Great British Menu – interview with Jason Atherton, Glynn Purnell and Stephen Terry

11 June 2008 by
Great British Menu – interview with Jason Atherton, Glynn Purnell and Stephen Terry

After two months of battling it out in regional and national heats on the BBC's" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Great British Menu, Jason Atherton, Glynn Purnell and Stephen Terry won the right to cook for a party of culinary glitterati atop London's iconic Gherkin building. Tom Vaughan caught up with the chefs the morning after the dinner

To watch more of the interview

How did the evening go?

ST Really well. There was a lot going on, but the food was the main part of the event.

JA No, we were the main event. Come on!

ST OK, fair enough, we were cooking for the world's cheffing elite.

GP And Terry Wogan.

ST And Ronnie Corbett.

Was it hard cooking two courses, Jason?

JA It worked out fine. It was an honour to be asked to provide two of them and equal Mark Hix's record. Winning them was great, because it massages your ego, but then reality kicks in and you realise you actually have to come up with them on the day.

Steve, why did you do a little dance, when you lost to Jason for the main course?

ST I wouldn't go so far as to call it a dance. It was more of a "Thank God I don't have to cook two courses and Jason does." My duck dish that came second to Jason's beef was thrown together in a day. In terms of the depth of Jason's dish, mine didn't scratch the surface. So Jason was better placed than me to serve it to the world's cooking elite.

What feedback did you get from the other chefs there?

GP Well, I kissed Pierre Gagnaire.

JA At one point when we were trying to get ready for service we had the man Heston, Thomas Keller, Gagnaire, Elena Arzak and Carlo Cracco all standing in the kitchen watching our mise en place and asking questions. It would have been easy to have got bowled over. We had our photo taken in front of the ice sculpture with all of these culinary greats at the end.

ST It's one thing eating in these people's restaurants and buying their cookbooks, but when they're actually there attending an event that you're cooking for and you're the focus of, it's different.

GP When we came into the room at the end they all stood up and started clapping. Just spotting those faces familiar from so many magazines was amazing.

How have you found the series as a whole?

ST Great fun, but different. In a series like that you're doing what you do for a living, but it can be frustrating not being in your kitchen and having to redo takes again.

GP Yeah, but we signed ourselves up for it, so you can't start getting demanding and asking for red M&Ms and massages in your trailer.

JA I did. Did you not get that?

Are you recognised by more people now?

GP Yeah, by me mum. She spots me the whole time.

ST Last week we did some filming at the Fat Duck with Heston, had some lunch and a few glasses of wine and had to go off and get a train. I hopped on one expecting it to take me back to Wales and woke up in north Devon. Then the first thing someone does is point at me and ask if I'm the guy from the Great British Menu. So I wasn't particularly happy. But it's fantastic how much support there has been from the public for the programme.

What has the series done for the industry?

JA It's been huge. It shows how competitive and how hard top-end cooking can be. It also demonstrates that chefs can be friends, as opposed to the 1990s, when a lot of the top chefs hated each other. We now share information and try to drive the industry forward. Also, a lot of other cookery programmes don't allow you to cook your food. This one lets you serve up Michelin-star fare. You have to cook to the best of your ability and make it exciting, inventive, original and British whereas if you go on Ready Steady Cook, you get a can of shaving foam and some baked beans and they say, "Right, Mr Atherton, what can you do with that?"

How has it affected bookings at your restaurants?

GP It's been amazing. Even the guys that didn't get through to the final are saying that their restaurants are packed.

JA What you can't get your head round is that people are desperate to try the dishes. I don't think I've ever sold so many BLTs. It's out of control!

Glynn, how did it feel beating the favourite, Sat Bains, in the first round?

GP Obviously, smashing Sat in on national television was probably one of the highlights of my career, especially as he's a good friend of mine. We had a great week together in the kitchen, and we said whoever wins will hopefully go all the way, which I did. But you can only beat what's put in front of you.

ST Plus, you equalled Sat's record of getting three 10s from the judges, thanks to your dessert.

GP Yeah, with an egg again. Maybe there's something in the Midlands water.

As two chefs fond of expletives, how did you and Sat manage in front of the camera?

GP Apparently, according to the swear polls, Anthony [Flynn] had 12 swear words in one programme, Sat was second with 10, and I came in third with nine - so obviously I need to polish up on that front.

How would the three of you describe modern British food?

JA Oh no, not you as well! They've been asking us that for the last nine weeks.

GP It's multicultural. I'm glad Jason's fish course didn't win, otherwise he'd have been cooking the meal on his own. But it annoyed me when Oliver Peyton said it was a bit too Asian, and I thought, "Have you been to Birmingham, mate?" It's been like that for 40, 50 years. I mean, our national dish is tikka masala. Modern British food has evolved from all sorts of different influences.

