Well that was an experience! Taking part in television’s newest cookery show isn’t for the faint-hearted. When I was persuaded by my foodie pal Annie Stirk to audition for Channel 4’s The Taste little did I realise just how much it would take over and create a new future for the Yorkshire Food Finder kitchen.
Appearing for the grand total of around 10 seconds in the first episode of Nigella Lawson’s new culinary adventure as one of 25 cooking hopefuls, belies all that went on before it aired on January 7.
I might not have been one of the 12 chosen to go forward by the three mentors – Nigella, American food maverick Anthony Bourdain and French chef Ludo Lefebvre – but getting to the final 25 was a challenge in itself. And Bourdain – described by Nigella as the Mick Jagger of food – did say after my bit that some very good cooks were being let go. Thanks Tony!
It all began when Annie coaxed me into sending the programme makers an exploratory email which, to keep her quiet it has to be said, was dashed off right on the application deadline and consequently was very tongue in cheek (” ‘Ey up! Greetings from Yorkshire!” it began…)
Maybe it was the cheek of it, but it appeared to do the trick. The next day came a phone call from the production team – could I attend an audition five days later in London, the last and only date available. Well, no, I couldn’t. I was taking my mum on holiday to Cornwall that weekend and there was no way I was going to change that – you don’t go around disappointing ladies in their 80s do you? Then she heard about it and persuaded me to go. If you don’t, she said wisely with all the benefit of years of experience, you’ll always ask yourself ‘what if…?’
That gave me just a day and and a half to devise and prepare two dishes with which to wow the audition judges – dishes that would celebrate my passion for Yorkshire produce but could also be prepared enough in advance not to spoil before the big day. Tall order, that one. But it’s amazing what a freezer, a vacuum-packing machine and a bit of home-curing can do for you…
To the rescue came Justin Staal’s fabulous hot smoked trout and smoked salmon from his smokehouse near Beverley, for a robust salad dish with salmon mousse gazpacho, and halibut off the Yorkshire coast for a soused fish dish accompanied by a potato salad and dill vodka. The inspiration for the latter was taken from my chef pal Andrew Pern of the renowned Star at Harome, with some Yorkshire Food Finder twists thrown in.
The morning of the audition I was in Cornwall, almost 300 miles away from the audition venue in the capital while my dishes were 200 miles north in Yorkshire. In an operation that would have done an army logistics corps proud, I rose at 4.30am, drove across Cornwall to Newquay and caught the first flight out to Gatwick. Husband Aidan and fellow Yorkshire food finder, caught the first train from York at 6am, bringing with him a cool box containing the food for my dishes and relevant equipment needed for me to serve them up, on camera, at the audition, which was being held in a west London hotel.
It was nerve-wracking but fun and you got to meet some fellow contestant hopefuls. One of them, like me, was a regular diner at The Star Inn at Harome (“Don’t I know you?!” we said quizzically to each other) so we swapped notes about great meals we had known and nervously cracked jokes as we waited our turn.
Then job done, Aidan – who had been patiently waiting outside – went north and I headed south west back to my mum’s holiday which was interrupted again when I got a phone call to say I was through to the final 25… All this in the space of a week.
But it was then that the fun really began. There was just a fortnight before filming started at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and each day brought new pressures and challenges. Four separate cookery tasks were set in that two weeks during which you had to devise and write recipes showcasing your take on particular themes for particular shows. To say what they were would be to give too much away before other episodes are aired, but suffice to say the Yorkshire Food Finder kitchen was in overdrive as I practised and prepped hour after hour, day after day – and I can now bone out a quail in 90 seconds!
Whatever the dish it had to be cooked from scratch and served up on those tasting spoons in just 60 minutes. Quantities to the gram and timings to the minute had to be worked out and worked at again and again. It was a punishing schedule which had to be conducted in secret and without any help or guidance from anyone, and in the midst of it all I also had to complete an online NVQ in food safety and hygiene.
Being part of the final 25 was phenomenal, not because we were all gloatingly patting ourselves on the back for getting that far but because pretty much everyone was just so – well, nice! We were a mix of three groups – some professional chefs, others worked in food businesses and the remainder were home cooks. There was lots of banter, joshing and joke cracking – a sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ nervous energy. The youngest was just 18 and the oldest was 60, and we came from all over the country. And although 13 of us would be going home pretty soon in the process, every one of us wished each other well and good luck.
Being filmed making that first dish then having it judged by the three mentors was, in parts, the stuff of blind panic and blank mind, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And best of all, that few weeks of roller-coaster, hurly-burly, getting-your-act together hard core in-your-face action has provided the impetus for creating our new In The Kitchen cookery demos. So watch out – the Flat Cap Cook is ready to cook up a storm with you in the Yorkshire Food Finder kitchen!
The Taste – Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 4