall flat with Oliver proclaiming that the dish was built around an ‘idea, rather than flavour.’ I did like the fact that it coaxed an admission from Matt; that he rather loves undercooked meringue.

Not that things went totally plain sailing for Tommy either. His starter and fish courses didn’t really set the world alight for the judges. Matt didn’t appreciate Tommy’s ‘ransacking of the countryside for ingredients’ and Oliver felt at times it was all a bit too ‘cheffy chef chef,’ for his liking. A phrase I’ve heard from him before, yawn. But the scores did light up for his mains and that ultra personal dessert and so of course, Tommy was the man to go through to represent the North East.

Can he go on to get more than one dish on the banquet menu though? You know what, I think he can.