My Night in Hell

A dearth of celebrities in the restaurant, unknowns in the kitchen and no sign of Gordon Ramsay...The hit show of last year, 'Hell's Kitchen' has a new recipe. Thomas Sutcliffe was granted a taste of what's to come

I really must watch more television. Here I am, sitting in a marquee behind a Brick Lane warehouse, and I've just asked Carol Decker who she is. You know. Carol Decker. Lead singer with T'Pau and - as she helpfully informs me - winner of this week's heat of Hit Me Baby 1 More Time, ITV's teatime talent contest for the formerly famous.

Because she's through to the final now, shares in Carol have risen steeply overnight - which is a result for the producers of Hell's Kitchen, who badly need celebrities for the opening night of their second series, and are clearly struggling with the fact that the Baftas have sucked away the A-list. The limo drivers are working double shifts, you can't get a Corrie star for love or money, and if you want a stand-up comedian for a bit of crowd-filling work, it's Tony Slattery or nothing.

Carol, bless her, doesn't expel even the faintest huff that I didn't recognise her - an act of forbearance that has secured her my vote for the final. That's another slice of reality altogether, though. On that night, she'll be in the spotlight and I'll be at home, thumb poised over the redial button. But for now, we're both waiting patiently to serve as camera fodder for the second series of ITV's pan-clattering foodie elimination show.

And since I do actually watch some television, even I can recognise some of the people waiting with us in the production's holding area. There's Helen Lederer. There's that big camp bloke with the "characterful" hat, off Big Brother. And there's Daniella Westbrook, who, I would have assumed, would be getting ready for a satellite uplink of open-crotch vaginoplasty on All New Cosmetic Surgery Live, but has obviously been given the night off by Channel Five. They're helpful like that in the television industry. If you run out of tabloid stars you can just pop next door and borrow one.

The marquee in which we're milling about is a kind of human lobster-tank, and every now and then a head-miked crew member plunges in to net another tableful for the restaurant across the car park, where the filming is taking place. We have all been briefed on the changes to the format. No Gordon Ramsay this time round, since he has decided to reserve his flambéing technique for the second series of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, the Channel 4 programme in which he roasts luckless professional restaurateurs. No weeping celebrities at the stove either, because the producers have decided to go with ordinary members of the public, who will compete for support and financial backing to open their own restaurant.

And though the Blue and Red Kitchens are still in place, this time they are run by two star chefs competing head-to-head: Gary Rhodes is the spiky head, and Jean-Christophe Novelli the tousled, raven-locked one who looks as if he could moonlight in shampoo commercials. Apparently, Novelli was once voted the sexiest man on the planet, and when he appears at the kitchen pass, - the counter from which the dishes go out - my wife appears briefly to lose the power of speech.

As this is the night before the programme goes live (providing the material for the filmed inserts in last night's programme), there is also no Angus Deayton. But Nicole Appleton, presenter of Hell's Kitchen: Extra Portions, the ITV2 spin-off, is poised at the bottom of a Perspex staircase to doorstep celebs as they go in. As my wife and I are led in, she scans us briefly, establishes that the blips on the radar are nothing but a pair of low-flying seagulls, and powers down into standby mode, ie, talking to the floor manager about where she got her skirt.

We are shown to our table, down a corridor bathed in what I presume is supposed to be infernal red light. The restaurant set, constructed inside the cavernous sound-stage, looks to have used up existing stocks of sticky-backed plastic - blending teak-effect veneer with a voguish appliqué of mirror-effect floral flourishes.

The nightly needle match will be decided on the basis of how many people order from the competing menus. Gary Rhodes' Red Kitchen menu is an exercise in English simplicity, each entry headed by a single- word description of the main ingredient - "Tomato", "Haddock", "Potato", and even, on the dessert menu, "Bread". Underneath there's a grudging concession to the average diner's desire for a little bit more information about what's going to arrive on the plate, though these aren't exactly garrulous. "Bread", for instance, turns out to be bread-and-butter pudding. I think it's supposed to give you a sense of British bill-of-fare sturdiness, but the effect is curiously reminiscent of a grumpy dinner lady.

Novelli's approach could scarcely be more different. "It's like that old Cointreau ad," says my wife, looking at the dense descriptions on the Blue menu. She means the one where the sexy French schmoozer talks his neighbour into bed by reading out the ingredients listed on the back of the bottle ("oh-ranjes warmed by ze Mediterranean sun..."), and she's right. There's a definite lascivious bent to the descriptions. Where Gary Rhodes slaps down "Baked turbot with spinach and a mussel risotto", Novelli seduces you with "Roast turbot, Devon-cream curry potatoes, spring garlic essence, minute 'home- fed' English-mussels froth, young river-cress oil, beansprout cress". Gary bluntly offers "Rhubarb and custard cheesecake", while Novelli breathes in your ear about his "eau-de- vie-infused wild spring- berries mousse, miroir 'nos fraises sucrées en garde'".

