Take a dozen mealy-mouthed restaurant critics, four semi-finalists, three finicky courses and a sweaty John Torode. Add a highly strung soundtrack and lashings of melodrama. What do you get? Soaring blood-pressure, a butterfly stomach and tears aplenty. And that was just me.
“I’m going to be hosting a lunch for twelve of the most feared and respected restaurant critics in the land,” bellows Gregg above the shrieking violins. I thought it was backing music but perhaps there really is an over-wrought string section secreted behind the workbenches. No wonder the contestants look pained.
After yesterday’s dog’s dinner of a souffle, Larkin reassures John. He’s learned his lesson: no more clever for the sake of being clever. So he’s dishing up vacuum-packed salmon in a cloud of wood smoke, beef and black bean sauce (but not the recipe we know; it’s not even a recipe he knows) and souffle. John’s eyes goggle, his mouth gapes. He looks like he did the last time he tasted Larkin’s souffle: sick as a pig.
Out in the dining room the critics sniff at the menu and lick their lips. “Does the milk of human kindness win out,” muses Jay Rayner, “or do I let them hang themselves from a very short rope?” His smirk left us in no doubt what he wanted for dinner: four carved up contestants.
Either Saira has lost the plot or is resorting to dark arts. “I will get it out, I will get it out, I will get it out, I will get it out,” she intones. John backs away slowly. Larkin’s lighter isn’t lighting. Natalie scurries with two sea bream. Larkin’s Bunsen burner isn’t lighting. Natalie scurries with two more sea bream. Larkin sprints with a blow torch. Natalie scurries with two final sea bream. John sweats. In the dining room, Gregg tucks into his four starters with a grin.
“I don’t want to be mean…” murmurs Grace Dent. Fellow critics Jay Rayner and William Sitwell have no such reservations. They gnash their teeth. “I was sold a pup!” complains Sitwell, scorning Saira’s curry. “Lots of things have died including my hope,” sighs Rayner, prodding Larkin’s beef. They’re like rutting deers, determined to out–groan and grunt each other. Gregg tucks into his four main courses with a grin.
Dale’s chocolate cake is sensational. Everyone agrees. Almost everyone: “too much,” growls Rayner. Larkin’s souffle also hits the spot. Critic Charles Campion – who doesn’t look like he turns his nose up at much – brandishes his empty souffle bowl smugly: the boy who’s eaten all his greens.
But the last souffle hits the wrong spot. Larkin’s fingers are all butter: it flies through the air, puddles on the floor. History has repeated itself. John sweats. I sweat. Larkin looks sick as a pig. One critic goes hungry. But not Gregg, who tucks in with a grin.
Eleven critics walk away. Charles Campion waddles away.
Dale smiles. Natalie sobs. Larkin looks sicker. Saira should feel sickest. Since the beginning she’s been berated by the judges for serving too much, too simply. At the last she’s berated by the critics for serving too little, too fussily. She swallows it with good grace and heads for the door. I hurl the remote control across the room and comfort-eat cheap chocolate.