ST For me, cooking is about quality ingredients and a blend in the combination of flavour. That's down to the individual, so it's incredibly subjective. When it comes to presenting food, however, it needs a bit of wit, a bit of innovation. Modern British can be the difference between, say, deep-fried cockles or cockle popcorn. What's going to interest you more? Cockle popcorn, because you'll wonder what it is. There's that play with words, too. I think it needs to be stimulating, with elements of surprise.

GP Definitely the wit element is there with British food, more so than with other countries. No disrespect to the Spanish or the French, but their sense of humour is nowhere near as in tune as ours, and I think that's coming across in our food. I do cheese and pineapple on sticks, you know. I'm not taking the mick - that's just my personality coming through in my food.

JA You are taking it!

GP Yeah, and I'm charging £38.95 for a meal. I'm definitely taking it!

What was your favourite dish from other chefs?

ST One of mine was definitely Chris Horridge's dessert. It was so clever, and it epitomises what he's all about. It's a shame he didn't get through to the final. But Chris is a man on a mission, and I admire his healthy-eating philosophy: the fact that there was no sugar, no dairy on there, but he still had a mousse and a sorbet and it was beautifully presented. He's really cutting-edge.

JA Nigel's [Haworth] fish course was fantastic.

GP I had so many good mouthfuls of food over the course of the series, it's hard to remember. Danny's [Millar] smoked eel course was great.

ST Oh yeah, that smoked eels with horseradish crème fraîche and apple and beetroot was an amazing burst of flavour. The only reason that it got caned was because he refused to serve it with cutlery.

JA But if that's what his dish is about, then fair play to him for sticking to his guns.

Not all the winning chefs from last year have come back to defend their crown. Will you return for 2009?

GP Well, Sat came back this year, but he got smashed in.

JA So did Atul [Kochhar].

GP Yeah. He was destroyed as well, by Jason in the first round.

JA But if you think about it logically, especially for you two in London, this show just fills a restaurant. It's a cynical way of looking at it but, forgetting the chef side of things, from a business perspective, if you go on national television in front of four million viewers, place your name out there, then it does put people on seats - even at Maze, where it's full anyway, the waiting list is now longer - the more cookery books you will sell and the more offers come flying through the door. You have to say yes to a show like this.

GP People have a certain idea of what being a chef entails. You'd think we were all nuts - padded cell, 18 hours a day, hot, sore feet, with Tourette's - but we do want to earn a living out of it. The romance is great, but from a business point of view you have to look at these offers. I haven't made the decision about going back next year, as they haven't asked us officially, but I'm 99% sure that if they asked me to go back, I'd go back… and somebody else will get smashed in.

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The unsung heroes

While the three winning chefs were the stars of the evening, the unsung heroes were the 30-strong Searcy team, who managed, served and helped cook the meal. "What made it particularly hard," says Joel Claustre, general manager of Searcy at the Gherkin, "was the fact that, because of the public vote, we didn't know what the menu would be until the week before."

Claustre was contacted in September about Great British Menu, which enabled him to plan for most eventualities. "But it was short notice for us to source all the ingredients and put together the wine list," he adds.

The 12 chefs who helped Atherton, Purnell and Terry were briefed the week before by head chef Michael Lynch, and divided up into teams of four. The three teams then set about the mise en place when the three winners arrived at noon on the Saturday, in preparation for the Sunday evening meal, and worked until 10 o'clock that night.

After a final round of tastings for the judges and kitchen visits from famous chefs throughout the afternoon, the event proper started at 6pm with canapés from Michael Lynch. The cameras didn't faze the team, according to Claustre, thanks to the TV crew. "They were considerate. They did their job, then let us get on with ours."

But it took every ounce of professionalism not to be bowled over by the guests, he says. "We were all very nervous. For anyone in catering, serving 10 three-Michelin-starred chefs is as big a deal as serving the Queen. So when they all made a point of coming over to thank the team, it was an amazing feeling."

The winning meal

  • Starter Bacon, lettuce and tomato with croque monsieur (Jason Atherton)
  • Fish course Organic salmon and smoked salmon with crab fritters and cockle "popcorn" (Stephen Terry)
  • Main course Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato purée and marrowbone (Jason Atherton)
  • Dessert Marinated strawberries with tarragon and black pepper honeycomb with burnt English cream surprise (Glynn Purnell)

• For recipes of the winning dishes visit

Joel Claustre's wine matches

  • Starter 2004 A Scherer Alsace AOC Tokay Pinot Gris
  • Fish course 2004 Franz Haas Lagrein Alto Adige
  • Main course 2004 Finca Villacreces Ribera Del Duero
  • Dessert 2005 Balfour Brut Rosé
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