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Let the GastrOlympics begin

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Matthew Fort Matthew Fort | 10:22 UK time, Friday, 13 April 2012

It's back again. The new series of Great British Menu is faster, bigger, higher, better, more brilliant than ever before.

The contestants' brief has been to take their lead from our Olympic athletes, and to push the bounds of gastronomy to the limits and beyond. This may seem stretching the Olympic ideal a bit, to take in cooking, but if you think about it, cooking is all about performance, about beating your personal best, driving up standards.

And that applies to us at home just as much as it does to the Great British Menu chefs, not to mention Britain’s Olympic heroes. Go on, be inspired, try a new recipe that you’ve never tried before, experiment with a new ingredient, get out of your culinary comfort zone, push through the kitchen pain barrier. Forget the bit about the pain barrier, but you know what I mean.

Alan Murchison uses his espuma gun.

Stand back. He's got an espuma gun.

It takes serious training to get to the top of the restaurant world. You can’t succeed at the highest level in the modern kitchen without being fiercely ambitious and rigorously disciplined. The only limits are those posed by the chefs’ own imaginations, creativity and technical skill. This year the chefs have been encouraged to bring the full battery of modern technical gadgetry to bear on their dishes, serious fancy gear - spherification, liquid gels, hot gels, thermomixes, liquid nitrogen, PacoJet, water baths, centrifuges, desiccators – as well as source some extraordinary ingredients - to produce their culinary marvels.

It’s a miracle that Prue, Oliver and myself didn’t have to don those protective white suits you see scientists wearing on TV. Still, some of the dishes have opened our eyes, challenged our taste buds and set our brains and tongues buzzing. The chefs all search out outstanding ingredients from the regions they represent, and use the technology to extract more accurate, more intense flavours from them, producing a greater range of textures and creating more dazzling gastronomic effects. 

In the end, it isn’t down to the kit or how deft you are at creating little clusters of what look like brilliantly coloured fish eggs with your spherification kit. It doesn’t matter whether the jelly you make is hot or cold or somewhere in between, or if you can use umami like a Japanese master. It how you use them that counts. It’s what the food tastes like, how the dish works, that matters. Taste decides whether it’s up there on the winners’ podium or relegated to the also-rans. There’s no point in the wow factor, if there isn’t the yum factor. It all comes down to a chef’s personal vision, their originality, and their personality. And that’s where things get really interesting.

It may seem a little old fashioned, but after all the technical wizardry, it’s rather reassuring to see the flames leaping up from the gas burners on the hob as the chefs actually get down to the business of cooking.  So traditional. Much like the Olympic flame itself.

Although… I did get to play with a thermomix for the first time the other day. It made mushing up some garlic and anchovies child’s play. And that was just the beginning. I’m going to have a bash at an almond granita next. When I can afford to buy one, of course.

What dish are you in training for? Have you set your sights on any dishes to beat your personal best?


  • Comment number 1.

    The Scottish chefs were impressive and their menus were a great start to the new series. But - why did Alan Murchison have to be quite so unpleasant? Banter between the contestants is one thing; he took it to a whole new level and I found myself hoping he wouldn't win despite clearly being the best.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree about Alan Murchison. He was so keen to win he didn't relate to the other two at all.

    I found the chef in charge this week fierce looking. He would frighten me to death if I was in there. On the odd occasion when he did smile, his face did light up.

    It will be getting interesting tonight after one getting a 9. I'm sorry I can't remember any names, but I can see their faces in my mind.

    It's definitely very tense, which can't help any of the contestants,

  • Comment number 3.

    Just out of interest, what happens to those vegetarians who will be attending the banquet? It's the same every year there is never any choice, or at least no choice that we are shown on the show, and surely not every person who gets to go the the 'do' will be a carnivore? Or they may have an allergy to fish etc,

  • Comment number 4.

    Am i the only one who is annoyed / perplexed by the idea of having to source / find / use unusual ingredients ? , The chefs seem to have to dig around the country, find the stuff and then find an excuse to use it ? , They plainly have no experience in using them but feel forced to ? ..
    Pointless to me ............

  • Comment number 5.

    Do these competitors have a grudge against vegetables or can't they cook them? Meat, meat, meat - if a veg appears it is merely as a garnish.
    I only watch the Friday final episode now, far too much silly posturing and glaring during the week.

  • Comment number 6.

    All I can say is " where is the nearest chippie?"
    I would hate to be served almost any of the dishes seen so far. For a banquet for 'ordinary' people - as against 'food fiddlers', you need something which is going to appeal to the majority of people. Good quality ingredients, very well cooked, not a load of gimics & stuff that nobody has ever heard of.
    It always suprises me that they choose a total menu at the end of each week, when it's more than likely only one dish will be chosen. How about having 6 chefs doing a starter,6 more the fish, and so on, with specialist pastry chefs doing the puddings.

  • Comment number 7.

    What happens to those Olympians and their guests who are vegetarian? Do they starve and just watch the rest eat the meaty/fishy dishes? Surely there should be an alternative menu for veggies, we are not so obsure.

  • Comment number 8.

    Im pretty sure veggies are taken into account at the final banquet and any allergies catered for otherwise no-one would go. I love Great British Menu and we are only seeing 30mins of something that must take hours to create. Of course they are going to show the bits where the chefs are "bantering" makes better viewing.

  • Comment number 9.

    And having spoken to a sports nutritionist she reckons it would be highly unusual if any of the Olympic athletes were vegetarian . ..


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