Great British Menu 2014 blog by Danny Kingston: The Central heat

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This is the fourth in our series of weekly blogs by food blogger Danny Kingston aka @FoodUrchin looking back on each heat of Great British Menu 2014.     

There is an old adage that goes along the lines of ‘you know you are going older when police officers start to look younger’ but I think in this day and age, you can also apply that principle to head chefs. I don’t know, it might just be me, but the guys coming up through the ranks do seem to be so much more fresh-faced than they used to be.

Take Jason Hodnett for instance, the big cheese at The Raven Hotel in Much Wenlock and recent Great British Menu competitor.  Flushed, smart, wrinkle free with no sign of fatigue; no deep, dark wells under his eyes, constituting a

Jason Hodnett
Jason Hodnett

100 hour week; no muttering, no thousand yard stare. This is no hard bitten Head Chef of the past. In fact, I would say that Jason’s voice has only just broken. He looks like he could be 4! What madness is this?

But then again, put anyone next to Mark Poynton and I suppose the years will come dropping off. This is not me being harsh by the way. This is exactly the sort of banter that the chefs from the central region brought to the table last week and I have to say it was refreshing to have some of the entertainment factor at last.

Age, talent, training and Aktar Islam’s consistent lateness were all subjects ripe for the picking as the chefs did battle, sniping away at each other in the kitchen, raising much needed smiles to proceedings. And boy did we need it. For Darth Marcus (Wareing) was in da house, presiding over things.

With his ice-cold stare and immaculate beard of steel, oof that man is scary. At some points, I was half-expecting him to raise his hand to use the Force to throttle someone, especially tardy Aktar. He did crack the odd smile and laugh at times yes but in the words of Mr Poynton, you were never really sure if it were wind.

So for the starter courses, both Jason and Aktar hit the decks with familiar themes using rabbit, the former chef nodding towards the idea of growing your own vegetables, with the latter using his mastery of spices. Mark, who by his own admission didn’t find this task

Marcus Wareing Great British Menu 2014
Marcus Wareing

easy, decided to make a pack lunch consisting of beef tea, sausage roll and a malt loaf to represent the start of the soldiers’ journey. The end results weren’t particularly spectacular, at least not for Marcus anyway who awarded a set of low marks.

Jason had a great title in his dish but his parfait lacked flavour and his potato hay bale was too dry. Mark’s idea was clever but his sausage roll misfired with soggy pastry and undercooked meat. And Aktar, despite making a decent brawn, produced a plate that was disjointed and late, late, late to the pass. Not the most auspicious of starts.

Thankfully everyone livened up for the fish round and we had a great interlude with Aktar chatting in his restaurant with a war veteran, who reminisced about eating curry for his Christmas Day dinner when stationed out in India. Taking this cue of soldiers being introduced to strange and unusual ingredients around the world, Aktar’s ‘Allied Forces’ a dish consisting of mackerel, oysters, crayfish and okra showed great promise. Jason also went down a similar, nostalgic route coming up with a course curiously entitled ‘Curried Cod and the Mysterious Coconut’. Whereas Mark’s ‘At the Harbour,’ continued on a simple and safe path; journeying onwards to the beaches at Normandy.

I say simply and safe, his nifty trick of frying plaice on greaseproof paper looked anything but when it burst into flames and confident and cocky Mark soon turned into a sweaty and shaky Mark. Aktar summed things up succinctly by saying “This kitchen messes with your mind man” but nevertheless Marcus gave out some reasonable scores for everyone’s efforts. As the chefs went into the mains round, things really started to rev up. 

All three competitors might have picked up on the humble staple of beef and carrots but all three certainly caused Marcus to squeak after describing their dishes. Mark gave the low down on his ‘Operation Overlord’ and Marcus yelped “Glasgow fillet?!” Aktar explained his ‘Dream Ration Box’ and Marcus pipped Great British Menu 2014“Yorkshire naan bread?!” And when Jason said that he was making carrot cake to go with his ox cheek and tongue; Marcus was positively effervescent (“A CAKE!!??!).

Or maybe he was confused but he was certainly a lot more animated in this episode. And the riskier approaches certainly paid off, especially for Jason. His beefy, beery mess tin, complete with a field of grass to eat off really impressed Marcus, who gave him a 9 and a window of opportunity to get back into the game. Sadly, in the dessert round, this boost was squandered. Having hit upon the idea of recreating the George Star, a campaign medal awarded for service during the war, out of chocolate with a cherry ganache filling was inspired. The problem for Jason, who admitted this had been a problem when developing the dish, was that he had major issues trying to get his chocolate out of the mold.

After struggling and struggling to pop one out uncracked, it wasn’t to be and that was a real shame. You could definitely tell by the other chef’s faces that the mood had gone right down in the kitchen.

Mark Poynton and Aktar Islam Great British Menu
Mark Poynton and Aktar Islam

Mark and Aktar’s desserts, based on a Duke pudding and a Queen pudding, didn’t match the promise of James’ effort in my opinion and it was sad to see the baby-aced youngster leave. The final round then saw the usual judges ushered in squiffy from the green room, along with war historian Max Hastings and so Mark and Aktar had to do it all over again, with a couple of tweaks along the way.

I do like that fact that when chefs get to this stage in proceedings, they also get the chance to tart up upon their previous efforts and the dishes definitely looked a bit sexier than before. However, going through the courses, it was really hard to tell as to who was going to go through.

Aktar’s ‘Run Rabbit Run’, a damp squib from first time around, received great applause. Yet his ‘Dream Ration Box’ which looked fantastic with its smoked sirloin fillet, ox cheek cottage pie and lentil garden was obviously too fanciful for Matt and co. 
 Mark’s ‘Operation Overlord’ might have looked boring according to Prue (that ox cheek quenelle looked anything but boring by the way) yet his ‘At the harbour’ had everyone whispering in wanderlust.Boiled Beef Carrots Great British Menu 2014

It looked amazing for sure but personally, I just couldn’t see the connection at all to the brief. So yes, a very tricky one to call but Aktar’s ‘Victory is Sweet’ was the dish that pushed everyone’s buttons.

With a clever Winston Churchill cigar filled with ganache, raspberry sorbet and crown of spun sugar, everyone was in raptures and thus this was the dish that got Aktar through to another final. So Aktar, best start setting your alarm clock.    

>>> Read more about Great British Menu here

>>> Read more about Great British Menu 2014 here

Danny Kingston (Food Urchin)Danny is a food adventurer, enthusiastic allotmenteer, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurian blog, Food Urchin. He also writes for Great British Chefs and past credits also include writing for Delicious Magazine online and MSN Food and he is an absolute sucker for East End pie and mash (with loads of liquor and vinegar).

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Editor 7th May 2014

Great British Menu 2014 blog by Danny Kingston: The Central heat