ITV is turning up the heat on its daytime schedule with the arrival of its latest cookery show ‘Culinary Genius’.
Masterminded by Gordon Ramsay and fronted by Fern Britton, the competition sees nine home cooks go head-to-head in a number of brutal rounds in a bid be crowned a Culinary Genius and win a £1000 cash prize.
Ahead of the series’ debut on Monday (17 April), we caught up with Fern and husband Phil Vickery, who is one of the show’s judges, as they revealed why they don’t watch cookery shows at home, how it feels to be reunited on screen, and what Gordon is really like as a boss.
Fern, how does it feel to be back on ITV daytime? It must be like coming home.
It did feel like that. I’ve been back in the building guesting on bits and pieces and saying hello to old friends but it is rather lovely to come back. We’re in the studio where I used to do ‘Mr & Mrs’ and so many of the crew I have known for years and years.
What gives ‘Culinary Genius’ the edge over other shows out there?
Fern: It’s a bit like saying ‘what makes this drama stand out?’ when there are so many good dramas around, so they are all bringing something different. But this one just brings so much energy, and when you say goodbye to the contestants who are being eliminated, we don’t go and be nice to them - it’s bang, and they’re gone! But it’s good natured and there’s a lot to learn, as well as proper demonstrations from proper cooks who know what they’re talking about. There’s a lot of good chefs around but they haven’t got the depth of experience our team has got.
Phil: There’s a lot of rubbish. It’s just classy. It’s not focussed on celebrities, it’s purely based on solid cooking technique. A lot of cookery shows are themed or you have celebrities coming on who are plugging something, and it just doesn’t work for me. When I knew Gordon [Ramsay] was doing it, he doesn’t do any rubbish, and John Christophe Novelli and Rosemary Shrager. We’re all Michelin star chefs and we’ve done it. There’s a lot of phoney people around and it makes me angry.
And you get to mentor and guide the contestants as well…
P: A lot of the time you don’t get chance to understand the protein or knife skill or marrying flavours, whereas here, it’s very focused on that.
How have you found being a judge, Phil?
I was a head chef for 20 years and that’s all I ever did. It’s always been very easy for me to do and I think I’m good at getting the best out of people.
Fern, as the ex-host of ‘Ready Steady Cook’, this isn’t your first foray into cookery shows - what is about the genre you like so much?
F: Well that’s the interesting thing about it - I didn’t! ‘Ready Steady Cook’ I didn’t want to do. I’d had no interest in cooking, I’m not a foodie. I like eating but going, I don’t want to sit and savour every bloody mouthful. So I was like, ‘oh, please don’t let me get this gig!’. I knew there were three of us up for the audition and when it was my turn, I was doing it thinking I had it nailed and that I was actually quite enjoying it. Of course, it was the best thing for me and I loved it. It got me lots of good things, including a husband! But with this one, I was still reluctant. I thought I didn’t want to go and do food again, and people would go, ‘oh she used to do Ready Steady Cook and now she’s 110’, and it took me a good 48 hours before I asked myself why I was even thinking about it. Phil and I didn’t even discuss it, then two days later he got the phone call. The stars were aligned.
P: I think it’s because I’m seen as an ITV boy, that’s why I never did ‘Saturday Kitchen’ - my contract says I can’t do anything.
How do you think cookery shows have evolved since ‘Ready Steady Cook’?
P: It was the groundbreaker, and I think up until ‘Great British Bake Off’, it was the most successful cookery programme ever. But I don’t watch cookery programmes, apart from Rick Stein occasionally - I just have no interest in them. I think what ‘Culinary Genius’ has done has bring it back raw, basic cooking, and the knowledge and skills. Some of them might be very good, but I don’t watch ‘Bake Off’, I don’t watch ‘MasterChef’ and half the time there is so much rubbish talked about food. Maybe I’m getting old. I sound like my dad!
And Gordon Ramsay came to you because he specifically wanted you, which must have been flattering?
F: This is what I understand, and that gives you a bit of a boost. I said, ‘you realise it’s nearly all over for me?’. In television terms, I am a dinosaur. But he said, ‘no, you’re great. You can run up and down stairs. You’re fit, you’re fine’. He’s lovely, really lovely.
So he’s not a scary boss then?
F: No he’s not. He’s fantastic. He swears obviously all the time, which is marvellous - I’m enjoying that a lot. He terrifies the contestants though, bless them.
P: He’s a pussycat. It’s only cooking.
You are hands off in the tasting process - is that because you are worried the food might be bad?
