Props, pressure and mishaps on Great British Menu: the trials and tribulations behind the scenes

The  Staff Canteen

After Last month marked the finale of the 17th series of Great British Menu, what better time to discuss the ins, outs and behind the scenes of competing on the programme - and how tricky it can be to produce

In the latest episode of The Grilled The Staff Canteen editor Cara was joined by her co-host, chef patron of Benedicts Richard Bainbridge, and this week's guest, Great British Menu producer Avril Welch, to discuss the highs and lows of the iconic BBC programme.

The Schedule

As Avril explained, the filming schedule for Great British Menu is very tight, as each heat is filmed over the course of a week: on Monday, the chefs get settled in, meet the veteran and cook the canapés; on Tuesday, they cook their starters and fish courses, followed by their main courses and pre-desserts on Wednesday. Thursday is dessert, then, on Friday, it's time for the judges chamber, and the chefs have to cook their entire menu in one go.

"That Friday with the judges is a long day," Avril said, and not just for the chefs. For judges Nisha Katona, Tom Kerridge, Ed Gamble and their guest, "now it’s 12 courses they’re eating, because we’ve added canapés and pre-desserts in.”

In the past, the production process was even more hectic, as it was filmed over two days, with two courses on each day. "Those days were absolutely brutal because if you’ve had a bad score on the starter or main course, you’ve got to pick yourself up and start again to do fish and dessert," Avril explained.

It is hard work for the chefs and the whole team behind the show. “Long, long days, it’s hard work, and even though they’re only cooking three dishes on those days for each course, it’s still really draining.”

Stress

Richard, who won Great British Menu in 2015 and returned as a veteran judge in 2017, explained that long days can be the least of one's problems when competing on the programme, because of everything the chefs are expected to juggle at once.

As a contestant, you’ve got to make sure you’re doing the best you can to win the competition, all while Avril and her team are concerned with making it watchable - so expect the chefs to be responsive to the crew while working under pressure.

Richard said: “All of this is just mentally draining, and something I don’t think people talk enough about the show is how vulnerable you feel."

"All these massive named chefs, they’re so vulnerable and you’re so nervous. You’re knowing that the nation is looking at you whilst you’re cooking and all of this.”

He recalled how he got he ended up shouting at Avril over a dish because, as he put it, “you just go into these realms of shouting at these people because you’re just so nervous about this whole situation.”

“I don’t think people get that enough, that it’s not just a cooking programme for chefs to go on because you’ve waited so long for that opportunity to get on to such a prestigious programme and you know the benefits. You look at the names that have won it... their careers have been springboarded by such an amazing programme.”

He said: "We still have people come to the restaurant who've been watching the replays on in the afternoon on BBC Two and they're coming into the restaurant because they just watched it and they liked me making my nanny's trifle."

However, the stress is part of what makes the show enjoyable, as Richard recalled his time at the banquet with Michael O'Hare and Matt Gillan, when they were all focused on not looking out of control and all wanting to come away looking really professional. 

"In the middle of all this Avril was like 'guys, you've got to do something or this is going to be the most boringest banquet I've ever been involved in' and we were like 'uhm okay, let's chop something'," Richard said.

"We'd focused ourselves so much on the task, therefore all I really remember of the banquet is Avril going around going, 'guys look like you're doing something, this is gonna be boring telly!'"

Props

Love them or hate them, the show is known for its outlandish props, and some chefs pull out all the stops when it comes to dressing up their dishes. Avril recalled Alex Bond’s giant hook-a-duck, which the chefs enjoyed playing with, but probably wouldn’t have worked well for the actual banquet.

Avril said: “There are some chefs who spend a lot of money on props," something the production obviously doesn't discourage, though the ideal is for the food itself be a prop - such as Lisa Goodwin-Allen’s edible snow globes in the 2020 Christmas Special. 

However, if props are too elaborate or expensive, compromises end up having to be made when it comes to the banquet.

"I remember when we were doing Adam Simmons ration box for D-Day," Avril said. "His box cost an absolute fortune and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, we’re not going to be able to replicate that’ and we spent so much time trying to find an alternative that looked just as good.

"We did, and it was great, and he was just as happy with it.”

Ultimately, Richard said: “If you strip back Great British Menu to the essence of what it is, it is just a reality cooking show, really. Just with professional chefs.”

“If you get it [to the banquet] then by hook or by crook people like Avril and her team will get you there and you’ll have that shining glory at the banquet. You’ve just got to make sure you’re good enough to get there.”

However, that help doesn't mean you won't be putting the most effort into your props.

Richard remembers having to get his whole family involved in making his: "we were there, making 100 tents, my wife was sowing all of these tents together and then I had my father-in-law from Germany make all the outside of the tents and they were then being flown over to come into London."

While the team "very much help" once you get through to the banquet, he said, "the realisticness (sic) of what you have as an idea to serve three people in the judging chambers, and then put that into the actual realms of a banquet, doesn't sometimes relate. But you work together to get it as close as you possibly can."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th April 2022

Props, pressure and mishaps on Great British Menu: the trials and tribulations behind the scenes