Great British Menu 2021: Oli Marlow on his winning main course

Great British Menu 2021: Oli Marlow on his winning main course

by Henry Coldstream 19 May 2021

Oli Marlow discusses taking part in this year’s competition and his main course ‘Special Delivery’, which took him all the way to the banquet.

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Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Working with the likes of Simon Rogan and Tom Barnes – two chefs who have taken their dishes to the banquet in previous years – meant viewers expected great things from Oli Marlow. However, the executive chef at Aulis in London (and Hong Kong) only used that as motivation for the competition, to great effect. Not only has he won the main course at this year’s banquet, but Oli also achieved the highest score in the show’s history in both the heats and the regional finals. ‘I do like competition,’ he says. ‘I’ve always watched the show and wanted to take part in it because Simon’s done it and Tom’s done it, and I just really liked the brief this year.’

However, had the COVID-19 pandemic not forced restaurants into closure for the majority of 2020, it might have been a different story. ‘COVID gave me a lot of time to prepare,’ he explains. ‘Looking back on it now, if I’d done it next year or even last year, when restaurants were in full swing, I don't think I would’ve had the time to really give it 110%.’

This year’s brief of British Innovation also played to Oli’s strengths: ‘I think my background at places like The Fat Duck really gave me a head start. That whole restaurant is built around going over the top and all of these scientific inventions, and this brief let the mind run wild. It wasn’t as restrictive as some of the briefs in the past, like when they were celebrating 140 years of Wimbledon.’

Working in high-end restaurants for the past fifteen years meant Oli wasn’t particularly phased by being filmed constantly while cooking (‘there’s usually a camera somewhere in the kitchen’) – but taking part in the competition was still a daunting prospect. ‘I was very nervous because obviously I didn’t want to go home first. I always said that as long as I got to cook my whole menu that I’d be happy.’ Not only did he manage to cook all four of his courses; he was awarded three tens by veteran judge Paul Ainsworth. While all his dishes were very much in contention, however, it was his main course entitled Special Delivery which went the whole way to the banquet.

‘I thought it was the dish that hit the brief most and I knew if I could get it right it would stand a chance,’ he says. ‘I think it just had a really strong message.’ Inspired by the creation of the internet and how important it’s been for the restaurant industry, particularly over the past year, the dish is a playful take on a classic takeaway. Featuring guinea fowl done multiple ways, miso-fried wings, barbecued maitake mushrooms, a confit egg yolk-filled potato nest and an array of condiments, the dish was presented in wooden delivery boxes.

‘I was looking at various inventions but with the time everyone has been going through, I felt I had to do something about COVID because why wouldn’t you? I was expecting everyone to do a takeaway, so I was quite glad that no one else did,’ laughs Oli. ‘I love a takeaway. It sounds horrendous but I don’t necessarily love eating very high-end food anymore. I obviously still appreciate it but it’s a special occasion thing. I wanted to create something that people are really familiar with, but make it really finessed and ensure the message came through.’

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To further tie his dish in with the brief, Oli also had QR codes printed on the lids of the boxes which, when scanned on a phone, took diners to an online menu. Many restaurants have adopted QR codes to replace menus during the pandemic for hygiene reasons, as Oli explains: ‘They’ve been an absolute saviour. In London and Hong Kong we don’t print menus, we just use QR codes. They also really help with the sustainability thing too as printing menus is such a waste of paper and time.’

While Oli’s dish was definitely smarter than the average takeaway, he ensured what he presented remained recognisable. ‘I wanted to make sure all the flavours were familiar and it retained the flavour and feel of a takeaway. Even without the box, I think you’d still be able to tell what it was. I could have put a duck breast in there with caviar and foie gras but it wouldn’t have been the same.’

Despite such a successful debut on Great British Menu, it doesn’t sound like Oli will be tempted back next year to have another go. ‘Before I did it, I knew I only wanted to do it once. I wanted to get a dish to the banquet and give it everything so I would never have to do it again. I worked so hard for it and realistically I don’t think I could have done any better.’

With the winners of the first three courses now announced, tune in tomorrow evening to see who comes out top in the desserts.