F: No, it’s actually because I know I would not be able to discuss the levels of flavour and the cohesion and drama of a dish. I would have nothing useful to say except ‘That’s nice!’. I thought no-one is really cooking for me - they are cooking for the chef of the day.
How does it feel to be reunited on screen?
F: It really is awful! Oh, it’s exhausting! No, I love it. Obviously we are at home together all the time when we’re not made up and looking as good as one can, but it’s been like having a date with each other. He’s being nice to me and being charming and I think, ‘ooh, flirty boy’, so I like that.
P: She’s sharp, really sharp. You’ve got to have your wits about you. But she’s the ultimate professional and it’s great fun. I know exactly how she thinks and what she’s going to say next. We just rabble on and it seems to work alright.
Have you disagreed about any of Phil’s judgements and argued when you got home?
F: No, we do have a real life. When I get home, I’m much more interested in saying to him, ‘why have you left your trousers on the side? The dishwasher’s not stacked properly’.
We’ve heard there’s been quite a few chopping disasters during filming…
F: We have a medic, so the poor contestants have to step off set and get bound up very quickly. We had about 22 blue plasters used when Gordon was in the kitchen, but Phil’s only had two. Maybe we should make it like ‘Star In A Reasonably Priced Car’!
P: And if you cut yourself, the clock doesn’t stop. It is Gordon’s programme after all.
And all the food waste will be donated to a food bank, is that right?
F: I’m very proud to say that was my suggestion and the producers took it up. It’s very important. When we did ‘Big Allotment Challenge’, there was a glut of vegetables, so every week we made sure the food went to a food bank, and all the flowers went to somebody lovely or a nursing home or a hospital.
P: It is important, yes. When I’m doing recipes on ‘This Morning’, I will make sure I only do ones that use one can, one stock cube, so that there’s nothing left, because my mum used to pull me up on it. A lot of people also write to you telling you how expensive things are, so I always have that in my head.
Is there something Phil has cooked you that you’ve hated and not known how to break to him?
F: He did bring me home a lovely present once when he’d been filming in Italy. It was salami, which is lovely, but then he told me it was donkey salami.
P: Woah, excuse me - in Italy, if you go to the local market, you find a horse stall, a donkey stall and they make salami. It’s cut beautifully so I thought I’d take some home. But if I hadn’t have told you, you wouldn’t have known.
F: Funnily enough, I’ve eaten horse steak and that was lovely. But as a romantic present, donkey salami is not up there. Oh, and the other day you made some faggots, and I thought I’d try that.
P: They were hare faggots!
F: Oh man, you didn’t tell me that either. It was like a whole mouthful of liver, which is not my thing. The best thing he did, and this is ok - it is legal! - he had a squirrell and put it on the barbeque. The window cleaner was round and told him it smelt lovely. So Phil asked if he wanted to try some and he said, ‘oh, I love duck’. Phil is looking at him thinking it’s got four legs, but ok.
P: I never told him!
Phil, what is your worst kitchen nightmare?
It was New Year’s Eve at a castle and I was a 10 course banquet and dessert was going out at 11.40pm - a banana souffle. There was 130 of them. The pastry chef went to get them out of the big trade ovens and it all went a bit quiet, and he said ‘we have a problem’. I went in there and the meringue hadn’t been whisked enough and it was all coming over the edge. I went upstairs to all the guests and told them the souffles had collapsed and they thought it was a joke. So at midnight, when all the party poppers were going off, we had to start it all over again. I went absolutely mad.
Now you just have to keep Holly and Phil in check on ‘This Morning’!
He’s a bit tricky, you have to keep an eye on that one. Eamonn [Holmes] can be a bit tricky too. They always chuck a curveball, so you have to be very quick with those two.
And finally, we couldn’t speak to you Fern and not ask if you still like dunking a bit of beef…
F: (explodes with laughter)
P: Good question!
F: Well I think the line actually was, looking at Phillip [Schofield] and going, ‘So… you don’t mind dunking a bit of beef, do you?’. That might be on my gravestone. What I love is when journalists say, ‘have you ever done anything really embarrassing?’. Err, just look on YouTube! There’s just reams of it. I’m a bloody serious journalist and I’ve done my war zone and my reporting on disasters, but I will always be remembered for that.
P: There is a silver lining though because every time that is shown on bloopers, you get paid. That time I touched your breast gets shown, I get paid too.
F: Well I didn’t get it!
Watch that classic clip in all its glory below...
’Culinary Genius’ airs weekdays at 3pm on ITV.