BBQ Dreamz owners Sinead Campbell and Lee Johnson (in photo with 'Million Pound Menu’ host Fred Sirieix), got themselves in the door on the strength of their lechon kawali.
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It’s a thrill to see lechon kawali and Mang Tomas in ‘Million Pound Menu’ but guess what spoiled it

Like in any party, it’s always the investors that kill the vibe—just like in this Netflix reality series that combines the concepts of Top Chef and Shark Tank.
Andrew Paredes | Sep 13 2019

Created by Natalie McArdle and Shaun Parry

Starring Fred Sirieix

After years of conceptualizing and writing soaps about rich people, I have come to follow a general rule of thumb: Don’t get too bogged down by the ins and outs of the business. People come for what happens in the bedroom, not the boardroom. Well, it turns out that unwritten rule should also apply to reality food TV.

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Million Pound Menu (appearing under the title My Million Pound Menu on BBC Two, and again in Netflix where it is currently streaming) would seem to have hit upon a brilliant proposition: Combine the sweaty, culinary genius-on-the-fly ethos of Top Chef with the sweaty, groveling-for-money pathos of Shark Tank. In season two, each of the eight episodes feature three potential restaurateurs auditioning to a panel of investors for a chance to operate a pop-up for two days in Manchester, England. 

Fred Sirieix, the French maître d’hôtel, who first gained prominence hosting the British reality show First Dates, returns to BBC via 'Million Pound Menu’. Photograph from IMDb

The audition is only half of the story, though (or really, the first 15 minutes of the hour): Once in Manchester, the winning cooks must demonstrate consistency and on-their-feet ingenuity as the investors come in for a dinner service together, return for lunch the next day where they can interview actual customers, and interrogate the team about their business plan. Investors can drop out at any point, and a cash infusion at the end is not guaranteed.

This is a change in format from the first season, in which two teams both operated pop-ups as they vied for investor interest. The change was obviously made to maximize the participation of host Fred Sirieix, who had a tendency to disappear for long stretches during episodes of the previous season. The French maître d’hôtel, who first gained prominence hosting the British reality show First Dates, is as uniquely suited to managing the “front of the house” of this program as he is in managing the front of the house of a restaurant: His blue eyes perpetually a-twinkle, the Frenchman exudes warmth and genuine interest in the contestants as he drops the “h”’s from his sentences. (“The kitchen ‘as ‘it its first glitch.” “The service ‘as ‘ighlighted a new problem.”)

BBQ Dreamz owners Sinead Campbell and Lee Johnson. Photo courtesy of Thirdy Ado

If only the entire concept had Sirieix’s breezy charm. But no, a huge part of the format involves the investors, whose avowed specialty is running restaurants but whose visible expertise seems to be alighting from luxury cars with dour faces. The best parts of Million Pound Menu are the ones where the cooks, usually coming from a background of food trucks or market stalls, confront head-on the realities of operating a restaurant. But it sags when the business people interrogate their potential partners. One criticized the food for not being photogenic enough for social media. (Ugh.) Another asked the team “How are you going to get us our money back?”, one of those daft queries masquerading as a gotcha question that rightly got a lingering silence as a response. Is this what passes for business acumen in the UK?

There is functional drama to be seen in Million Pound Menu. The format gives the investors a deadline of until 7pm on the second day of the pop-up’s operation to make a decision, so there are a lot of close-ups of the clock and people anxiously staring at the door. And there are human interest stories too. There is the Caucasian chef who left a career in finance and put it all—including his newly purchased house and young family—on the line to pursue his dream of opening a Thai restaurant. And then there is the team who named their restaurant after the lucky numbers of their departed loved ones. 

Of particular interest for local audiences is the pop-up operators in the premiere episode of the second season: half-Filipino, half-British street food cook Lee Johnson and his Irish partner Sinead Campbell, who majored in fine arts but taught herself how to cook Filipino food under the influence of Lee and his Filipina mother. The duo got themselves in the door on the strength of their lechon kawali, and as a Filipino viewer, you can’t help but feel a thrill of recognition as the camera glides over a bottle of Mang Tomas sitting nonchalantly on a tabletop. 

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But once again, it’s the investors who sap the story of its tang. For every colleague on the panel raving about the crunch of the lechon skin, there’s one like Jane O’ Riordan, the investor who helped expand chicken peri-peri joint Nando’s into 32 countries, who keeps whining that British people aren’t ready for offal in their fast-dining options. When O’Riordan finally bowed out, I nodded in assent: “Yeah, Filipino cuisine doesn’t need your food issues, lady.”

Ultimately, Million Pound Menu doesn’t dive deep enough into the behind-the-scenes kitchen drama (the way Top Chef does) or takes an insightful enough look at the way restaurants are run (the way Kitchen Nightmares does). What you have are investibots who deplete the flavor from food TV by asking questions like “But do they know their way around a pound note?” As with soaps about wealthy people, so it goes with reality TV: Capitalism makes everything bland.