Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I don’t have any negative feelings about Ludo Lefebvre because he’s French, and the country of his birth is burdened with a surfeit of culture compared to the skinny offerings in Britain. I leave that sort of thing to petty xenophobes. If I have any negative feelings about Ludo at all it’s because (just between you and me) he’s a bit of a schmuck. All that shouting and bellyaching and whining. I mean really. It’s a cooking competition, not primal scream therapy.
All that said, in his two appearances on Top Chef Masters, I’ve actually found Ludo pretty entertaining. I came to his defense in Season 1 when he drew the short straw of pig’s ear for the offal cook out at Universal Studios. It tastes of bugger all, being solely about texture, and he had precious little time to cook it into anything really interesting. Having finally seen the edit of this latest show, I think he was bullied by Moonen; that the latter’s demand that he get the fish because he’s the "fish guy" was tiresome in the extreme. That said an Irish stew should have put Ludo in his comfort zone. It and the venerable daube, boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin are all relatives. Instead he decided to treat the source dish with more than a little bit of disdain and come up with something which, while not without pleasures, had such a thick American accent I couldn’t understand a word the plate of food was saying.
That’s the thing with pub food. It is what it is. It does not want to be reinvented and re-engineered. I’m tempted to start muttering about pigs and lipstick but that takes us into dangerous political territory, so I won’t. The point is, however, that you have to understand the essentials of these very basic confections and play to their strengths. None of this is complicated food. But it can be executed well, using complicated techniques.
I felt most for Mark Peel, who really had gone for it. Was the idea of a fish based toad in the hole a good one? I have absolutely no idea because his was such a total failure; the lack of a properly hot oven and the collapse of his Yorkshire was a disaster of epic proportions. But I did admire the idea. Graham Elliot Bowles, on the other hand, was burdened by a simple problem: hating half the ingredients he pulled. Steak, he could get behind. Kidney, he disdained. Now kidneys are not simple things. Get them wrong and you will indeed be left, as James Joyce wrote in Ulysses with "the faint tang of urine’"(and yes, that was my attempt to win the most pretentious critic of the year award). Overcooked, they can be hockey puck rubbery; undercooked and it’s atrocity exhibition time. For all those complications, however, simply trying to hide the ingredient in vinaigrette was never going to be the way to go.
Which was why Jonathan Waxman’s riff on Shepherd’s pie was such a total winner. Sure, it wasn’t in the classic style, the ingredients piled into a pan and baked for a moment to give a crisp shell to the mash. But the lamb stew was ripe and rich and the pommes puree was the sort of thing cardiologists send their kids to college on. Yum, yum and, as they say in these parts, yum.
As for dear sweet Ludo Lefebvre I’d say he made a pig’s ear of it but that, I think, was last season.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World: In search of the perfect dinner, published by Henry Holt. Follow him on twitter @jayrayner1