Grace Dent on TV: Restaurant Wars: The battle for Manchester BBC2

This show has me spinning around like a Jack Russell begging for crisps

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The Independent Culture

You might remember a recent column of mine about The Crimson Field and my joy that the BBC appeared now to be commissioning specifically for the “Grace Dent in her pyjamas” demographic. Wartime womanly derring-do, dishy surgeons, stern matrons: The Crimson Field had me written all over it.

Thankfully, this wasn’t a one-off and further “GD TV” scheduling has continued with the wonderful, chokingly tense Restaurant Wars on BBC2. Here, we follow brave culinary pioneers – chefs Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne – in their aim to bring modern, clever, relatively kooky fine dining to Manchester. It’s a lovely, hour-long, rattling yarn about Michelin-star chefs and service, about water baths, nitrogen tanks, mise-en-place and varicose veins from stooping over a bench for 18 hours a day. It has sleep-deprived chefs, meddling investors, sneaky food critics and,  better than all of this, a good look at the North/South culinary divide. 

The “War” part of the title is pure hokum by  the way. There is no real war – outwardly at least – between Rogan’s The French and Byrne’s Manchester House. Both kitchen teams appear to draw some comfort from the fact the other one  exists and share in their risky vision. Obviously Manchester has “high end” restaurants, but Rogan and Byrne have their eye on introducing frogs’ legs kievs to the footballing set and Media City cliques.

Yes, steak is still available, but it may well cost £45 and be served with spuds disguised to  resemble Flintstones-style rocks, or arrive in a cloche smouldering with bonfire-infused smoke. As a foodie and a Northerner the entire dream and all the minutiae of its endeavour makes my heart giddy. “It’ll never work!” I shouted at my television right through episode one. I eat in North-west England a lot. It’s an arduous task to tempt my family away from the Hungry Horse family pub menu. And even if the chefs do lure the more adventurous, affluent, cosmopolitan North-west, I’m fixated by the idea they will need to totally resell the process of “going for dinner”.

Because in the North-west – same as much of Britain – “dinner” follows the orthodox process of (a) choosing something they recognise off a menu; (b) being served it with minimum fuss;  (c) being presented with a bill that seems “fair”; and (d) leaving with a full stomach. Rogan and Byrne offer a solution to this pedestrian drabness. What you might want instead is “a culinary journey” where the chef delivers his own choice of titbits – duck tongues, intact eggshells full of  consommé, deconstructed stew, nozzle-pumped potato foam, oysters dipped in nitrogen – and each course arriving with a haunting soliloquy from a waiter featuring details of the temperature of the oil and the duck’s CV. Very small plates should appear which cost laughably ludicrous amounts and there must be an ever-present risk of paying £150 plus per head and leaving slightly  hungry. Why should London have all the fun?

Mrs Best from episode one had a lot to say on the matter. Mr and Mrs Best – Northern, minted, superior, pretty much awful people – had been spending £25k per year on dinner at the Midland Hotel before Rogan took over. “We don’t like to be told what to eat,” she said, crossly. As the  episode rumbled on, so did Mrs Best’s temper. She had eaten salmon and omelette at the Midland Hotel for years and she liked salmon and omelette very much and now it had gone off the menu, along with the bloody menu itself. She was  pigging livid. This show has me spinning around and around like a Jack Russell begging for crisps as I try to work out just who I sympathise with.

Mrs Best was so awful I wanted Rogan to throw her handbag out on the street and her and husband after it, although I sympathise that modern high-end eating experiences aren’t for everyone. I feel for the poor young chefs being screamed at in the kitchens and wish the culinary world didn’t need to be so unethical, but then I admire Rogan and Byrne for getting the best from their staff. Manchester House took dozens of waiting staff with no Michelin-star experience and battered the rules of fine dining into their poor, exhausted brains. After two episodes of Restaurant Wars, I have come to the conclusion that any genre of fine dining can never be truly “ethical” as it is a process of human pain, skin burns, sleep deprivation, tears and the occasional bout of being downwind of Simon Rogan as he delivers another visceral reminder about standards.

Rogan is very watchable. Part affable, avuncular, culinary maestro, part readily vexed bear, all he wants is to be listened to properly and people to do what he says. Actually, this is a barefaced fib on his part – Rogan wants about three thousand other minor things remembered but “not listening” makes him furious. Oh, and front-of-house staff who can’t recognise Giles Coren despite him booking a table for one in the first week of opening. Or that time the nitrogen tank didn’t arrive, or each time someone smashes a £200 plate or his mail doesn’t get delivered or Mrs Best books a table and asks if there is any chance she can have an omelette. I wish both chefs well with their culinary re-education  programme. Manchester, so much to answer for.