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Love all ... serving up a banquet that's fit for SW19

Great British Menu is back with a Wimbledon twist ... and new judge Andi Oliver can't wait. But, she tells Gemma Dunn, the chefs will only score an ace if their dishes are prepared with plenty of passion

By Gemma Dunn

BBC Two's Great British Menu is back - and this year, it's game, set and match for the nation's top chefs. Following previous series, in which competitors have cooked for the likes of the Queen, the British embassy and British services personnel, the 12th run is serving up a scorcher with a tribute to 140 incredible years of the Wimbledon Championships.

But that's not the only reason to celebrate; this series also marks the show's 500th episode, plus the introduction of food broadcaster and restaurateur Andrea 'Andi' Oliver to the panel.

Replacing Prue Leith, who's heading over to The Great British Bake Off's new line-up, Oliver will join veterans Oliver Peyton and Matthew Fort in the judging chamber. And it's fair to say she's excited.

"It's so surreal to join Great British Menu, because I'm a massive fan of the show," shrieks the Londoner, who used to co-host Baadasss TV alongside Ice-T and is the mother of former T4 presenter Miquita Oliver.

"The first time I came here and we walked down the hallway, I was like, 'Arghh!' It was like being at the Play School house, or something."

Though she's the first to admit it's a daunting prospect: "(Leith's) something of an icon herself, let alone that it's Great British Menu, which is this huge show. But it's just been absolutely glorious.

"I can't tell you how wonderful it is to become part of something that's such an iconic programme."

At a time when British cuisine is revered around the world, what could be more fitting than a mandate that applauds one of our nation's biggest institutions?

"To mark 140 years of Wimbledon is a brilliant brief, because summertime for a chef is the best possible time to be cooking," Oliver (53) notes of the tennis twist, which will shine a light on the prestigious event.

"You've got incredible produce, everything looks great, everything smells great, you've got it all at your fingertips."

Following prior form, the competition will challenge 24 of the nation's top chefs to create exceptional dishes - this year, fit to serve at the four-course banquet held in the shadow of Centre Court at Wimbledon's All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Helping the expert panel select the winning dishes are a host of guest judges, who understand the skill and dedication required to triumph in the tennis tournament, including Gordon Reid, current men's wheelchair champion; Davis Cup captain Leon Smith (a former coach of Andy Murray); former British No. 1 Annabel Croft, and Wimbledon royalty Sue Barker and Tim Henman.

Mixed with an abundance of successful chefs, the set-up couldn't be better, says Oliver. "You've got something like the tradition of Wimbledon, which is about stepping to your highest goals and pushing yourself as hard and as high as you possibly can. So you put those two things together and, for a chef who is ambitious and wants to really push themselves, it couldn't be more perfect."

So, who can viewers expect to see cooking up a storm? The line-up of competitors includes previous banquet winners and ambitious first-time contestants, all cooking at the top of their game.

In each weekly regional heat, three chefs must first battle it out to impress a formidable veteran judge, whose identity won't be revealed until they walk through the door. And forming some of the biggest names on the UK restaurant scene - Tom Aikens, Angela Hartnett and Nathan Outlaw - they're not to be scoffed at.

The process will then see two chefs make it through to the Friday regional final, where they'll need to convince the formidable judging panel that their dishes deserve a place in the national finals. The final banquet will be broadcast on the Friday before the start of this year's Wimbledon tournament in early July.

Oliver certainly knows what she's looking for: "Abundance, heart and personality - those are the things that are important to me.

"There's a certain level of gastronomy we expect, there's a certain level of skill, but those are a given.

"What I want is for the chefs to take the next step, leap into the unknown. I want to feel everything they've got to give.

"These are the things we need to make us happy at a time when things aren't that easy for people. Having something to eat together is a small thing that will uplift our day, our month, and uplift our lives together."

Is there anything that will have Oliver demanding order on the court?

"I really cannot stand what I would deem to be uptight food," she confesses. "Like empty food - food that has a certain amount of skill, but no heart. Food that looks pretty on the plate, but tastes of nothing. Food that people don't mean. I want passion.

"I don't think food is meant to be 'clean'. I like fresh, clear food. I like food to be invigorating, I like it to be good for you; but I think food should be exciting, it should be luxurious. I think it should be abundant, it should be sometimes more restrained. I like food to cross everything, but the idea of 'clean eating' I find offensive, actually.

"I'm not a fan."

  • Great British Menu, BBC Two, Tuesday, 7pm

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