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Olympic heat... in the kitchen

Charlie hard at work on his creations on Great British Menu
Charlie hard at work on his creations on Great British Menu

A world-class performance is required on this series of Great British Menu as competitors cook for the nation’s top Olympians. Chris Price caught up with contender and leading Kent chef Charlie Lakin.

Capturing the Olympic spirit on a plate sounds like a tough brief for any chef. When the prize is the chance to cook for Sir Steve Redgrave and a host of other Olympic dignitaries, the pressure is ramped up to a whole new level.

“It is really intensive,” said Charlie Lakin, head chef at the Marquis at Alkham, near Dover, who has his eye on the medal places in this year’s Great British Menu on BBC2.

“You cook on TV and it looks easy but as a viewer you don’t think about the chefs being interviewed and being asked to interact with the other chefs. You work in the same kitchen for hours but on top of that you have a camera or a mic nearby.”

Charlie is among 24 of the finest chefs in the country competing in eight regional heats for the chance to create a world-beating four-course menu at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Hosted by British Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave, the dinner will be eaten by a glittering guest list of British sporting greats. More than ever, winning is everything with this clientele.

“Making the food on the show is quite emotional as well,” said Charlie. “There are real ups and downs. When you put food on that plate it is personal to you and to have someone pull it to pieces feels like they are criticising you.

“At home, when you look at the guys on screen with worried, stressed out looks you think it is put on but when you are there you realise it is true. For years I thought it was just edited but you actually do feel like that.”

Great British Menu contenders Charlie Lakin, Colin McGurran, mentor and former winner, Nigel Howarth, and Stephanie Moon
Great British Menu contenders Charlie Lakin, Colin McGurran, mentor and former winner, Nigel Howarth, and Stephanie Moon

A born and bred northerner and a farmer’s son, Charlie’s career has seen him go from a pot wash at his local restaurant to head chef of the Feversham Arms, Helmsey. He moved to Deal seven years ago and after a brief spell at 81 Beach Street restaurant, he spent a year and a half as head chef at Dunkerley’s before making the move to the Marquis. Yet the BBC put Charlie in the North East heat after he arrived for auditions.

“They were still thinking of putting me on the South East one at that point and then when they were talking to me they said 'we can’t put you in there with your accent.’ The producer said that by the time we had finished filming my accent had got so broad they were contemplating putting subtitles on screen. When I am in Kent I tend to be on my best behaviour and tone my accent down but when I am around Yorkshire folk it comes out.”

Even though he was representing the North East, Charlie made sure he tipped his hat to his southern home of seven years. He used Dexter beef from Sladden Farm in Alkham – where he gets his beef for his menu at the Marquis – and Littlebourne snails in his main course with marrow bone and wild garlic.

“I thought it was important to champion my local beef as for me it is the best beef in the country. It has won awards and is real champion quality. You want to hit the judges with something good on your main course and I wasn’t about to start taking risks with some Aberdeen Angus which I don’t know anything about. I cooked something I know.”

Great British Menu judges Oliver Peyton, Pru Leith, Matthew Fort
Great British Menu judges Oliver Peyton, Pru Leith, Matthew Fort

'I’ll bend the rules next time’

Filming for each heat of the Great British Menu takes place over a week. Each episode sees the contenders cook one of their four dishes, with the best two chef’s menus sent through to be judged by Prue Leith, Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort on Friday.

It was particularly a big deal for Charlie to cook for Prue, whose cookbook he uses as a reference point in his restaurant if he needs a refresher on a dish.

Charlie said if he gets invited back for another series, he will bend the rules a bit more after seeing the preparation of his competitors before the show.

“I wasn’t clued up with what I could have got away with doing in advance. I didn’t realise a couple of tricks I could have done. I didn’t realise you could bend the rules. If they ask me again I’ll go up there all guns blazing and do as much rule bending as I can.”

Honest flavours

Although the brief to make a menu with Olympic spirit daunted Charlie at first, he quickly warmed to the idea of putting an athletic spin on his dishes.

“When they first asked me to do the show I said 'yes, I’ll do it’ without even asking any questions. Then when they told me the brief after I had signed up I thought 'oh no, this really does not suit the way I cook food’.

“Normally people think about the finesse of the track and field but my dishes were more like judo and weightlifting, with big flavours that hit hard. It meant I could be honest with what I cook.”

The Marquis at Alkham
The Marquis at Alkham

Home from home for 'southerner’

Although friends wind him up about “pretending to be a southerner” Charlie said he is delighted to have made Kent his home over the last seven years.

“Coming from an area like I do, I love it. We are halfway up the Alkham Valley and it is just like home. I am in the right part of Kent. The folk are also the same sort as I like – good honest rural folk. Living in Deal is not the biggest metropolis either. It is nice. It’s interesting now because when I see Kent play Yorkshire at cricket I find myself cheering for Kent. I was relieved when the recent match was a draw.”

Charlie’s menu

Starter: Wild rabbit with carrot, Douglas fir needle and capers

Fish course: Beetroot-marinated monkfish with cauliflower and sea radish

Main course: Dexter beef and Littlebourne snails with marrowbone and wild garlic

Dessert: Earl Grey and strawberry soufflé with gorse flower ice cream

Charlie Lakin appears in the North East heat of the Great British Menu on BBC2 from Monday, April 23 to Friday, April 27 from 7.30pm to 8pm. To book a table at The Marquis at Alkham, near Dover, call 01304 873410 or visitwww.themarquisatalkham.co.uk

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