Just when you think the cooking-come-reality TV show format has been squeezed to a pulp, up pops Britain’s Best Home Cook.
In their post-Bake Off era, the BBC have again tried to concoct something to fill that gaping void. This is their second attempt, with some familiar ingredients.
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Last year there was The Big Family Cooking Showdown, which took a dollop of GBBO (Nadiya Hussain) a pinch of Strictly Come Dancing (Zoe Ball) and some where-have-I-seen-them-on-TV-before judges (Giorgio Locatelli and Rosemary Shrager).
Seeing as that was such a, um, success (?!) the Beeb have followed it to the letter for Britain’s Best Home Cook: Mary Berry (former Bake Off doyenne), Claudia Winkleman (one of the best things about Strictly), some vaguely recognisable fellow judges.
These are Gregg Wallace understudy and produce expert Chris Bavin alongside The Obligatory Stern One: lauded chef Dan Doherty. Next to Mary (“the actual Queen”, according to presenter Claudia Winkleman) the trio look like Peggy and the follically-rejuvinated Mitchell brothers. It’s a bizarre mix.
And in a desperate attempt to do something – anything – different with the ‘herd ten amateur cooks into a kitchen and chuck one out each week’ format, Britain’s Best Home Cook has decided that the contestants will also be living together in a big house for the duration of the series.
The intention behind this was, presumably, to get exciting, candid moments. The actuality is the cooks filming weird vlogs from their bedrooms on their phones where they anxiously contemplate the following day’s challenges – a la Castaway 2000. Except instead of talking about their hopes, dreams and fears of the unknown, well…
“Wow…how am I feeling about nuts for tomorrow?” asks one, as another sits in their PJs pondering: “Nuts… don’t really know what to do with that one.” Yes, it really is this dull. It’s like a unamuse bouche before the main event.
But what’s most bizarre about this whole Big Brother concept is that the show itself isn’t even filmed at this sprawling Ascot house. Instead, the cookmates are bundled into blacked-out people carriers, proper Apprentice-stylee, and ferried to a proper TV studio. And although the best attempts have been made to make it look like an Actual House, it’s most definitely a TV studio. Those ‘windows’ aren’t fooling anyone.
Also bussed over from the house are trinkets and tat that the cooks have brought from home that they stick up on their fridges and plonk at their cooking stations – pictures of their family, encouraging words from their kids.
If that wasn’t saccharine enough, Claudia is doing her best ‘encouraging mum’ throughout as she fusses with wiping up after them, opening jars and handing out hugs as if she’s contractually obliged to do so.
Even the contestants applaud, hug and high-five each other with vigour like they’re in a support group at a cookery away day. Despite some questionable efforts, the judges, too, are rather rosy in their critiques. The whole lot comes together in a sickly-sweet combination.
For the first round, the cooks are given an hour and a half to make the ‘ultimate burger’ complete with two sides. Some are good, some aren’t. Then for the second, the cook who impressed most in the first round gets to choose a key ingredient that everyone will have to incorporate into their dishes (the aforementioned and worrisome nuts). There’s nothing more or less to say about this: it’s all a bit meh for the first 50 minutes.
However, it’s in the final 10 minutes of Britain’s Best Home Cook when things finally heat up.
After the first two rounds, the cooks are brought back into the room to face a six-stool challenge with Mary announcing one by one the six cooks who have safely made it through to next week and who can take a seat.
This leaves four chefs who have been deemed the weakest. They are then each given an identical tray of ingredients with which to make poached eggs, asparagus and a hollandaise sauce. So far, so Technical Challenge.
But then things get interesting: this is a sort of sudden-death cook-off. They are given those precise ingredients – two eggs, one bunch of asparagus, a few cubes of butter – and those ingredients alone. Once they’ve used them, they’ve used them – end of. So if an egg yolk bursts, if they overcook the asparagus or if the hollandaise curdles… well, tough s**t.
This leads to despair, elation and genuine tension in the kitchen. “I’m actually finding this to be the tensest part of the whole thing,” says one of the ‘safe’ cooks watching on from their stool, sounding excited for the first time in an hour.
And then it gets better: as these cooks are in this all-or-nothing position, when the judges are presented with the four plates of asparagus and egg, they taste them one by one and say… absolutely nothing at all.
The three of them stand chewing in silence without uttering a single syllable before being squirrelled away to decide who’s being eliminated. There’s something inherently disturbing, brutal, cruel and unsettling about this. And it’s brilliant.
It’s just a shame that after a bland main, it’s only the final segment that delivers such a tasty and spicy kick. I’m not sure I’ll be back next week for seconds.
Britain’s Best Home Cook airs Thursdays at 8pm on BBC1