For electoral simplicity, all the diners at one table have to opt for the same menu. This causes a bit of a crisis at ours. Despite the fact that she can hardly tear her eyes away from Jean-Christophe, my wife announces that he's the only thing in the Blue Kitchen that she's prepared to put to her lips.

"What the hell is 'samphire oil'?" she asks, truculently, as if I'm personally responsible for this arcane condiment. I can't confidently answer this question, but rather than being affronted by the pretension, I'm curious to find out whether it works. I also find it hard to resist the journalistic possibilities of "Front braised pig's trotter stuffed on the day according to Jean- Christophe's mood".

She doesn't give up without a fight, though. "Do you know the number of a good divorce lawyer?" I ask the maître d' when she attempts to take our order. "I do actually," she replies. "I'm getting divorced myself at the moment."

It turns out that the mood Jean-Christophe is in is "Can't be stuffed to stuff a pig's trotter". Trotter is off, as is turbot. So instead we order "Wild mushrooms wrapped in a poppy-seed pancake with melted foie gras", and "Glazed vertical-pressed mature pasteurised St-Maures goat cheese, soft aubergine, picholine-olive tapenade, pickled lemon, garden crunch" for starters, and lamb cutlets and sole for the mains (I would give you the unabridged version but, frankly, space is limited). Then we settle down to wait, slowly becoming aware that the orders for Novelli's menu appear to be outrunning those for Rhodes' by a factor of five to one. The Blue Kitchen is a shimmer of smoke and heat haze. In the Red Kitchen, the air is limpid, the mood glum.

Fortunately, there's plenty to do to pass the time. We drink, the eager waiters having little else to do but top up our glasses. We discuss hairstyles - why has Daniella Westbrook gone with the Cameron Diaz look from There's Something About Mary, and did she use the same hair-gel? Do Tony Slattery's chestnut highlights work against black and grey, or do they make his hair look like an unravelling tam-o'-shanter?

We drink some more. We try to think of something to complain about - the production team having hinted that obstreperousness will be welcome - but then decide, in true British form, that it would be rude to push in front of people who arrived before us and have a right to complain first. We drink some more. We talk to Carol, of whom we are now feeling increasingly fond. She and her partner Richard Coates - chef-proprietor of the Cherry Tree Inn near Henley - have also ordered off the Blue menu, proof that even professionals aren't immune to gastronomic blandishment.

We drink some more. By the time the starters arrive, an hour or so later, we have been so thoroughly marinated in Pouilly-Fumé that we can barely taste the food. My wife is sniffy about her wild-mushroom pancake - but I think she's just fighting a rearguard action in the menu war because, although the portion is monstrously oversized, it tastes rather good to me, a tumble of fungal, woody flavours. And given the novice team in the kitchen, my goat's cheese, melted over a mélange of accurately cooked vegetables, is surprisingly accomplished.

We compare notes with the table next door, which includes several cast members from the Channel Five soap Family Affairs (I really must watch more television) and Anthea Turner's sister Wendy, who isn't entirely happy with her vegan alternative - a vast plate of ungarnished fried mushrooms.

I suspect that this is Novelli's way of saying that she should go back to planet Vega if she doesn't like the food on Earth. "I'm hallucinating now," says one of her fellow- diners as he looks across the room. "I keep thinking that's John Inman." We wheel round, a synchronised gawping team, and discover that it is - presumably invited so that Angus can get an "Are you being served?" gag into the voice-over. As it happens, he is, having sensibly chosen from the Red menu. As dishes of perfect simplicity and finish float past us, my wife mutters darkly about having been overruled.

My lamb cutlets, when they finally turn up, are about as pink as a hump-backed whale, but the meat is clearly good and the Beenleigh Blue soufflé topping is excellent. It all looks as if it has come out of a professional kitchen, not an amateur one. Even my wife, resistant through the main course, caves in when the desserts come - a meltingly good chocolate pudding, and a coconut and Malibu soufflé with raspberry sorbet, the first spoon of which is fed to me by a deeply embarrassed waitress. "I've been told to do this," she explains as she asks me to open wide.

This distracts me for a while, and when I look up I see my wife heading for Jean-Christophe. She doesn't seem to be berating him about over-fussy technique, though. In fact she appears to be kissing him on the cheek. I've rather lost track of the clock by now, but I think it must be time to go.

'Hell's Kitchen' is on ITV1 every night at 9pm

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