Great British Menu 2020: Central heat recap

Great British Menu 2020: Central heat recap

by Howard Middleton 21 March 2020

Howard takes a look at the first regional heat in the 2020 series of Great British Menu.

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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.

New series, new format as Great British Menu celebrates the best of British children’s literature and adds a little extra petulant punch to the programme. Kicking off with four chefs from the Central region, the contest now eliminates one a day to leave two facing Friday’s judging chamber of Andi Oliver, Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton.

With two new courses too, Sally Abé is the first to present an amuse-bouche. Originally from Nottingham, Sally is head chef at London’s only one-Michelin-starred gastropub, The Harwood Arms. Her amuse-bouche is a Berkswell cheese and onion tartlet with a side of vinegar, sorrel and mustard cream. Oliver enjoys it but Andi decides it’s ‘a bit pedestrian’. As a non-driver myself, I don’t know why we pedestrians merit disdain… and pedestrian tarts have feelings too you know.

Niall Keating’s amuse-bouche fares better. Executive chef of Whatley Manor Dining Room in the Cotswolds, Niall led the restaurant to its first Michelin star within a year of arriving, followed by an impressive second star in 2019.

He presents a Porthilly oyster in nori, tempura battered and dressed with a citrus glaze and shiso leaf. Guest judge and children’s author, Charlie Higson compares the two and favours the oyster – ‘it’s a bit different and that’s… a cheese tart’. Oliver defends the little tart but he’s in a minority.

Niall’s starter, ‘Farmer Maggot’s Mushrooms’ takes inspiration from a character in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. He describes his dish as ‘real intense, shiitake-infused, Japanese chawanmushi custard style’ topped with a truffle glaze and multiple mushrooms. Andi impressively identifies them as deep-fried white cloud, pickled shimeji and roasted maitake but she is partly prompted by Niall’s beautifully illustrated accompanying guide. Charlie decides it ‘looks like the scrapings from a forest floor… in a good way’ and Oliver says ‘that is ridiculously good’.

Inspired by the Flower Fairies books by Cicely Mary Barker, Sally’s starter, ‘Crab Apple’ consists of a crab custard topped with cubes of apple and cucumber, white crab meat, caviar, wood sorrel, dill and lovage. It’s served with individual soda breads, suitably sized for a small family of fairies. Andi says the bread is ‘cute’ and praises the silky custard but Oliver feels it suffers in comparison with Niall’s dish – ‘it’s just really not as good’.

Two starters the judges missed this week was those of Alex Claridge, head chef and owner of The Wilderness in Birmingham and Derbyshire-born Dom Robinson of the one-Michelin-starred The Blackbird in Berkshire. Both served Dahl (of the Roald variety) with Alex packing his bhajis with locusts and Dom serving a savoury beard. Sadly Alex was sent packing Wednesday and Dom was shaved out of the competition the following day.

This week’s veteran chef judge, Paul Ainsworth was initially dissatisfied by the chefs’ offerings, saying he ‘wanted more’ after the starter. Fortunately (and perhaps unsurprisingly) there was a fish course, main and dessert to follow. Oh, and another newcomer to the competition – pre-dessert, or as new presenter Susan Calman calls it, ‘pre-pudding pudding’.

Onto the fish course and Niall presents ‘Witches of the Northern Lights’ inspired by the books of Philip Pullman. Three little black ‘hats’ of lobster tortellini are served in a cauldron of bone marrow and lobster dashi. It bewitched Paul Ainsworth, who scored it a ten, but the judges concur with Andi when she says ‘I think there was a promise of more magic’.

Sally hooked another top mark on Wednesday with her Peter Pan homage of pan-fried cod with butter sauce, clams, razor clams and sea purslane. Less impressed, the judges admire the quality of cooking but Matthew says ‘I’ve met this a thousand times before’. Poor Matthew must get introduced to an awful lot of codfish.

Hoping to enchant the judges with a little Narnian magic, Sally serves her hearty main dish ‘Winter’ on a board complete with a miniature lamp post. Perfectly pink venison rack and satisfyingly rich compote is served with golden snowballs of pumpkin pommes dauphine, roast pumpkin, shredded sprouts and pickled walnuts. Well, the judges agree it’s delicious and pithy Oliver thankfully stops short of doing what dogs do with lamp posts but he concludes ‘it’s quite conventional’ and adds ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t get the connection to the brief’.

On Thursday, Niall filled the kitchen with drama (and a spattering of duck cassoulet) when his inflated pig bladder exploded. The centrepiece of his ‘Ay Up Duck! Duck Goose’, sprayed gold to look like the golden egg that Veruca Salt covets in the 1970s film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I trust you’re still following this) is presented alongside plates of sliced goose breast and a smattering of gochujang, apple and date puree. It’s a triumph – ‘gorgeous’ says Andi, and Oliver admits ‘I absolutely love this’.

Onto the aforementioned pre-dessert, for which Niall presents a Staffordshire oatcake with blue cheese, caramelised white chocolate and candied berries and Sally offers up a glass of pear sorbet and Babycham granita. The judges murmur approval and Oliver says ‘we are eating very well today’.

Deemed banquet-worthy by Paul Ainsworth, Sally hopes her glorious chocolate bar dessert ‘The Golden Ticket’ is enough to transport her to the final. Chocolate parfait is topped with candied hazelnuts, crystallised cocoa nibs, fruity Pedro Ximénez sherry gel and honeycomb pieces, bathed in a river of pouring chocolate. Matthew praises the ‘childish delight’ but concludes there’s ‘a lot of pleasure but not quite enough amazement’.

Niall’s homage to Harry Potter ‘70% Finest Croak-oa’ serves up chocolate tartlets filled with miso butterscotch, passion fruit and chocolate crumb, tempered chocolate frogs of caramel crémeux alongside copper pans of cinnamon tapioca custard. Andi judges the tapioca a ‘frogspawny delight’ but Charlie refuses to even taste it. Matthew concludes ‘the best dishes of the day have told a story on a plate… this is three separate paragraphs’.

As the scores are totted up, it’s revealed that Niall has pipped Sally by five points. Sally smiles and pours the champagne. Niall apologises and thanks her for all her hard work – ‘I couldn’t have done it without you’. Sally keeps smiling and sips her champagne. These two chefs are just too lovely for words. The cameras stop rolling just before Sally is tempted to stick Niall’s head in a champagne bucket… or a pig’s bladder.