Friends have been raving about Come Dine With Me for ages but I’ve been resisting the urge to watch. The premise - invite four strangers around to your home to judge you on your cooking and hosting abilities, with all five competing for a prize of £1000 - seemed like recipe for chronic indigestion.
Of course, that’s mostly the point. Last week’s episodes on More4 were repeated from series 4 and based in Manchester, with “super confident artist Karen”, “single interior designer Carlos”, “Nightclub manager Stuart”, “performance artist Dan” and “local lass Susan” taking turns to go round to each other’s houses and experience their idea of a perfect dinner party.
Like Wife Swap, the personalities seem to be chosen to maximise conflict. Take Carlos and Karen, for instance, who were like two spices fighting one another for supremacy following Karen’s failure to appreciate Carlos’ Belizean menu on the first night. “I think Karen is being quite awkward. She doesn’t really agree with you. She disagrees a lot. She tends to pick up on things and then disagrees and disagrees.” Yes Carlos, but does she agree with you? I’m still not clear.
After Carlos’ effort, it was the turn of proper Manc Susan, aka Kathy Burke. Doing us proud, Susan was a booze-loving party girl whose behaviour in the kitchen resembled the chef out of The Muppet Show, but with slightly inferior organisational skills. Opting for a Greek theme, she popped round to her local Greek restaurant for vine leaves, before heading to the deli for some cheese. “I’ve forgotten the name, but it begins with a kicking K,” she says to the shop assistant, leading us to wonder whether she shouldn’t give it all up and serve them tequila and alphabetti spaghetti instead.
“My cooking style is a bit haphazard,” says Susan as she placed the vine leaf parcels on the hob and promptly forgot all about them. They burned. “That will hide a multitude of sins, she says, piling on the tomato and basil sauce, worth remembering if you have displeasing wall stain or an ugly husband. Then she burnt the main course, the moussaka. “I’ve forgotten about it what with one thing or another,” explained Susan, presumably having been pre-occupied with ignoring the vine leaves.
Even when she managed to cover up her cock-ups, Susan felt the urge to confess all: “It looks hideous but it will probably taste all right,” she said doubtfully as she served up the main. “She doesn’t need that level of honesty” said an appalled Karen.
“I told you I was a bit slash bang wallop,” she says to camera. No, Susan, you didn’t say slash, else we’d have called in environmental health.
Speaking of which, it was the turn of vegetarian performance artist Dan next, (aka Bradley from EastEnders) and he began his Indian-themed evening by serving saffron tea. “It’s very sweet and looks a lot like wee,” says Dan, this honesty thing clearly catching on.
Having investigated his house, his visitors asked him what a pipe hanging from his door is all about. I was hoping for some more honesty here – possibly regarding auto-asphyxiation – but sadly, no. “I use it to communicate with giant balloons filled with water,” he said. Course you do. Dan had magnetic poetry on his fridge and a nice, chilled attitude but I must insist he cease cooking in a vest. Very off putting.
Anyway, the curry feast went down OK, but Dan was appalled when Karen asked for black pepper before even tasting his soup. Karen, quickly proving herself the least popular of the group, needed to pull out all the stops on her dinner party. But what will her house be like? “She paints. She’s a painter, it will be interesting to see how she paints,” says Carlos, never one to make a point once when he can make it three times.
Turns out Karen is the kind of cook you want to smack with a wok, all self satisfaction and unnecessary bragging: “I don’t see any problems,” she says about the evening ahead and, when shopping,” I don’t look at the prices, I look at quality.” Not everyone is so impressed: “We don’t gel, we don’t click, we don’t get on too well, really,” says three-times-a-charm Carlos.
With Karen in the lead, the final night was down to Stuart, who served lobster and pea soup, followed by sea bass and a fruit meringue. The evening was a great success. Well, except for veggie Dan, who had to eat egg and chips. Oh and for Karen, because Carlos had a go at her for not liking his crumble. But Stuart got high marks, possibly helped by an early round of cocktails which left them all hammered and emotional, and he won. Well done Stuart.
But the real winner was bonkers Susan, with her expert summing up of the Come Dine With Me Experience: “You get a lot of different people, a bit like Dolly Mixtures. Some you like, some you don’t. You lob ’em in your gob all together, you get a bit of juice, it sort of happens and you actually find that you don’t have a bitter taste in your mouth.”
So there you go. Come Dine With Me – it’s like watching dolly mixtures swirl around in Susan’s gob. Horrible, but strangely compulsive.
Come Dine With Me, Channel 4, More4 and 4OD, various times