Great British Menu 2016: London and South East heat recap

Great British Menu 2016: London and South East heat recap

by Food Urchin 11 October 2016

With some of the most ambitious cooking so far this series, Danny Kingston takes us through what happened when London and the South East's best chefs battled it out in the GBM kitchen.

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Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

To enter a competition such as Great British Menu, as well as having skill, creativity and flair, a chef should also expect to bring a certain degree of bravado to the table. At the beginning of the rounds for the London and South East heats, our chefs didn’t let us down. Mark Froydenlund, head chef at Marcus Wareing’s Marcus in The Berkeley, had just missed out by a narrow margin in last year’s competition. But he was back with a point to prove and a fearsome menu to boot. Newcomer Russell Bateman, head chef at The Grove, also looked down the lens of the camera and announced the he was here to ‘show who I am and to show what I can do on a plate’. Then Robbie Murray, former head chef for Mark Hix, walked in all steely eyed, and he just sniffed at the other two. He might do simple food. But it ain’t easy food.

These were, as is common parlance in London, tough geezers.

However, then the mighty and ebullient Richard Corrigan walked into the room and boy did the needle come scratching off the record. Russell even went so far as to say, ‘Ah bloody ‘ell, not ‘im.’ With a facial expression that is. Yes, Richard the Irish Inquisitor unnerved our chefs all week and the really clever (and funny) thing is, he can change the mood in a second, with the lightest of utterances. ‘Do you think that is seasoned enough?’ – boom, the doubts would come pouring in.

Richard Corrigan
Richard Corrigan was there to cast his critical eye over the chefs' dishes
The London and South East heat is always a hotly contested one, and this year's was no different

That said, our chefs didn’t get off to too bad a start. Mark’s ‘Bubble and Squeak’ raised eyebrows at first, as it is primarily a dish made from leftovers and therefore not suitable for a banquet. But he was able to elevate this Boxing Day favourite by plating ham hock croquettes and pork jowls on top of pickled cabbage and dots of vibrant piccalilli sauce. Russell also showed invention too, by pairing Cumberland sausage and oysters for his starter, along with razor thin scallops, smoked haddock and apple to be doused with a sausage broth. It sounded like a strange brew but Richard didn’t bat an eyelid. He loved it in fact, except for the cooked oyster. As for Ronnie, well he plowed down a historical food route and created a ’Mock Rook Pie’ using pigeon instead of crow, to be served in hollowed out deep fried potatoes and with butter root vegetables. Oh, and a blob of HP sauce. It tasted good in Richard’s opinion but it was not a banquet dish.

Moving swiftly onto the fish round our chefs obviously had to pull something special out of the bag. For Russell, it was to be a lobster, all flashing red and cooked three ways; knuckle doused in jerk butter and topped with lobster emulsion; tail served with an artichoke and coconut puree and a fragrant soup, with meat from the claw and paired with dumplings. The Commonwealth and Notting Hill Carnival was the muse here and Richard adored it, giving it a 10.

Ronnie and Mark, on the other hand, didn’t do so well. Displaying a propensity for risk and booze, Ronnie’s ‘Of Pearls and Gods’ showed that he knew his way around an oyster and his use of angel hair pastry to encase a bivalve before deep frying was duly commended. But there was too much vodka, gin and spice in the mix for Richard’s palate. And Mark, well he thought that once again he was pushing the boundaries with his fish and chip tribute to the RNLI. But because his cod was slightly overcooked and his potato mousse slightly underwhelming, it didn’t smack Richard in the chops as expected. It told good story though.

Mark Froydenlund impressed with his take on bubble and squeak
Russell Bateman
Russell Bateman took an early lead in the competition

Going into the mains round, Russell was slowly inching ahead and Mark and Ronnie were looking for ways to slip the chef up. One idea they had was to steal his oven and ‘nick’ all of his food. A nonsensical and ill-thought out suggestion really. I would have simply poured lemon juice and popped fifty bird’s eye chillies into the treacle stock for his braised ox cheek and beef fillet dish called ‘Modesty Meets Royalty’. It probably wouldn’t have put him off his stride though and besides, Richard was more into his carrots than anything else. Ambition did not thwart Ronnie either as he decided to tie up two racks of lamb to make a theatrical looking crown, to encase a frugal lamb curry. It would have worked too, if he hadn’t popped it back into the oven to concentrate on his samphire pakoras. Instead of the perfect medium-rare, he had to settle for medium, and Richard doesn’t do medium.

Then swinging in from a vine, like a sweaty Tarzan of the Apes, came Mark with his ‘Celebration of Rose Veal’, a brave risk, comprising of poached and then barbecued sizzling ribs and a dulcet steak, cut from the ‘eye’ of the rack. It was in the words of Richard, ‘phenomenal’. And once more, a 10 was awarded. For his treatment of the meat and for the carrots, the wonderful, wonderful carrots.

Finally, the desserts round loomed round and the nerves really started jangling. Especially for Mark, as it was at this stage in the competition last time around when he really cocked things up. Looking overseas once more, his final course focused on the Caribbean and more specifically Grenada, with a combination of pineapples, coconut, rum and spice, to make things nice. It was good but his microwaved ginger sponge was a touch too sweet. Russell was next and despite his standing in the scores, he was determined not to let complacency get the better of him. So when Richard told him that he didn’t like Jaffa cakes, a key component of his afternoon tea-inspired pudding, he must have felt like he’d run suddenly into a brick wall. Which was sort of reflected in his score of six.

With everything to play for, Ronnie pulled out the family card and constructed a pudding in honour of his Nan; a raspberry milk jelly paired with sorbet, shortbread and whisky-soaked oats. It obviously meant a lot to him, as the tears welled up during tasting and Richard was impressed by the complexity. Yet he felt it was too big a portion and that Ronnie hadn’t quite matched the same level as the other too. So he had to leave, to fight another day.

Russell and Mark made it to the final round
But the judges pronounced Mark the winner thanks to his incredible rose veal

Helping the judges during the final on this occasion was food writer, Kevin Gould; a man who has worked both as a grocer and as a chef (not to mention restaurateur and caterer). So therefore he must be someone who knows a lot more than that other grocer on telly and as such, I had high expectations of what would he have to say. Oliver Peyton, it seems, is still expecting a knighthood but he didn’t let that get in the way of enjoying a remarkable four-course meal. Yes, this was probably the best regional final yet for our judges.

Russell’s starter, now with raw oyster, was applauded by Oliver for being ‘amazing and totally unique’. Kevin, bathing in the aroma of spices from Russell’s fish course, thought that it was ‘wonderful to have the Commonwealth represented in a dish’.

Kevin was also totally enamoured by Mark’s ‘refreshing and jolly’ dessert, that ‘popped with flavour.’ But it was probably his main course of rose veal that swung it for him in the points department. In the words of Matthew Fort it was the ‘pinnacle of British cooking’ and with that came 10s across the board.

After a short period of arm folding and intense staring, Mark was pronounced winner by a rather overwhelmed Prue, who claimed it had been a ‘humdinger of a day’. I am sure that afterwards, the emotions would have been running high for Mark too. At last he can now look his boss Marcus in the eye and hug him and shriek, ‘I did it Marcus! I did it!’, before manfully coughing and purposely getting on with the business of running a Michelin-starred kitchen.