TV series Come Dine With Me has become a cult foodie favourite. Jon Perks spoke to one woman who experienced the reality cookery show first hand – with a little help from Michelin-starred chef Glynn Purnell.
There’s usually a vegetarian. There’s nearly always a fussy eater. Sometimes they’re one and the same. There’ll be lots of drinking, the odd argument, maybe some flirting and the occasional burst of tears before bedtime.
Since first airing in January 2005, Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me – in which a group of strangers take it in turn to cook for one another – has made a star of faceless narrator Dave Lamb and been the catalyst for hundreds of groups across the country to stage their own “CDWM” nights, complete with scoring cards, the odd cookery mishap and, hopefully, a fair portion of good food and funny moments to look back on in years to come.
Jenn Brack, a sales executive from Norton Canes in Staffordshire, was already staging monthly dinner parties with three friends when an email was circulated around the office looking for contestants for the next series of Come Dine With Me.
“My boss said ‘you’ve got to do that, Jenn’ but I said ‘no, I don’t mind cooking but I don’t want a camera in my face,’” she recalls.
“Before I knew it, I’d filled in an application form and they rang me the next day – you don’t have time to say no!”
After two interviews over the phone, the show’s producers quickly arranged a visit to Jenn’s home at the farm she shares with fiancé Steve and four-year-old son Zak.
“Because it all happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to get nervous,” she admits. “We did the show the next week; that was probably three weeks from the first interview to filming the show... you don’t have time to back out.”
Jenn describes her Come Dine With Me as a “great experience” but admits the week of dining out, drinking and cooking with three strangers – all in front of the TV cameras – was tiring and, for some, emotional.
Have a good time, try not to be nervous, try not to get into any arguments are her top tips for any wannabe diners.
“I loved it, it was a great experience; I would recommend it, but you’ve got to be up for a long week.
“When you’re watching the show I always think I’d know what to cook; something that I know how to cook, something I can pop in the oven and not be in the kitchen faffing around getting nervous.”
Living on a farm, Jenn made the most of produce at hand; homegrown leeks and potatoes for her vichysoisse starter; beef from the Aberdeen Angus and Hereford cattle to go in the main course of steak and Guinness pie, and her own chicken’s eggs in the chocolate pavlova dessert.
“The producers loved all that – plus it saves money, so you have more to spend on the booze,” laughs the 37-year-old Dubliner.
“They liked the idea of the pie with the Guinness because I’m Irish, plus it’s an easy dish to do, I’ve done it loads of times and everyone seems to like it. I was going to do some bread and tried it a few weeks beforehand and it came out like a brick, so I thought I wouldn’t do that and embarrass myself.”
Although an accomplished cook and dinner party hostess, Jenn did not turn down some top tips for her TV dinner – especially when they came from Michelin-starred chef Glynn Purnell.
During a dinner at the restaurant, Jenn asked the chef if he could give her a few tips for the show.
“He said ‘come into the kitchen’, and it was the best birthday present ever – a masterclass from Glynn Purnell. I told him I was doing vichyssoise and he showed me his take on it and even offered to lend me the bowls and the little jugs. It made my day.”
Purnell’s headwaiter Jean Benoit, was himself a contestant on Come Dine With Me last November.
Unfortunately a few weeks later, Jenn did not have Glynn by her side when it came to hosting her evening – the last of the four nights in a busy and tiring week.
“The first night is odd because you’re having a dinner party which is a normal situation but at the same time it’s surreal because you don’t know the people and there’s a cameraman, director, sound guys and lighting and they’re constantly checking things; you drink a lot because you’re nervous and it’s really hot.
“The first host and the vegetarian girl just did not get on at all,” laughs Jenn. “Whatever food he brought out, she kept saying ‘oh, I don’t like tomato’ and so on... it’s just rude if they’ve gone to the trouble to cook it.
“He cooked her a pasta dish and put Parmesan on it and she said ‘I don’t eat Parmesan’ and he said ‘how am I supposed to have bloody known that’ so he went outside and scraped the Parmesan off; I was trying to look concerned, but it was funny – they just didn’t get on. The director was loving it, as you can imagine.”
She adds: “I was last to host, but because you have to put your menu through earlier, if you find out someone doesn’t like certain foods you can’t do much, but you can improvise a little bit. I can see why people burn stuff or it goes wrong, because when you’re doing things you have to pour or serve things left-handed to make it easier for the cameras. You pour something in and they say ask you to do it again. So something tastes rubbish because you’re putting too much of something in for all the shots. It’s so easy to mess up.
“The cameras come at half ten in the morning, but you’re not allowed to prepare or start anything before they start rolling,” says Jenn. “It took them about two hours to set up the lights and all that; I was thinking ‘god if I don’t get started soon the hangover’s going to kick in...!’”
Jenn’s episode of Come Dine With Me is scheduled to be screened on Channel 4 on February 13.
