Great British Menu 2021: Roberta Hall-McCarron on her winning fish course

Great British Menu 2021: Roberta Hall-McCarron on her winning fish course

by Henry Coldstream 18 May 2021

We chat to Great British Menu 2021 fish course winner Roberta Hall-McCarron about her experience on the show and her winning dish Maxwell’s Colour Wheel.

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Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

It can’t be an easy decision making the call to return to the Great British Menu kitchen after coming so agonisingly close in the previous year’s competition, but it has paid off for Edinburgh’s Roberta Hall-McCarron. After making it to the finals in 2020, she has gone one step further in 2021 and taken her fish dish all the way to the banquet. ‘I was really nervous about doing it again this year,’ she explains. ‘A chef goes out on the first day, and anything can happen in that kitchen. I’ve been watching each week and fantastic chefs have had some of the worst days of their lives in there. I didn’t get to the banquet last year though and that was my goal, so I was fairly determined to go back and achieve that.’

There are perks to having already experienced the stresses of the Great British Menu kitchen before. It’s clear that Roberta learnt a great deal from the previous year’s competition, particularly when it came to tackling this year’s innovation-focused brief. ‘I approached it completely differently this year,’ she says. ‘Last year, I definitely did it the wrong way around – I picked dishes then tried to match them up with the brief, whereas this year I really looked into the brief side of things first. I actually picked the people or the inventions and then I created my dishes around them.’

Having TV cameras pointing at you while simultaneously peeling potatoes and talking about cooking techniques isn’t the norm for most chefs, but Roberta, who owns and runs the kitchen at The Little Chartroom in Edinburgh, was used to this from the previous year. ‘Obviously being part of the competition was still really nerve-wracking, but because I’d already been filmed once, I was a lot more relaxed – you know what you’re in for.

It’s all paid off for Roberta, however; after high scores from veteran judge Tom Brown in the regionals, she managed to beat some of the toughest competition in Great British Menu’s history to take her fish dish Maxwell’s Colour Wheel to the banquet. The dish pays homage to Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell and his achievements in colour photography. ‘He discovered that you could use certain colours with different exposures, to basically go from black and white photography to colour photography. I just really liked that story. He was Edinburgh-born and went to school in Edinburgh, and I'm obviously from Edinburgh, so I was really wanting to showcase that. We use photography so much in the cooking world, particularly now that Instagram is so popular. Without great photos, I don't think chefs would be a success – it’s just an amazing way of showcasing food.’

Roberta’s dish, which is a take on traditional Cullen skink, is comprised of pan-fried turbot, topped with a confit quail’s egg yolk in a crispy potato tart and served with a sauce made from Arbroath smokies that’s split with chive oil. Featuring red, green, and blue – the three filter colours Maxwell used when taking the first coloured photograph – the dish is also accompanied by a book on the history of the traditional Scottish soup, with matching images showing how photography has progressed through the ages.

In addition to being sufficiently on-brief, it was equally important for Roberta to showcase Scottish produce. ‘I'm really proud to be Scottish – we have such an incredible larder. Instead of using regular smoked haddock in the sauce, I used Arbroath smokies, which can only be produced within a five-mile radius of Arbroath. They’re done in such an old-fashioned way but it gets a unique smoky flavour into the fish. I’m just really delighted that of all the dishes I did, the one that won was one that had a big link to Scottish produce.’

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Cooking the dish didn’t come without its difficulties, however. ‘The potato tarts were really fiddly. I wanted them all to be layered really nicely and they had to be done in a certain way. Another tough part was preparing the confit quail eggs, which were equally tricky, particularly getting them in and out of the oil. It was just one of those dishes where everything is quite last-minute to pull together, but in the end I was really happy with it.’

Having made it to the banquet, will Roberta be back again for next year’s competition? ‘It’s a wonderful show but I really don’t think I’ll be back next year,’ she says. ‘There’s that concern of ‘imagine if I go back and don’t do as well’, but I know I should probably have more confidence. You do get the Great British Menu bug, I have to say, but it does take up quite a lot of your time!’

With the winners of the starter and fish course now announced, there are only two courses left to be revealed. Tune in tomorrow evening to find out who will be cooking the main course at the Great British Menu banquet.