An entertaining contest is unfolding on BBC2. Great British Menu is a seven-week series in which 14 chefs, representing the regions of Britain, are competing to contribute dishes to a meal to mark the Queen's 80th birthday. Each week, two of the chefs go head-to-head in a regional heat, unveiling a four-course menu from Monday to Thursday (the programme is shown daily at 6.30pm), which are then judged on Friday. The seven regional winners will go through to a national final, which takes place in a few weeks' time.
Most televised culinary competitions are entirely fatuous - think of Ready Steady Cook, Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef. But in Great British Menu there is, at least, a modicum of rigour. The programme's makers have mostly selected real chefs rather than the usual celebrities, and they have ensured that the judges - Prue Leith, Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton - know what they are talking about. In addition, the format throws up interesting questions about Britain's culinary identity. The chefs must source their ingredients locally, and their menus are supposed to be British (they are for Her Majesty, after all). But who can say what qualifies as British food these days? The show's one major failing, it seemed to me, is its title: surely Fit for a Queen would have been better.
This past week, Antony Worrall Thompson was up against Galton Blackiston, chef at the Michelin-starred Morston Hall near Norwich. It was a competition between two worlds: that of celebrity (Worrall Thompson) and that of serious restaurant cooking (Blackiston). And, I am pleased to report, it wasn't really a contest: Blackiston, despite being "relatively unknown" (as the presenter, Jennie Bond, kept pointing out), wiped the floor with Worrall Thompson. In fact, Worrall Thompson emerged as a bit of a charlatan. What's more, he knew it. "I don't do much cooking these days," he said on Monday, and demonstrated this with a series of singularly unappealing dishes.
A bland-looking potato soup kicked off his menu, followed by salmon with an absurdly elaborate shellfish sauce (total ingredients: 25) and an oxtail faggot that looked at least 20 years out of date. Worrall Thompson was under no illusions that he was making a mess of things. "My dish was a bit of a disaster," he said of his oxtail, before burning the faggots and leaving several vital ingredients out of his salmon dish.
The judges were unimpressed. Blackiston, for his part, emerged as likeable, seriously dedicated to culinary perfection and desperate to win. "Cooking for the Queen would be like Norwich winning the Premier League," he said. When Her Majesty sits down to her birthday banquet, there's every chance it will be Blackiston's steamed treacle pudding passing her lips.