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President’s blog: Being a guest judge on the Great British Menu

It was the day after our former President Lindsay stepped down that I got the call from a researcher about possibly appearing on the Great British Menu. Talk about starting with a bang!

In case you haven’t seen the show before, chefs from different regions around the country compete to have one of their dishes at a special banquet. The theme for this year’s banquet was the WI’s Centenary and the producers of the show were looking for different members to appear as guest judges. Seven Hills WI would represent the so-called ‘New Wave’ WI – more recently established groups, mostly in cities that tend to have younger members and participate in with less traditional activities. They were looking for a President from a particularly foodie group and we fitted the bill.

To say I was nervous about taking part would be an understatement. To be honest, I had no desire to be on television. But I knew that I couldn’t turn down the chance to take part. The role of President requires you to represent the group at a national level and our group deserves to be recognised for the hard work we put into Sheffield Food Festival and our love of all things culinary. Plus Anna P, fan of the show and committee member would actually kill me if I didn’t part (a vegetarian herself, she told me that if I got to take anyone to the banquet, she would forego her dislike of meat and try everything).

My role would be to judge the two finalists of the North East region heats. Three chefs from the region had been cooking all week and the top two went through to Friday. On Friday, the judges eat all the dishes and the winner is the one who scores the best. The winner then goes through to finals week.

So after a conversation over the phone with a researcher asking me some questions, a couple of days later said researcher was meeting me in person at my workplace and interviewing me on a camera. Later the next week, I got an email to say they’d love me on the show if I could make the filming dates. I tried to put it all out of my mind until after Christmas. I was told to keep it a secret too – which wasn’t too hard as I was so scared about it!

The filming took place on January 30th. I got the train to St Pancras the night before where I was met by a very smart eastern european driver in a suit with an earpiece, leather gloves and a black Mercedes. It was like being in a spy film. He took me to a very nice hotel in Marylebone where I spent the night in a MASSIVE king size bed. Oh the hardship! I had to be really careful not to fill up to much on the breakfast buffet – but it was really not to tuck into all the pastries, fruit, breads, cereals etc. There was even an egg station! At 8am, I had another driver whisk me to the studios in Kentish Town.

I was greeted by the production team who were totally lovely and looked after me all day. They tried to put me at ease and explain the day’s filming. The chefs who we were judging were Michelin starred Tim Allen and Leeds-based Michael O’Hare. There was real anticipation in the air about the food and the team told us we were in for a real treat.

After hair and make-up by the brilliant Heather, I was taken to the judging chamber. The chefs were already busy in the kitchen and they would take it in terms to plate up their food in order of starter, fish course, main course and dessert. I was introduced to the judges – Oliver Peyton, Prue Leith and Matthew Fort. All three were really nice and asked me lots about questions about my WI. They had a great sense of humour and a real interest in the food and the chefs.

I ate some fabulous food – highlights included Tim’s delicious starter (I can still taste that ham and egg), Michael’s fish (like nothing else I’d ever seen) and beautiful main course, and Tim’s gorgeous pudding.

Tim’s pudding

It’s not all glam and gorgeous food though. It was a really long day. You have to wait for each course to be served and there’s a lot of shots to set up and repeat. These shots don’t take up a lot of screen time but they are essential to show the food presented correctly. It’s also important not to scoff the food down quickly. I had to take my time as we’d be talking about the food for a long time and because only certain snippets would be aired, we needed to keep food on the plate as long as possible.

Michael’s fish course

After lunch, I was taken into the kitchen to meet the chefs and talk to them on camera. I had to tell them a little bit about myself and how the judging was going – without giving much away! I could tell they were both quite nervous about the result so it was hard to tease them. But they were both such nice guys who clearly enjoyed being in each other’s company and the friendly competition between them.

Michael’s main course

When it came to announcing the decision, it was quite nerve-racking. We were asked to score them after every dish and then the points were added up. I was given a few lines to say on camera after the result had been announced based on my thoughts and criticism during the judging. The chefs were brought into the room facing the judges desk and we had to stare at each other for what felt like years as the camera set up the shots. Finally, Matthew was able to announce that Michael had won. He had only one chance to get this right or the surprised reactions would be lost. Luckily, this went ok and I then said my line.

Michael’s dessert

After filming, I said goodbye to the judges and was whisked away in a car to the station and back to Sheffield. But just before this happened, the Producer asked me “Would you like to come back for finals week?”. To be continued!

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