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Great British Menu 2018: the final banquet

Great British Menu 2018: the final banquet

by Howard Middleton 13 October 2018

Howard Middleton lets us in on which four chefs made it to the final banquet (plus which was crowned champion of champions) and how their dishes were received during the grand event.

More from this series:

After nine weeks of enticing shots of its imposing Baroque splendour, the doors of the Great Hall at ‘Britain’s oldest working hospital’ are finally about to be thrown open to welcome the banquet guests. It never occurred to me that the chefs hadn’t actually been told what the venue would be but they’re confusingly directed to the modern wing of St Bart’s and look surprised when Oliver Peyton turns up to greet them there. It all starts to fall into place when they’re shown the bit that’s nearly 300 years old, but then we have to suspend disbelief as we see Matthew and Andi mucking in by moving chairs and laying tables.

Splendid as the location is, it’s not the most practical; without a kitchen big enough, the chefs have to prepare their dishes in a temporary marquee outside, then navigate trolleys over centuries of building alterations.

On the night before the banquet, Oliver suggests that the four chefs take a well-earned break from prepping their courses… and bake cakes for the staff on duty. It’s a nice thought but such gestures are always nicer when you’re not the one having to deliver them. On their rounds the chefs meet at least two more unsung heroes to invite to the banquet. It’s all beginning to look more than a little contrived.

On to the banquet proper and Jenny Agutter turns up to wish the four chefs well. She explains that she plays a nurse on TV but she holds back her trump card – her son is a real junior doctor. This revelation means she’s more than qualified to be a celebrity compere and any doubting diners have now been plied with too much Champagne to really care.

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In charge of the starter is James Cochran, looking a tad bleary-eyed but still relatively ‘fresh’ from his brand new restaurant 1251 in Islington. His tribute to his late mum and the NHS staff who cared for her takes a heartfelt and nostalgic woodland walk to the memory of a childhood spent foraging for mushrooms. ‘Cep-tional’ has already gathered bags of emotional reactions from the judges, so what will the diners think? Savoury ‘soil’ made from walnuts, chestnut flour and dried mushrooms is sprinkled over a new addition for the banquet – cep marmalade. Crisp feuille de brick cylinders filled with savoury custard and tipped with cep powder are garnished with button mushrooms, wood sorrel and a confetti of purple borage blossom. Soft cep and caramelised onion brioches are served alongside. There’s a moment of high drama as James’ cylinders roll around and he needs to hold them in place with extra truffle mayonnaise… and he can’t find the truffle mayonnaise… then he spots it in the fridge. Phew!

James calls upon the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir to ‘introduce his dish’ (and give him a few more precious minutes to cement his brick).

Netting the fish course is Ellis Barrie from The Marram Grass in Anglesey. Originally called ‘Fifty-Third Millionth Baby’, this tribute to the NHS midwives who delivered his baby son Albert is now renamed ‘Bun in the Oven’. Dispensing with the smoked mackerel mousse, beetroot jelly, fermented radish and beetroot bread he previously served, Ellis reworked the dish to deliver a perfect score from all four judges on Tuesday. He serves mackerel tartare with cubes of Granny Smith apple, cucumber and capers, topped with toasted cashew crumble, dots of rice wine vinegar gel and watercress puree and garnishes with wood sorrel, mustard cress, translucent sheets of kohlrabi and cornflower petals. Squid ink steamed buns are spiked with more watercress puree and vinegar gel and stuffed with torched mackerel fillets and crispy and pickled shallots. Ellis serves his buttermilk and horseradish dressing blended with dill oil in jugs on the side. Ellis’s moment of drama comes when, with tables still to serve, he runs out of jugs. James washes some and saves the day.

After visibly seething at ranking joint sixth in the starters, Tom Brown’s big break finally came with the main course, when he tied with Craig Sherrington and Chris Harrod (all scoring a quartet of tens) but won his prestigious kitchen pass for a dish that the judges decided ‘holds centre stage at the banquet’. The Cornerstone chef’s ‘Poor Man’s Goose’ is inspired by a sausage recipe from a 1940s study into dietetics. Tom’s version includes pork, chicken, minced duck livers and pistachios, which he serves sliced with glazed baby carrots, potato croquettes made with duck fat and Cornish cheddar on a spoonful of carrot puree spiced with ras el hanout. However, the main attraction is still the glisteningly glorious glazed duck that shimmers with sesame and honey and proudly rests on its laurel wreath of thyme. It wowed the judges and Andi admitted it was ‘rocking my entire world’. Tom instructs his helpful fellow chefs to ‘put the thyme out nicely… but you don’t need to be Alan Titchmarsh about it’.

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Tom’s tense moment manifests itself in the form of absent waiters. He’s calling ‘service’ but they’re still not back from the dining room. We’re told the plates of food are getting cold. The waiters finally return and take out the plates one at a time, which surely means service is taking even longer… and the food is getting colder. Not to worry though; Tom’s decided to ‘borrow’ from a rejected chef and introduce his dish with miners’ lamps and the mellifluous lilt of Nye Bevan. In the hallowed hall this somehow has the effect of a miraculous microwave and nobody says anything is cold. The diners praise the duck that’s ‘cooked to perfection’ and call it ‘a masterpiece on a plate’.

Rounding off the banquet is ‘Tea and Cake’ from Chris Harrod of The Whitebrook in Monmouthshire; a belated ‘thank you’ to the maternity unit staff who helped deliver his baby daughter. Hazelnut and polenta sponge is topped by a disc of woodruff mousse and adorned with dots of nettle and green tea puree and preserved brambles. Autumnal leaves of caramelised chocolate and foliate tuiles of quince puree, brown sugar and honey mingle with edible violas and a popping-candy-like creation called ‘quince fizzy’. And though the teapots of consommé that were so popular in the competition didn’t make it to the banquet, Chris serves pots of quince tea and pops quince sugar cubes on the saucers. With a fascinating forest of foraged flavours, Oliver Peyton confessed he’d ‘never eaten anything vaguely like it before’. Now Chris seems a relatively calm chef, but I personally would have gone ballistic at the moment of dramatic tension that’s dished out for him. The man spends five hours gathering three kilograms of nettles only to discover that an overenthusiastic kitchen porter has binned them. He resorts to pulping spinach. I’d have probably demolished a wall. Chris’s dish is introduced with a pent up explosion of gold confetti. A diner calls it ‘absolutely incredible’.

Finally there’s nothing left for the diners to do but vote on their favourite dish. James wins and becomes the first ‘Champion of Champions’. Having thoroughly enjoyed this series, I wanted the finale to be that fitting tribute to the ‘NHS heroes’ so promised. I really hope everyone present had a fabulously memorable meal but… as a fine hour of TV? As Nye Bevan once said: ‘Discontent arises from the knowledge of the possible, as contrasted with the actual’.

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