Given that many cruise passengers spend a lot of their time at sea eating, it seems entirely logical that the latest television cookery show should take place afloat.
In fact when learning of P&O Cruises’ partnership with UKTV to produce Battlechefs, a celebrity cooking contest at sea on board the line’s flagship Britannia, you might be forgiven for thinking "What kept you?"
In the first episode, airing this evening, Comedian Jenny Eclair, pop star-turned foodie Alex James, Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford, impressionist Debra Stephenson and choreographer Jason Gardiner (now there’s a mixed kettle of fish) compete under the headmasterly eye of Marco Pierre White, sourcing their ingredients in glamorous ports around the Mediterranean before serving up for the Captain’s verdict on their culinary abilities at a kind of nautical last supper.
Greg Rutherford stars in this series of Battlechefs
The usually sun-washed Spanish city of Vigo welcomes these parvenu chefs with grey skies and rain. As our team splash through the drowning streets seeking ingredients – and proper chefs to teach them how to make them – the elegant Spanish city looks more like Skegness on a wet bank holiday. Was this inclement weather an omen?
Some of the contenders were getting nervous already. Jenny Eclair told the camera: “If I don’t get any points I’m not carrying on.”
Gardiner was even more doubtful. “I don’t know how to run a kitchen,” he said. (It’s a galley at sea Jason, but never mind). “I don’t know anything about timings. I don’t do stuff like that.”
He doesn’t do octopus, either. “Just chuck it in?” he says, after being shown how to cook it in boiling water. “I can’t do that.”
It was the same when he was told how to bake a cake, a torta de Santiago, with flour and almonds and icing sugar. “I don’t want to put my hands in that goo. I don’t do goo.”
Was someone about to jump ship?
Battlechefs takes place on P&O Cruise's Britannia
Alex James was having none of this defeatist talk. “I’m up for it,” he declared. “It’s like a gig. Same buzz.”
Pierre White separated the celebrities into two teams and appointed James as head chef. Given that James already produces cheese for posh people on his Home Counties farm and knows a spatula from a skimmer this was hardly surprise casting. He would set the menu and prepare the Iberian ham canapes and seafood mixed grill; Stephenson would cook the octopus and Rutherford and Eclair would bake and mix the cake while poor old Gardiner was given nothing more arduous than preparing the garlic butter.
“I’ve trudged through the rain in Vigo, endured speaking a foreign language, learnt how to bake a cake and they give me the garlic butter. But I’m a team player.”
White gave them an hour to prepare the meal. By now James wasn’t quite so cock a hoop. “Can’t go wrong? Hmm, yes, you can.”
Stephenson eyed her octopus bubbling away with some trepidation. “Should the tentacles be hanging down like this?” she asked. James cut a slice off. “Mmm… bit rubbery,” he said, chewing away as if a wasp had flown into his mouth.
At this the voice of doom cut through the steaming pots and pans in the galley. “Fifteen minutes gone; 45 to go,” boomed White.
Things were getting testy between Eclair and Rutherford. “He seems to imply I should know how to do this,” she complained. “He’s getting panicky”. Rutherford said this was because he was used to winning. “I’m really competitive,” he told her clearly mistaking psyching himself up for the long jump final, with a bake off.
Jenny Eclair stars in this years Battlechefs
Eclair bit her lip. This cooking thing was harder than stand up at the Edinburgh Fringe. “If I get no points I will keep swearing and I will keep swearing with many different words,” she promised. “I’m braced for disaster.” Then she angrily popped another egg into her mixing bowl and whipped it furiously, as if beating Rutherford’s genitals.
White wandered over to where Gardiner was chopping Parsley. “So stressful doing the garlic butter,” he muttered. Jason knew better than to respond to this sarcastic aside but, if looks could kill…“My Mum wouldn’t believe I was doing this,” he grumbled.
Cheese man James came to see how Eclair was getting on. “Alex is so gung ho that if you put him in charge of a bonfire it would be a very big bonfire,” she said. Building a bonfire seemed a curious comparison to set beside the delicate business of preparing torte de Santiago but Eclair is not one to give up on the mangled similes. Something white and sugary was being sprinkled on the cake. “I’m looking for the texture of dandruff,” she said.
Gardiner, the team player, by now bored of chopping parsley, wandered over to peer at the still-rubbery octopus. “He doesn’t like sticking his hands in but he doesn’t mind sticking his nose in!” said the voice over.
By now the clock was ticking. Pierre White kept peering over his glasses at progress — or lack of it. The octopus was still rubbery, the torte de Santiago, hadn’t yet risen, the ham wasn’t flake thin. He decided to play for time with a little explanation to the captain and his guests about what was on the menu.
The captain, who clearly knew a thing or two about swinging the lead, was having none of it.
“I’m excited,” he said politely, “but a little anxious about what’s going to be put before us.” Cue a crash in the galley.
Would you do battle with this man?
© Steve Dunlop Photographer/Steve Dunlop
Rutherford was still urging Eclair onto greater efforts. The cake is the last thing they will taste so that’s how they will judge the meal, he told her, as James served the starters. Some of the guests complained there was too much paprika on the Iberian ham but the octopus, the seafood mixed grill and wonder of wonders, the torta de Santiago, went down a storm. When it came to serving however, James did have his L plates on.
Plonking the seafood platter on the table with all the aplomb of a greasy-spoon waiter on the Balls Pond Road he dispensed with any enticing entreaties about its delicate flavours preferring, instead, a matey shrug of the shoulders and the suggestion: “Here it is. Get stuck in.”
You’ll have to wait a few hours to find out the scores. I can tell you that someone gets five stars. And that someone gets none.
Ahead for this group of contenders lays four more ports, four more meals and four more markings. Will Eclair be awarded any points at all? Can Gardiner be trusted with anything more demanding than the butter dish? Is James up to serving a meal with a more elegant turn of phrase than “get stuck in”?
I predict stormy waters ahead.
Battlechefs (W, 7.00pm) will run for 10 consecutive weekday nights beginning tonight, April 4.
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