After a gruelling eight weeks, the final dishes have been selected for this year's Great British Menu banquet. Emma Lake speaks to Niall Keating, executive chef of two-Michelin-starred Whatley Manor in the Cotswolds, who was the second chef to make it through with his fish course, when he was also crowned ‘Champion of Champions'
Where did you start in devising your menu?
We were given the brief [children's literature] and a sub-region of books – mine was fantasy fiction. We had to try and keep it to authors from your region, but that didn't always work, and we were also allowed a wild card for one course.
It was quite hard to keep within those parameters, but the show gave us information about each region, including suggesting some authors and books and, from there, it was up to us to look into different aspects.
I wasn't a big reader when I was a kid, to be honest, so I definitely didn't have the upper hand going into this competition. Your winning dish was ‘witches of the Northern Lights' featuring black tortellini in the shape of witch's hats served in a small cauldron of dashi broth. How did you develop this?
During the pilot I was asked to cook something while talking and at the time I was serving squid ink pasta. We had a dish on the menu that's a single black tortellini and I was asked, "Could you see this dish going to the banquet?". I said "I think it will – this could be a witch's hat."
So I carried on thinking about that and then I was called back to take part and got the proper brief. It was like yes, Philip Pullman, Northern Lights, and I developed it into the little black witch's hats in the cauldron.
You made some changes to the dish for finals week, can you run us through them?
The judges wanted some more theatre and interaction, rather than it just being a cauldron. I had the lobster dashi and I wanted to have things people could add, in a very Japanese style. I thought I'd make it like a potion – saying "add a pinch of roasted shrimp, a pinch of seaweed, a pinch of black sesame". I then had a local artist make recipe books that are shown in the banquet – that was amazing.
How did you find the experience of competing on the show?
The first week I did not enjoy at all. I don't like being told what to do, or where to be, or that I needed to walk in again, say something again, do something again. All I wanted to think about was the food and the need to win – everything else seemed very superficial. But, at the same time they only want to portray you really well, so it was quite nice actually.
It was just super-frustrating having to cook under pressure. You want as much time as you can to make it as perfect as you can, but when you've got time constraints, it's not as easy as that.
What was the biggest pressure in the kitchen?
It was probably that I'm a chef with two Michelin stars. It's not usual for a two-starred chef to go straight into Great British Menu having not been heard of before. I thought that if I didn't do very well then I was going to look really stupid.
You can work with the time constraints and the other chefs, but if you're a chef of a certain calibre and you don't do well... I wouldn't have liked that.
Given that, why did you decide to compete?
I said for a long time that if I got asked I wouldn't do it. Then when I told my mum I had been asked, she thought it was really exciting. I used to watch Great British Menu 15 years ago with my mum.
I wanted to get it out of my system and achieve something that wasn't an accolade like an AA rosette, or a Michelin star, or young chef of something, I've done a lot of those already and I wanted to see how this would work out.
You missed out on serving the starter by one point; how did it feel being so close?
I was so disappointed, because I've always felt if you're not first, you're last. I'm very competitive and I don't like being in second place. I said straight away, "I'll come back tomorrow and I'm going to win the fish course."
I was all guns blazing. I was like "I have to get this through so I can relax for the rest of the week." So was it primarily relief when your name was read out?
Yes – I didn't feel like I'd won something, it was just relief of knowing I'd got to the banquet. I enjoyed the rest of the week. I did fine, but once I got the fish course through, I didn't feel the pressure. One of the judges said, "I think you've taken the foot off the gas after winning the fish course", and I replied, "yes, I think I did".
Was it interesting to see your competitors in the kitchen?
I thought Tom Barnes [main course winner] was really good. It's the way he can put things together. There aren't many chefs who can do that, but he made me think "wow, he's a very good cook".
Do you have plans to serve the menu at Whatley Manor when restrictions are lifted?
Yes, we're looking at opening the Dining Room for Friday and Saturday lunch and doing my menu. We'll do the amuse, starter, fish, main, pre-dessert and dessert. It'll be reasonably priced, £85 for the whole menu. Hopefully people will want to come.
Great British Menu 2020 banquet
- Amuse-bouche Ruth Hansom's ‘golden beetroot snitch'
- Starter Alex Greene's ‘the potato, the onion, the cheese and the wardrobe'
- Fish Niall Keating's ‘witches of the Northern Lights'
- Main Tom Barnes' ‘Beatrix Potter's Herdwick lamb'
- Pre-dessert Kerth Gumbs' ‘snozzcumber and frobscottle'
- Dessert Alex Greene's ‘the incredible, edible book'
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