Cooking up a storm on the hit BBC Two TV show for the second time, Amy Elles of The Harbour Cafe is raring to show off her skills in the kitchen.
The head chef and proprietor of the seasonal venue in Elie, Fife, Amy and her husband Jack work hand-in-hand offering up a selection of freshly-caught local seafood.
The first episode of its 16th series of Great British Menu will air on Wednesday March 24, with Amy and the other chefs featuring in the Scottish heats expected to appear on screens across the UK the week after on March 31 at 8pm.
Last year’s show saw Amy create dishes with the theme of children’s literature. However this year’s theme is British innovation and invention, tying in with the celebration of the world wide web’s 30th anniversary as well as Helen Sharman becoming the first British astronaut to go into space.
Originally from London, Amy moved up to Scotland in 2006 and set up The Laughing Stock Food, a catering business specialising in street food, and Stocks Events, for weddings and private catering.
She said: “I was on the show last year, which was amazing. Last year was my first year and it was really nice to be asked back on.
“The theme this year is British innovation and invention. When I first heard it I thought ‘crikey’ but when I started to get into it a bit more it sort of unravelled and I realised I could connect it with food, which was exciting.
“You have to also be mindful of the British side, which is great. You just have to research as much as possible and then think about how that theme is going to work with your dish.”
Difference this time
In her second appearance, Amy is familiar with how Great British Menu filming works and says she is feeling more prepared than last time now she knows what she can expect.
“I think the sting was out of it this time. If you’ve never been on TV before then you have to mentally deal with a lot without realising it. I know I can cook, and I would’ve practised my dishes anyway,” said Amy.
“But going into the unknown with a load of cameras and the studio and also being in a kitchen with a load of equipment that you haven’t used before and don’t really have time to get acquainted with, is quite daunting.
“When every minute counts, blow by blow, and something isn’t quite working, it can put you off. I think, because I had done it before, I was quite pleased about that, I knew what pieces of kit to bring with me and not rely on the stuff there.
“That was quite a big player, and also timing-wise I knew what to do. It’s quite clever as it’s like a normal cooking competition but you do have to factor in the TV part so you do get asked questions and you do have to stop what you’re doing sometimes.
“I like that I knew that was going to happen too so I suppose that whatever ideas I was going to make happen with my food, I also had the voice in the back of my head saying ‘chop this time off a bit because you won’t have that full amount of time’.”
Showcasing local produce
Welcoming a new judge this year, broadcaster and cookbook author Rachel Khoo will join Oliver Peyton OBE and former Guardian food and drink editor Matthew Fort on the judging panel, with Andi Oliver continuing to take on the presenting role.
Hinting at what she has conjured up for the judges, Amy took all of the ingredients she wanted to use with her, which included a range of products from hyper-local Fife-based food and drink producers.
She added: “I brought all of the ingredients with me. I champion all of our local ingredients here in Fife and I literally just filled my Passat with the produce from the suppliers and producers I have on my doorstep and drove down to the studios.
“I think, for any chef, when you use such hyper-local ingredients, that’s what makes your dish. That’s part of what I did and it makes me so excited about what I cook.
“All my organic vegetables, salads and herbs came from Tom and Connie at the East Neuk Market Garden; I used some Balcaskie beef from Sophie Cumber, the butcher at the Bowhouse in St Monans; and for fish I used a mixture of suppliers but most of it comes from David Lowrie in Anstruther. They’re my three main producers whose produce I used on the show.”
Filming and seasonality
Filmed last year, the Scottish chefs were some of the first to get their moment in the spotlight, and Amy says what produce she uses is very much dependent on what is in season during filming, and has to try and ensure it works with the time of year the programme is shot.
She added: “It was earlier for us this year than it was last year because when they film it they have all the different heats. I think the Scotland chefs, this series, we were the first ones to be filmed. It was around summertime, I think August but it’s hard to remember what month exactly with all the lockdowns.
“The year before, when we filmed it in 2019 for airing in 2020, it was December so it was in the middle of winter, which is quite different.
“The time of year it’s filmed definitely does affect the food that you use. When you’re planning what you’re going to cook, you have to think quite far ahead because you’re thinking ‘Oh I want this dish to go to the final banquet’, but to do that you have to factor in the seasonal food that you’re using. So it has to be maybe pickled or something and it’s a funny juggling act.
“Nobody really understands that when they’re sitting watching it on the TV. So you are quite restricted – you can’t just use wonderful summer chanterelles because, yes you can use them at the time, but what’s going to happen when, say, February comes around and you’re cooking at the banquet? Wonderful chanterelles will have to transform or be dried – and you have to factor those things in.
“The production team have to have those answers when you’re submitting your menu. It’s incredibly thorough and quite intense the amount of work that goes into it. You can’t just take wild garlic willy-nilly and say ‘well it’s seasonal now and it’s going to really feature in my menu’. That wouldn’t wash because wild garlic might not be in season when it goes to air or even when the banquet comes round. They’re just thinking ahead the whole time.”
‘The Edinburgh massive’
The only Scottish chef to represent the country outwith Edinburgh, Amy will cook alongside Roberta Hall-McCarron Roberta Hall-McCarron from Edinburgh’s The Little Chartroom, Stuart Ralston from Aizle and Scott Smith from Fhior.
And she isn’t the only returning face as Roberta made it to the final in 2020.
“You never know who you’re going to be cooking with until you get there. They love the element of surprise! When I got there and I saw who I was competing with, it just took me a couple of seconds to connect the dots – but it was good,” said Amy.
“One of the best things about the show is that you get to actually cook alongside some pretty epic people and it’s very unusual for four head chefs to be cooking around each other. So we’re all quite interested in what the others are cooking, especially when you’re coming up with similar ingredients, which always seems to happen.
“It’s really exciting and, actually, the group that I was cooking with this time – the Edinburgh massive – they were wonderful. We had a laugh and we helped each other out, which was a good feeling. The show is desperate for you to be massively competitive, and I think we all are in our own way but not to the extent where we’re belittling each other. I say that but I haven’t actually watched it so they could be saying really hideous things about me!
“I knew Roberta Hall-McCarron, obviously as she was on the show before, and since last year we’ve remained really good friends. So, actually, I did know she was going to be on it. But I had no idea about the guys – I knew of them and have eaten at their restaurants but I didn’t know them personally or that they were going to be on the show.
— The Little Chartroom (@LittleChartroom) March 10, 2021
“To make an actual connection with other chefs is quite special. I think that’s one of the best things about the show – it’s a good thing connecting chefs in that way. I don’t know if the show realises what happens when they put us all together but it’s really nice.
“When it was revealed I was going back on the show, my phone was just buzzing with messages from previous contestants just saying really nice things. That’s extraordinary too – it’s really nice and you definitely feel like you’re part of an extended family because you understand each other and that feeling of intensity – you just get it.
“I will be tuning in as well, though I’m dreading seeing my lockdown belly and chin!”