Great British Menu 2021: the banquet

With each winning chef now chosen, the hard work begins! Howard Middleton lets us know how the champions of Great British Menu 2021 fared at the banquet.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients. He now demonstrates his creative approach to gluten-free baking at numerous food festivals and shows and by teaching baking classes around the country, including at corporate events, commercial promotions and private parties. Howard continues to entertain audiences as a public speaker, compere and broadcaster.

Some words of advice are easier to act upon than others. If you’re told your dish needs ‘more sauce’, ‘less pickle’ or ‘more booze’, it should be reasonably straightforward. Increasing or decreasing its size is easily doable and, with a little consideration, you should even be able to ‘rethink your presentation’ or ‘finesse it’. However, how on earth do you begin to ‘dial up’ a monkfish if it’s not in your contacts list or ‘show more love’ to a beetroot?

Fortunately, thirty-two chefs were brave enough to try and eight of these adroitly endured such cryptic critiques to make it through to Finals Week.

In the judging chamber, Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort had a stab at showing enthusiasm for their task, before the daggers inevitably came out. Rachel Khoo began the week cheerfully announcing that she’d fasted for thirty-six hours in preparation, but by the time poor Stuart Collins served his chocolate and hazelnut road dessert, she was petulantly shovelling sauce across her plate and showing utter contempt for thick feuilletine.

It was all a bit brutal. Chefs who exactingly reproduced top-scoring dishes were told they weren’t as good as the first time. Those who completely reinvented less-successful creations were rewarded with lukewarm appreciation for their efforts. They made personal pitches for misunderstood dishes, plied the judges with extra alcohol, even worked a shift at a blast furnace and still it wasn’t enough.

In the end, four chefs secured the four principal courses and a fifth (the highest scoring runner up) got the job of canapés and pre-dessert. Thus, this year’s selection was less concerned with achieving balance and variety across the menu and more about picking the best of the best; a consequence of which left diners facing no less than three successive dishes featuring a soft-set egg.

However, it’s unlikely that anyone will complain. In the shadow of Jodrell Bank, a tent is erected for GBM’s first outdoor, socially distanced banquet, allowing guests to go ‘out out’ for the first time in months.

Sadly, the spectre of Covid is never far away and Andi Oliver soon bursts the champions’ bubble by revealing that main course chef, Oli Marlow is isolating at home after a positive test result. Can the other chefs rally to produce the dish in his absence? Of course they can! What looks to be several hours later, they’re still deboning chicken and moussing guinea fowl before they can begin to work on their own stuff. Plus, they appear to be running the whole shebang without any sign of a sous chef or even a washer upper. One can only hope for ‘off camera’ support.

On a thankfully fine spring day, the banqueters assemble. ‘Still milling but sitting’ reports starter chef Alex Bond as he judges the perfect moment to serve his coddled egg tribute to the ‘Founding Father’ of IVF treatment. Flavoured with cep caramel, salted lemon, chives and crispy chicken skin, it’s topped with cep hollandaise and a generous flurry of truffle. Guest Zoe Laughlin says she ‘can’t get enough of it’, which at least bodes well for the two remaining eggy dishes.

Fortunately, someone’s recognised the potential for repeat oeuffending (sorry), so canapé chef Jude Kereama has now been charged to break things up with a palate cleanser instead. His ‘Double Dose Palate Booster’ celebrates Britain’s success in vaccine development and includes two syringes – one containing wild garlic oil and the other a langoustine broth. It’s a clever repackaging of elements of his much-lauded fish course, which, on Tuesday, Oliver Peyton described as ‘probably the greatest example of British fish we’ve ever had in the competition’. That surely warranted full marks. Oliver scored it a nine. No wonder he and Matthew were last seen trying to look useful by sheepishly laying tables.

In scaling up for a larger group, some of the more ambitious props and presentation items have suffered a little downgrading. Oli’s beautiful plywood takeaway boxes become cardboard, and fish course chef Roberta Hall-McCarron is told her mesmerising tricolour rotating platters ‘don’t really work’ as a representation of her inspiration – ‘Maxwell’s Colour Wheel’. No, it’s agreed a stick-on placemat and roughly coloured spinning top do a much better job. Fortunately, the colourful food is still stunning, as pan-fried turbot is topped with a potato tartlet, caviar and the ubiquitous egg yolk, whilst pickled red onion, viola flowers and an Arbroath Smokie soup split with chive oil complete the spectrum.

‘It’s like sitting a yolk on a cactus’ says Alex, as he and his fellow chefs carefully balance the menu’s final clutch of eggs in crispy potato baskets for Oli’s main course. Suitably delivered on bikes, scooters and Colin Furze’s two-metre high, socially distanced bicycle, diners open up their takeaway boxes to scan a QR code, which reveals that they’re about to also tuck in to fried chicken wings, guinea fowl in a yeast flake crust and barbecued maitake mushroom, accompanied by jars of chicken gravy, garlic and chilli mayo and mushroom ketchup.

With Jude’s pre-dessert also moved along to become chocolate planet petits fours, it’s straight on to Dan McGeorge’s dish called ‘Give a Dog a Bone’, which honours the work of Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, who pioneered the training of guide dogs ninety years ago. Dan’s dessert is a beautifully airy bone-shaped chocolate mousse, served with dots of yuzu gel, cubes of miso caramel, chocolate crumb, a scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a miso honeycomb tuile. Dan’s mum proudly says ‘it’s the best course’ and she’s clearly not alone in her assessment.

Dan becomes the champion of champions, roughly at the same time Andi Oliver is officially confirmed as a national treasure. And although, at some point, it would be nice to venture out and actually taste the wonders of stout reduction, miso caramel and lamb fat chips, I feel that from the comfort of our sofas across the country, we’ve been privileged to savour nine weeks of satisfyingly brilliant TV.

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