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Cooking up a storm in honour of the National Health Service

Great British Menu is returning to the BBC and, as Gemma Dunn finds out, there are few more deserving recipients of the chef's culinary delights than the heroes of the NHS

Forget unlucky 13 - Great British Menu's latest series could well be its best one yet. For the culinary hit - a summer staple in the BBC calendar - will not only return with a shiny new title up for grabs in the form of 'champion of champions', but ready and waiting in the wings is a stellar line-up of chefs set to pay homage to our beloved National Health Service as well.

Yep. Following on from previous seasons, in which competitors have cooked for the likes of the Queen and British Services personnel, the 13th run will see competitors whip up a selection of heartfelt dishes in tribute to the NHS' 70th anniversary and, crucially, its heroic staff.

And it's certainly a healthy dose of gratitude that won't go amiss in today's climate, say its returning co-judges.

"The stories of the NHS have been slightly lost in the news of the world at the moment," reasons restaurateur Oliver Peyton.

"It's the beating heart of Britain for me, the thread that joins us all together," he goes on. "And we're being reminded of it through this competition, rather than just talking about funding or crisis."

"You're reminded of what a central part it is in the lives of so many people," agrees food critic Matthew Fort.

"When you personalise it and you take it away from the politics, when you get down to the men and women - the people - that make up the NHS, you can't help but feel so overwhelmed by gratitude and happiness," adds food broadcaster and restaurateur Andi Oliver.

"It's brilliant to have the opportunity to just say 'thank you'."

Brief - and niceties - taken care of, then. What else can we expect from the latest dose of Great British Menu?

For those familiar with past series, the tried-and-tested format remains largely unchanged.

The sought-after competition will challenge 24 of the nation's top chefs - the likes of which include returning finalists and ambitious first-time competitors - to create a number of dishes with the aim of making it to a banquet finale.

But first up are the weekly regional heats, during which three chefs must battle it out to impress a formidable veteran judge (names include Michael O'Hare, Daniel Clifford and Tom Aikens), whose identity won't be revealed until they walk through the door.

The process will then see two chefs make it through to the regional final, where they'll need to convince the panel of expert judges that their dishes deserve a place in the national finals - and eventually the banquet, which will be held in the rather fitting Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital.

A sure-fire way to impress these industry heads? "With the NHS, it's really about your heart and soul," insists Peyton (56). "A lot of emotion was shown in the food - and that's when food is at its best. When a lot is laid bare."

"Every single person has got their own story about how the NHS has been pivotal to their family's life, to their life. So for all of us, it was quite emotional," recalls Oliver (54).

"Particularly for the chefs, as it turns out every single one of them had an aunt who was a nurse or had a baby that had been delivered by the NHS," adds Fort (71). "So there was a feeling of paying back a debt."

The decision of who will make it through isn't entirely up to the returning threesome, however.

A run of guest judges and NHS heroes - from Dan Smith, one of the first paramedics at the Manchester Arena bombing; to Aneira Thomas, the first baby born on the NHS; and Jenny Turner, Britain's longest-serving nurse - will play a pivotal part in the outcome.

It's a mandate that's prescribed a stellar series, reveals Oliver.

"We met some incredible people over the course of filming this time," she shares. "People that really made us feel quite humbled, when they started to tell us what they do on a daily basis."

"It's the most pressure I've ever felt in the competition," Peyton admits. "Because these people are in a different league in terms of what they give of themselves to other people.

"It's palpable when the guest judges came in that they have done extraordinary things and they continue to do extraordinary things," he says. "And I don't think we've had a competition like that on this basis."

Top talent, tick. Inspiring tales, tick. Healthy competition, tick. Great British Menu certainly has all the ingredients of a winning formula. But what do the stars make of its longevity?

"One of the great things about GBM, generally, is it takes risks," begins Peyton, who confesses 13 years on, he feels "much more of a responsibility to make the right decisions".

"It's very easy, on television, to go for the common denominator and go for safety. People who are more aware of media and television," he elaborates.

"But in this competition, there's loads of young talent who really are at the top of their game."

Fort adds: "We've seen almost three generations of young chefs, who've started off young and now have become mature and passed on the torch to the next generation.

"In a way, it reflects the way food has evolved and matured in the UK, generally speaking, to an extraordinary degree," he muses. "We have almost a golden generation of young chefs at the moment."

"It's so multi-pronged now, what Great British Menu does," Peyton concludes. "And it hasn't let its guard down in terms of becoming too prime time - we haven't gone too showbiz."

Great British Menu returns to BBC Two on Monday, August 13, 7.30pm

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