Great British Menu 2022: London and South East recap

by Howard Middleton 25 February 2022

Some seriously good chefs fought it out in the Great British Menu kitchen this week – Howard Middleton recounts all the details.

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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.

It’s an easy mistake to make. However, to the best of my knowledge, this week’s veteran chef never starred in ‘Alfie’ or ‘The Italian Job’. After ten year’s absence from Great British Menu, Michael Caines made a welcome return to the competition. It proved to be a great week to come back, as Andi Oliver explains to Tom Kerridge, who in turn reports back to fellow judges Ed Gamble and Nisha Katona. ‘Big scores from Michael Caine!’ says Nisha in amazement. ‘Sharpen my pen here,’ she adds bemusedly.

Principal beneficiaries of the Caines (or Caine) comeback were newcomer Spencer Metzger, head chef at The Ritz, and Surrey-based returner Tony Parkin who runs his own Michelin-starred restaurant, Tony Parkin at The Tudor Room. Faring less well in the marks department were Robbie Lorraine, owner of the cleverly named Only Food and Courses in Brixton and another charismatic newcomer, Angelo Sato, chef patron at his yakitori restaurant Humble Chicken in Soho. Both will surely be back before too long.

Back in the judging chamber, canapés come chiefly in chicken form – Tony’s deep-fried chicken oyster in chipotle and Spencer’s tuile tube of coronation chicken. Pescatarian guest judge Anita Dobson gets a marinated shiitake mushroom and salt-baked kohlrabi. She and Nisha prefer Spencer’s but Ed and Tom agree the tuile is too sweet.

Fake reams of A4 paper hold Tony’s starter, which has award-winning comedy ‘The Office’ as its inspiration. Under a Thai green curry foam go charred cauliflower, roasted baby onions, droplets of lemon gel, puffed rice and lime leaves. Anita finds the sauce too hot, and Nisha agrees it’s missing ‘that whole bandwidth of flavour’ that a little shrimp paste would give. Ed feels that Ricky Gervais’s vegetarianism provides a tenuous link to the brief - ‘I think if you’re doing The Office, you wait for dessert and you do a stapler in a jelly’.

Derren Brown’s ‘Trick of the Mind’ provides Spencer with an opportunity to engage in a little ‘illusion cookery’ for his starter. Faux truffle shells of Parmesan espuma sit on a truffle-rich savoury custard, alongside Gruyere gougeres and jugs of Madeira sauce. The judges admire its artistry but aren’t wholly convinced by consistency. Tom calls it ‘soupy’ and Anita agrees that ‘sort of puts me off’.

‘Fancy a Glass?’ is Tony’s turbot tribute to the late TV celebrity chef, Keith Floyd. It’s served simply pan-roasted on a bed of sea fennel and pickled cucumber with creamy Champagne sauce, a generous spoonful of caviar and a fleck of gold leaf. ‘I’m in heaven – this is delicious,’ says Anita, and Nisha calls it ‘banquet-worthy elegance’.

By now, you don’t need a detective to deduce that Spencer has invested a lot in his presentation. His ‘Sherlock’-themed dish includes an illuminated magnifying glass platter of herb emulsion, marinated grapes, sea vegetables, dulse, finger lime and chives. Glass pipes of smoked beurre blanc pour over his roast brill and Anita’s in heaven again. Comparing the two fish courses, Tom wonders if this ‘slightly edges it for me’ and asks, ‘is it a bit more exciting?’

Spencer’s main course is a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ style feast of partridge stuffed with truffle and chestnut, pretty pine-cooked pears, perfectly crispy pommes salardaises, Madeira sauce and ‘white soup’ – a Regency speciality of cream and ground almonds. Anita decides her chestnut and mushroom pithivier is ‘a little heavy’, but the others are united in their partridge praise. Tom says it’s ‘magic… simply amazing’ and Nisha agrees ‘the delicacy of flavour is phenomenal’.

A melancholy meeting place in Albert Square is the starting point for Tony’s venison dish, ‘Oh Deer the Bench of Tears’. He serves thick slices of pink venison loin with venison faggot, celeriac puree, roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, crispy kale and onion gravy. Nisha enthuses ‘there are some amazing flavours on this plate’ but Ed worries the link to the brief is weak because it’s ‘just based on that pun’. Anita’s vegetarian alternative comes in for even more criticism – ‘’Oh Celeriac the Bench of Tears’ makes no sense whatsoever,’ he says.

Inspired by children’s TV classic ‘The Magic Roundabout’, Spencer serves his rhubarb and custard pre-dessert in tiny carousel cups, topped with a Champagne and ginger ale foam. Tony’s berry sorbet homage to Mary Berry is drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with caramelised white chocolate and lemon balm (that’s the sorbet, not Dame Mary). Tom thinks Spencer’s custard is ‘very grainy’ and Anita is more enamoured with the cup than its contents. The sorbet just wins but the judges are divided over its ‘little bits’ and Tom is scathing about the pointlessness of lemon balm.

There are desserts… and then there’s Spencer’s dessert, ‘Their Finest Hour’ – a meticulously crafted chocolate creation that honours Winston Churchill’s wartime radio speeches. Into specially designed humidor boxes go tempered chocolate cigars filled with chocolate mousse and hazelnuts alongside an ashtray of vanilla ice cream and a book of chocolate matchsticks. Andi called it ‘one of the most complex desserts I’ve ever seen’ and the judges are equally wowed. Nisha says it’s ‘a masterpiece’ and Tom agrees ‘it’s fantastic’.

Admittedly it’s a hard act to follow but Tony’s up for the challenge… with the help of Mr Blobby. His colourful ginger, rhubarb and vanilla cream dessert has the judging chamber beaming. ‘It tastes way more grown up than it looks’ says Ed, and Nisha finds it hard to fault. ‘It’s such a good-hearted dish’ she says, ‘and executed with such finesse’.

‘We’ve had an absolutely incredible day,’ Tom tells the two chefs, but it soon becomes clear that a slew of tens has nudged the score in Spencer’s favour. Tony hugs him with admitted exhaustion and we’re left to reflect on another of the judging chamber’s revelations. Apparently, despite being synonymous with the role of Angie Watts, Anita Dobson was only in EastEnders for less than four years. As Michael Caine (or Caines) allegedly once said, ‘Not a lot of people know that’.