Great British Menu review: After nearly 20 years, this is great social history, but as a cooking show it ends up repeating on you
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What I've Been Watching Saturday, January 27, 2024
Unlike other long-running food shows however, Great British Menu doesn't seem to have much a USP.
Ready, Steady, Cook – which ran for almost 30 years in its various formats - might actually give you an idea of what to cook and how to cook it.
Food & Drink, which lasted 20 years, loitering around the schedules, brought issues around food production to wider attention, and introduced viewers to the sort of wine-tasting exuberance that is still lampooned today – the stuff of mouldy tobacco boxes and a hint of smoked herring.
But Great British Menu is a bit of a curate's egg.
Four chefs compete against each other in regional heats, creating a six-course menu for a celebratory banquet with a theme.
The courses are judged by a previous winner, and one chef is eliminated after the fish course, with a second going following dessert, leaving two chefs in the regional final.
The winner of that – as you probably will have guessed – goes on to a grand final for the chance to cook a course at a banquet – this year celebrating Team GB athletes and administrators heading to Paris for the Olympics.
What you may be surprised to learn is that Great British Menu has been going since 2006, and we have now reached series 19 – not including a couple of special Christmas series and a food waste special.
And, like that French onion soup you had for lunch, it starts repeating on you.
This year's theme, for example, has been used before, for the London Olympics in 2012.
Meanwhile, the sporting-themed puns really start to grate after the first 10 minutes, and I've heard the words 'yuzu' and 'ponzu' more in the last week than in the last 50-odd years.
The action in the kitchen all gets a bit samey as well, with the two regional finalists cooking the same stuff they've cooked in the previous two episodes leading to a severe case of foodie deja vu.
Eventually, it gets quite difficult to sort your dashis from your daikons, especially as the male chefs obviously conform to some sort of catering college uniform code in which neatly-trimmed beards and tattoos are as compulsory as an apron and a good-quality knife roll.
The programme has to rely on hyperbole and forced jeopardy to sustain any interest – there is some consternation when one chef's pollock is late arriving, and you're on the edge of your seat wondering if some Tonburi seeds will turn up.
Host Andi Oliver, meanwhile, tells us the chefs are “in a race to cook a course at a record-breaking banquet, the ultimate prize in an chef's career”.
As hyperbole goes, that's pretty hyper, especially given some of the chefs taking part have their own acclaimed restaurants, multiple AA rosettes and Michelin stars.
But while viewers may look in once in a while, shrug, and change the channel, social historians may find more value in Great British Menu.
It's a barometer of changing tastes, of the globalisation of the food industry, of the disconnect between what rich people eat and the rest of us, of concerns such as ecology, sustainability and recycling.
Look at what the finalists cooked in the first couple of series, compared to the first heat now.
Back then, household names like Marcus Wareing, Nick Nairn and Mark Hix cooked dishes such as smoked salmon with Irish soda bread, rabbit pie and custard tart.
Now there are dishes served in porcelain eggs, there is vegan panna cotta and barbecued aubergine, with far eastern ingredients and spices all over the place.
As a cultural artefact, Great British Menu holds endless fascination. As a TV show, it's about as nourishing as that fried chicken.