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Food & Drink

Please Share My Obsession with TV’s Cheffiest, Nerdiest Cooking Competition

The Great British Menu is an obsessive, slow, incredibly detailed look at high-end restaurant cooking and Michelin-starred chefs.
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Great British Menu

The coronavirus pandemic shifted my TV-watching habits. With no reason to leave the house, I watched more of it. And the shows were more mindless, too, because the outside world was stressful enough. The Wire? Breaking Bad? Maybe later. In our times, all my poor brain can handle is people decorating cakes.

The result has been a two-and-a-half-year deep dive into the wide world of food television. There’s more than most people think. Chopped is good. MasterChef: Junior is good. But have you seen the one where South African teams have to cook over a live fire in the wilderness? Or the one where Korean boy bands make chefs play Chopped with the contents of their real-life fridges? Or the one where baking icon Mary Berry admits that not only has she never heard of fried okra, but she cannot believe it could possibly be good? Or the one where hopeless amateurs try to start restaurants in their living rooms? (I’ll never forget the episode where drunk customers find and read aloud from the chef’s diary. By the way, these are on Netflix, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, respectively.)

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing my latest food TV obsession, Great British Menu (streaming on Amazon Prime). Its premise is the dorkiest of all: a bunch of chefs are asked to devise menus for a fancy banquet dinner with a faintly ridiculous patriotic theme. They cook their menus and some judges decide which dishes will be served at the banquet. That’s it. Nothing dramatic. It’s not like crowning the best amateur baker, or Sherlock Holmes-ing a cake recipe.

Instead, Great British Menu is a methodical, loving, deeply nerdy show about high-end restaurant cooking. In each episode, a competing group of fine-dining chefs prepares a trial dish. About half of the contestants run Michelin-starred kitchens, and they get critiqued by even more acclaimed fellow chefs who whittle down the field. The finalists cook their full meals for a team of food critics, who select the final menu.

One of the joys of the show is that this process takes forever. Each episode covers a single region of competitors (Scotland, Wales, etc.) cooking a single course (appetizer, seafood, main, dessert). The whole thing adds up to around 50 episodes per season. It’s like culinary Jeopardy!.

This pace allows the show to get really nerdy about high-end cooking. You’ll watch plating. Chefs will demonstrate unusual tools and techniques. One contestant makes a frothy sauce using a fish tank pump; another demonstrates a rotovap. In season 5, which is devoted to farm-to-table ingredients, a series of mini-documentaries show foraging and fishing expeditions. We learn about herbs like anise hyssop, berries like sea buckthorn, and heritage animal breeds like Aylesbury duck and Gloucestershire Old Spot pork.

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Great British Menu / Amazon Prime

It’s a relaxing, engaging watch devoid of manufactured drama. There are no surprise challenges, no personal storylines, and, in my viewing experience so far, only one truly shocking twist. Unlike Chef’s Table on Netflix, it examines cooking without religious slow-mo reverence or hero worship of the chefs (although the contestants are amusingly overexcited at a chance to meet then-Prince Charles). Great British Menu is just about watching skilled cooks doing their jobs.

For me, as a dining critic, the most revealing theme in the show is the dramatic difference between the way that fellow chefs judge food and the way that the critics do. In every series, chefs praise each other and then watch their food get savaged by the critics. Generally speaking, chefs reward other chefs for interesting and unusual execution, or for presenting a familiar ingredient in an original way. The critics, meanwhile, are not told how a dish was executed and care only about the actual result. Often, chefs reward boldness and judges punish it.

But there’s another side to that coin. The critics on Menu make bizarre assumptions about the chefs’ emotional states based on their food. Or they’ll say that a dish took no effort after we’ve spent twenty minutes watching the chef painstakingly assemble it. I’m still mad about the time they said charcuterie is easy. And even though the chef mentors are more easily bored by conventional good food, they’re also more insightful about basic things like flavor balance and seasoning.

The critics, by the way, are campy fun. In the seasons I have watched, a pre-Great British Bake Off Prue Leith sits between two horrendously cranky men who fly into rages when they encounter techniques and ingredients they dislike. They also disagree with each other on literally everything. If Leith weren’t there, those clowns would probably throw cubes of gelée in each other’s faces.

Great British Menu is not perfect. It has an intrusive narrator, its chefs love gimmicks and puns, and the early seasons are an almost constant parade of white men. But I like so many things about the show: the kindly, gentle ribbing that most contestants consider to be trash talk (except for one deranged and competitive Scotsman) and the fact that the cameras show us the sous chefs who help the celebrities cook. I like watching the ingenious ideas come together and the insane ones fall apart (one dish requires diners to pinch their noses shut until halfway through eating so they can’t smell the food).

And then there are the moments when the chefs offer sincere praise for each other. Sometimes, the whole show stops as all the contestants ooh and aah over someone’s technique. I don’t think I’ve ever more badly wanted to jump into my television screen than while watching the episode where Tom Kerridge, of the two-Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers pub, makes an order of fries (okay, “chips”). All the other contestants gather around, try a few, and declare these to be the best chips they’ve ever tasted in their lives. Then the judges agree.

How great does a fry have to be for a whole group of experts and critics to all agree that it is the best fry ever? I want to find out! I need those chips!

I like the unapologetic fine-dining style of the show, too. There are loads of programs dedicated to street food, and loads of competition contestants who cook traditional foods from a variety of cultures. But Food Network-style shows are unfriendly to a sort of time-consuming, old-fashioned, tweezer-carrying fine dining. And Dallas is, too. Watching Great British Menu, I feel a curious longing for the European chef’s tasting experience. It is geeky escapism.

Yes, if you’ve read between the lines, Great British Menu has achieved the most impossible feat of all: it made me crave English food.

Go ahead, laugh. Then start streaming. It’ll suck you in. You’ll start telling your friends that hogget has curious texture. You’ll buy ring molds. Yes, Bake Off is the fun one with the cute cakes, goofy hosts, and casual racism. Menu is for the real hardcore fine dining food geeks. Join us.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.

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