By the end of the Big Family Cooking Showdown my heart feels all warm, like an oven full of perfectly-risen pastries and also some other unquantifiable (and inedible) emotion that I haven’t felt in a while. In fact, I’ve not felt it since the Great British Bake Off finished airing on the BBC last autumn and packed up its tent for the big move to Channel 4.
It’s the thing, that precious heart-warming thing, that made the Bake Off worth so very much money (£75m!) and gave it so many millions of viewers (15m!). But now here comes the BBC, throwing together a bunch of similar ingredients to see if it can make something new that has all the wholesomeness and familiarity of an old favourite.
And – here’s the surprise – it works.
The Big Family Cooking Showdown at times feels pretty similar to the Bake Off.
The line-up is different: Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain and It Takes Two host Zoë Ball present, while chefs Giorgio Locatelli and Rosemary Shrager judge.
The format is different, too: contestants compete in teams rather than as individuals, they take part in head-to-head heats instead of the knockout format, and it’s as much about savory dinners as sweet desserts.
But still. It’s all about the FEELING, and this feels like Bake Off. It helps that you’ve got the classic two-judge two-presenter set-up. Oh, and each episode consists of three rounds, and Nadiya and Zoë take it in turns to do the voice-over while an illustration of each dish pops up. Then there’s the music, swelling dramatically as contestants rush around stirring pots and fretting: “It’s not going to be done in time!” The decor is twee and British.
At a crucial moment Giorgio Locatelli suddenly appears and loiters behind one of the contestants, an unreadable expression on his face as he examines their workbench with a piercing gaze. He appears to have been taking lessons in TV judging from somewhere else. Next thing you know, he’ll be awarding firm handshakes!
The amateur chefs are ambitious and competitive, but not in an ugly way: the losers sincerely congratulate the winners when they get sent home. When it’s time to make the decision about who’s leaving the barn, Nadiya and Zoë have a little chat with Giorgio and Rosemary about who’s performed the best. Nobody says “soggy bottom” and there’s a scarcity of puns – but after just one episode it all feels familiar.
Is this the BBC’s answer to the Bake Off? BBC2 controller Patrick Holland has insisted the Cooking Showdown was never intended as a rival – declaring that GBBO was “not part of my thinking or the scheduling team’s thinking”. And yet here it is, launching just before the Bake Off in the 8pm slot on a weeknight and running to a full 12 episodes.
So how exactly does the Big Family Cooking Showdown work? It’s a competitive food show celebrating “favourite family recipes”, although we’re not talking about vegetable soup or a nice Victoria sponge: it’s more about making pasta from scratch and whipping up a super-fancy roast chicken with homemade bread. The standard is high.
And what are the three rounds the contestants compete in? First up is the £10 challenge, “showcasing the very best the teams can do to feed four with a budget of £10”. Then there’s a real innovation: the Home Visits Challenge, where the families must cook a main course and a dessert for the judges in the comfort of their own homes while either Nadiya or Zoë hovers around helping/hindering.
The teams’ final chance to show off their cooking skills is the Impress The Neighbours Challenge, which is like the first round only without a budget. Here, the conceit is that they must create a starter and a main course that would please their neighbours, but the people eating it are actually (again) Giorgio and Rosemary.
There are 16 teams of cooks, each consisting of three family members, and there will be one winner. Eight of the episodes will feature head-to-head heats, then there will be three semi-finals and one grand final.
The one big problem with the show, where it falls down in comparison to the Bake Off, is that viewers are unlikely to form emotional attachments to the contestants. There’are just too many of them (a whopping 48). And once you’ve seen the Charles family face the Marks family in episode one, you won’t see the winning family again until many weeks later when it’s the semi-final. If Nadiya and her family had competed in this show instead of the Bake Off, it’s pretty unlikely she would have become the TV star she is today.
But while this is a problem, it’s not to say you don’t care about any of the amateur cooks – because by the end of an hour I am utterly in love with 86-year-old Torun. This Swedish ex-fashion designer, the eldest member of the Marks family team, enjoys dancing around the kitchen and drinks a gin and tonic every day at 6pm. With three marriages behind her, she has two boyfriends on the go. She is also the queen of Swedish cuisine and she is simply wonderful.
It would be a surprise if this show got the same fanatical following as the Bake Off – having 48 contestants to follow instead of 12 is quite a step up. But it does have that magical feeling to it, some kind of special ingredient – and the BBC may just have delivered a Showstopper.
The Big Family Cooking Showdown will launch at 8pm on 15th August on BBC2