Jenn’s Come Dine With Me Menu
Vichyssoise served with homemade brown bread
Steak & Guinness Pie with a medley of green vegetables
(Vegetarian) Aubergine & Mushroom Pie
Chocolate Pavlova with raspberries & cream
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DIY dine with me
Jon Perks and friends get cooking
I can’t remember whose idea it was; doubtless discussed and decided after a couple of pints one Friday night.
“Let’s do our own Come Dine With Me”.
It sounded such a good idea at the time; five friends – Rachel, June, Nigel, John and myself – would take it in turns to cook. Nigel would bring his video camera for the “bedroom scores” bit; June, being the college lecturer, drew up a set of rules; the meal had to be hosted at your own house, no one else’s, as well as a proposed timetable spreadsheet.
Yes. A spreadsheet. Blimey. This sounded quite serious.
The winner would be treated to a meal out by the other four – if, by the end of it, we weren’t all sick of food and were still talking to each other.
Early on, I got it into my head I would theme my night; not compulsory, but it would help me focus.
June – who hosted the first dinner party – is a vegetarian, so that was another factor to bear in mind: would I give everyone veggie, or cook her something different?
June’s bash was very good; Snowball cocktails in the garden, a lovely mushroom and stilton pie and a dessert that had about five different elements, including homemade ice cream. Blimey.
Rachel’s evening was no less impressive – as John commented, she hadn’t so much raised the bar as put it out of sight.
‘‘The Best of British – with a twist’’ was her theme; luscious homemade soup and bread (extra Brownie points for that); a pork Wellington and an indulgent bread and butter pudding with homemade custard that June declared she could have bathed in. Thankfully she didn’t.
Now Nigel’s evening was great, but I remember the wine more than the food – he knows his stuff and had clearly picked out some very nice bottles to go with the dishes, which included a main course of ‘‘vegetarian chicken’’ in cream and mustard sauce.
A different person had filmed the scores on each night, so no one single person knew who was winning – although I knew what scores Rachel had got, and they were good.
It was my turn next; thankfully we didn’t hold them on consecutive nights; I don’t think I could manage all that food and drink in one go.
And it gave me more time to prepare my Beatles night.
I don’t know why I decided to theme it around the Fab Four, but I knew they referred to food and drink in a fair few songs. Strawberry Fields and all that.
Glass Onion would be a cheese and onion tart starter; Octopus’s Garden was a seafood paella including real octopus – it’s amazing what you can get at the fish counter in Morrisons; June’s vegetarian main was stuffed ‘‘Sergeant’’ peppers (straight out of Jamie’s latest tome), with a dessert double header of fool (not on a hill) and a strawberry-flavoured pud. I also wanted to get Savoy Truffle in there, so made some of my own boozy truffles a few days earlier.
I did Beatles place cards complete with classic quotes; Nigel and June even dressed up à la John and Yoko, complete with protest placard.
Of course the music soundtrack was all Fab Four. I think it all went ok, apart from the delay while I cooked the paella – in between dashing back into my guests for more wine and a chat. A CDWM schoolboy error.
How did I score? Well, with one last evening to go, we’ll soon find out. One thing I’m glad about – no TV cameras or Dave Lamb’s sarcastic voice-over to accompany. It was stressful enough as it was... a hard day’s night, you might say.
Steve Hill and friends
When Steve Hill and friends decided to arrange their own series of Come Dine With Me evenings, they sadly didn’t invite the Channel 4 cameras.
They do, however, have their own video footage, a handful of photographs and some blurred memories of the four dinners Steve and his six friends in May Lane, Kings Heath, have staged so far, with the climax and winner ‘‘reveal’’ planned for May. Curry stains on expensive rugs, Madonna karaoke, a “butter incident” and foot injury from a dropped bottle of gin are just some of the highlights so far.
“My major error was timing,” recalls the marketing manager. “Starting your prep too late in the day means not eating till after 10pm, and while plying your guests with wine seems like a good idea at the time, but if it means that they can’t actually hold their knife and fork because they’re so squiffy, then you’re in trouble.
“We started our Come Dine With Me experience last year, and it’s amazing how it makes you look differently at the television programme – I’m so much more sympathetic to the on-screen characters now. Watching an episode just the other day I physically winced when one contestant said she was cooking lamb, having myself discovered that the majority of my friends don’t actually like lamb only after I served them it. As you can imagine, I’m not expecting to have scored highly!”
He laughed: “It is amazing how competitive a group of friends can get too. When the invite from my dear friend Hannah came through, I found myself sneering ‘‘chicken pie’’? Well that’s hardly cordon bleu is it?’
“But of course, the food only counts for a small percentage of the overall score. My favourite dinner party thus far stands out because the atmosphere was relaxed with good conversation and a sense that the hostess was completely in control. I can’t actually remember what we ate. It’s been really fun so far – and we still have another two dinner parties to go. After that there will be the nervous tension as we review the video footage we have recorded of us giving individual comments and scores.
“It makes such a nice change from going down the pub; it allows you to learn and show off new skills and it doesn’t even have to be expensive.”