A season of The Great British Menu takes nearly 50 episodes to choose a four-course menu for a themed event: the London Olympics, D-Day veterans, the 70-year anniversary of the National Health Service.
This seems overwhelming, like a Thanksgiving table to be eaten by one person, or a Golden Corral buffet when you’re already feeling nauseous.
Thankfully, the BBC’s The Great British Menu unfolds its seasons in batches, like a tasting menu, one dish at a time. It’s a deconstructed cooking competition.
That allows us to see and appreciate “incredible, inventive chefs cooking with all their heart and soul,” as judge Andi Oliver says during the season 13 final.
In each batch of five episodes, we meet three chefs from a different region in the UK—southeast Great Britain, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and so on.
They compete over four episodes, each focused on a single dish: appetizer, main, fish, and dessert.
The chefs have had some time to consider their dishes, the produce they’ll use and the plating, before preparing it for the judge. As we’ve seen on The Great British Bake-Off, such preparation and practice does not always produce perfection!
The final results, though, are often beautiful, sometimes presented in fascinating and avant-garde ways.
A single judge scores those dishes, and reveals those scores as the chefs stand in the kitchen, a simple and quite dramatic scene.
After those four rounds, the two top-scoring chefs cook all four of their dishes for a panel of judges. They include, in early seasons, Prue Leith, who’s almost unrecognizable without her now-signature colorful glasses and bright wardrobe.
Those judges select a single chef to represent the region, and that person competes in the finals, where the judges try the same dishes again, and pick one chef to cook each course at the event. In the finals, a single chef can win multiple rounds, or place last in one round and then have their dish selected for the next.
The season’s final episode is the event itself, including, for the fifth series, a banquet attended by then Prince Charles, now King Charles III, who is apparently not a fan of Suits.
The simplicity of this format allows for a level of focus most cooking competitions cannot achieve.
We watch each chef prepare their dish, seeing their creativity and technique unfold. A very expository narrator makes sure we know what’s happening, such as which ingredients are being used.
I particularly appreciated the clever way the chefs present their dishes for judging.
The chef cooks two plates while their two competitors look on. After a brief conversation, the two competitors go off and try the dish on their own.
The judge, meanwhile, stands at the pass with the chef. While sampling the food, they ask questions about the preparation and inspiration, what went well and what the chef would change next time.
That gives each plate of food considerably more focus than a plate of food gets on most episodes of Top Chef or Masterchef, simply because there are so many contestants to get through on those shows. It’s the opposite of blind judging, of course, but produces detailed judging like on Tournament of Champions, just presented as a conversation.
Of The Great British Menu’s well over 500 episodes, 200+ hours are now available to stream, free, in the U.S.:
- Tubi has seasons 5 to 13, except season 7
- The Roku Channel has seasons 5 to 7, and episodes from seasons 8, 9, and 16
- Plex has seasons 6 and 11
- Amazon Prime Video has seasons 5 to 12
Over the years, chefs return to compete, perhaps seeking redemption, and sometimes as judges themselves.
The three chefs in each round—and later, the chefs from each region—are in competition, of course. But their compliments and critique as they try each other’s food comes off as more than fair; they’re sometimes more generous than the chef is about their own preparation.
Many chefs appear to be approaching their time on The Great British Menu as competing against themselves rather than against each other. This is, after all, a national showcase for their culinary talents. That keeps the focus on the food, and makes for a light competition, despite how much there is to consume.