In the hour or two before we kicked off the quickfire challenge that I was to judge this week, I wandered on to the kitchen set. I adore kitchens but, because of the structure of the show, this kitchen was not somewhere I got to go very often. The dining room was where we critics lived; the kitchen was their domain. Still, filming hadn’t started, the eight chefs through to the championship round were hidden away and I had a moment to wander. And as greedy people will, my wandering took me to the fridge. I knew what the challenge was, and there stacked in brown paper packages, were the ingredients, neatly labeled, from which they had to chose.
I closed the fridge door, took out my notebook and scribbled a word upon it. I folded it up and handed it to one of the production team. ‘Open it afterwards,’ I said. ‘It’s what they’re going to cook.’ I wandered off to prepare myself for the gruelling task of, er, eating stuff and saying smart arse things about it.
The word I had written on that piece of paper was ‘scallops’ and I was, more or less, right. Both teams in the tag cook off did indeed include scallops in the seafood stews that they came up with. I’m not telling you this to prove how clever and insightful I am, or at least not just to prove that. Rather it is an interesting snapshot, I think, of how even top flight chefs will behave under pressure. The package of scallops was positioned close to the front of the fridge and were simply irresistible. Anybody who has cooked seriously for any period of time, will know that scallops are a banker: the luxury ingredient that keeps on giving. Sure, they require technique but, like a little gold gilding, they add lustre to almost any dish in which they appear. Had I gone to that fridge in those circumstances I would have done exactly the same. I’m merely observing, rather than complaining.
Plus I bloody love scallops. Greeting them on the plate made me very happy indeed.
Unlike Marcus’s beef at the wedding buffet. That just made me sad. Hell, but this was a serious challenge, the only one which required a two day shoot because there was no way we could expect the chefs to take a grilling from us after the grilling they had given to everything else.
So I do not for a moment underestimate what they had to do, and there were some amazing items of food coming off that buffet: Jonathan’s chicken, Jody’s lamb, Susur’s endless parade of deserts. But it was Marcus’s beef that baffled because it played to something in the US way with steak which has always baffled me. Which is to say, the American fetish for tender beef.
When someone says the steak was so tender it was like butter, I just want to start shouting at them. WHY IN GOD’S NAME WOULD YOU WANT TO EAT BEEF WITH THE TEXTURE OF BUTTER? If that’s what you want why not just eat, I don’t know, butter? Being able to cut a steak with a spoon is not a good thing. It’s bizarre. A steak is a piece of an animal, a big one with hooves, and a snout and four stomachs and a tendency to wander hither and yon, farting as it goes. And if we bang one of those on the head just so we can eat it I want to know that what I’m eating has lived a life; that those magnificent muscles have done hard, hard work, lifting that huge body around the fields. Meat should have texture. Meat should be meaty. That doesn’t mean it has to be tough and sinewy. But it should require a little work. You should know you’re eating it.
At times I felt I could have eaten Marcus’s fillet through a straw, it was so soft and mushy. Lord knows how he managed it. And that was why, when it came to the scoring, he did so poorly. But by then Carmen had taken the bullet, and he was safe.
Still, be in no doubt. It was a close thing. And all because of a lump of fillet with the texture of cotton wool.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, published by Henry Holt. Follow him on twitter @jayrayner1