Over a century of episodes, Ed Gamble and James Acaster's podcast Off Menu has become a bit of a phenomenon. Podcast charts and awards are one way of judging these things, but the fact there's a No Context Off Menu Twitter account is probably the real laurel wreath.
The format's simple. Comedians and foodie types arrive at the podcast's dream restaurant, talk Acaster's genie waiter through their dream menu – poppadoms or bread, starter, main, side, drink and dessert – and everyone bickers about cheeseboards.
Acaster is late to our Zoom chat about Off Menu's success, but Gamble is bang on time. The trophy he won on Richard Osman's House of Games is behind him at home in East London, and when we speak it's the first day of lockdown easing in England. He's readying himself for a return to stand-up gigs.
"Nothing too hectic, to be honest. Which is good, because I need to learn how to do stand up again. I'm gonna be so rusty."
Winter gigs in car parks, where crowds sat in their cars with their fog lights on, honking their approval, didn't quite hit the spot. There was an upside though.
"The audiences were great, because they were so happy to be somewhere. So I'm hoping they're going to be fucking rabid this summer."
Eventually Acaster joins us from Crystal Palace with an upbeat, "Ayyy!"
"Forgot about it," says Gamble.
"I didn't forget!"
"Yeah I did."
Despite the names who've dropped into Off Menu so far – among them Louis Theroux, Teri Hatcher, Kumail Nanjiani and most of the best stand-ups working in Britain today – Ainsley Harriott remains at the top of Gamble and Acaster's wishlist of dream restaurant patrons.
"Guests who can describe how to cook something and make it very simple, but sound delicious, they're my kind of guests," says Acaster.
"See, I'm a lot more stubborn," says Gamble. "So if, say, Claudia Winkleman tells us how to do a chicken my immediate thought is, 'I think I know how to do chicken, Claudia'. Whereas I probably should take some tips, really. But I'll go downstairs and burn a chicken, thank you, and that's the way I do it.
"Also Claudia has probably already said that she doesn't drink water and doesn't trust people who drink water," says Acaster. "So Ed's quite right not to take advice from her. Whereas I go, 'You're the one I'm listening to.'"
How are you visualising James's genie waiter?
James Acaster: Obviously, the genie of my childhood is Robin Williams in Aladdin.
Ed Gamble: You're not blue though, right? In your mind?
JA: In my mind I think I'm blue.
EG: Really? You're not blue in my mind. But I guess the genie is in the eye of the beholder.
JA: Yeah. I blue myself.
EG: Every so often you'll let the guest imagine a new bit of the genie right?
JA: It's the dream restaurant, everything's got to be how they want it. So they can dress me or Ed in any manner they please if it makes their meal nicer. Whatever the genie is in the guest's mind, I guess, each week, is actually what the genie looks like.
EG: Blue is so hack, isn't it?
JA: Yeah, but then I quite like that. Being a genie, I think it's funny to just go the hack route of being blue. Especially after everyone hating the blue Will Smith.
EG: How do you imagine the genie?
Quite wispy. Basically like James, but the bottom half of him is smoke.
EG: Yeah, gotta be bottom half smoke. Be weird if it was top half smoke – perfect legs and then just all smoke.
JA: Not ruling it out.
You're both music guys. What's on your dream restaurant playlist? What vibe do you want?
EG: It's a tricky one, isn't it? Because I think the sort of music I like is quite loud and aggressive, so it wouldn't necessarily fit in with my dream dining vibe. I don't want anything too intrusive. When I'm dining I quite like hubbub. I like the people hubbub. So if anything, whack on a background CD of extra hubbub.
JA: Yeah, I'll probably choose Nando's music. Just so whatever restaurant I'm in I feel like I'm in a Nando's. That'd be nice, Nando's music playing in the background. Buena Vista Social Club kind of stuff.
EG: You never really hear it in the restaurant do you? It's only when you go to the toilets you're like, 'Oh, yeah, this is a jam'.
What are your early memories of going out for food?
EG: My family all love food, and I was fat little boy so I used to absolutely love going out to eat. Like, really used to love it.
JA: When did you get the picker's basket?
EG: I was gonna mention the picker's basket. That was a restaurant called The Brasserie on Wandsworth Common. And I never used to have a kids' menu at all. It just looked so bad to me, immediately. Like, this idea that adults have this cornucopia of ingredients and then I was supposed to have fish fingers and chips, and then a weird trade off where you're allowed to colour in your placemat if you eat baby shit. So I was always like, I'm going to go for the big big boys menu and straight for the picker's basket, which is like a starter to share. But I worked out a hack where I could just have that as my main course. So that was like jalapeno poppers, chicken goujons, onion rings. I've always liked [having] loads of different things.
JA: I really wish I'd seen Ed eating a picker's basket. Our family equivalent of that was a pub called the Red Lion in a little village called Welham in Northamptonshire. And my auntie and uncle discovered it. And my memory of it was that we went there for the steaks originally. My uncle loved the steaks there. So my dad wanted to try these steaks. And so we all went there. Steaks were a bit too much for me, so I just got this burger which in my memory was the size of my head, it was huge. It was called the Henry the Eighth burger. And it was like a massive burger shop burger with loads of cheddar cheese, like a paving slab of cheddar cheese.
EG: Not melted?
JA: Melted but like sweaty-melted, on top of this big burger. And a big fried egg on the top that must have been an ostrich egg or something. I would never fully finish it, and I had to eat it with a knife and fork, it was so big. And I hardly even touched my chips, I was so intent on the burger. And then we'd get ice cream sundaes, which is the real reason the Acasters go out for dinner. It'd been years since I've been there and we went for a family meal a few years ago and I was so excited. And it's completely changed now. I was so gutted. No Henry the Eighth burger, the White House rump burger wasn't there anymore either. The mixed grill is still there, it is impressive.
EG: I like a mixed grill.
JA: Yeah, it's the adult picker's basket isn't it? The butcher's basket.
EG: They always name burgers after people who've died from being fat. Elvis always gets his own burger as well. You're like, it's not what I liked about Elvis.
JA: But I think from doing the food podcast, we talked a lot about guilt in food and stuff like that. I think it really gets rid of the guilt when they go 'Fuck it, who cares? Elvis died on the toilet. What a legend! Eat this burger. You all love Elvis? Right? So don't feel guilty about this.'
Is that something that the podcast has consciously turned towards?
EG: I think me and James both do have that problem with food. So I think actively by talking about it and establishing that we both feel that way, it does dispel the actual guilt. Because as soon as you talk to someone else about it, you realise how absolutely insane it is that you would ever feel guilty about eating something nice that you like. I've been in situations where I'm like, halfway through eating something. And I'm like, 'Oh God, why you doing this? Well, I'm not enjoying that anymore. But I'm still gonna do it because I used to enjoy it'. It's fucking ridiculous. You say that to someone else and it does help you sort of get over that a little bit. But I think the joy of the podcast is just talking about how much how much we enjoy things.
JA: Yeah, I think it's never been something we've consciously – we definitely never talked about it off the podcast and said, 'Oh, this is what we should do a bit more'. The fun of the podcast is that we're kind of going with what we're feeling in the moment and it's just how we genuinely think about things. It's just going to come up a lot, the same way that poo and wee comes up all the time, if you do a food podcast.
EG: There are loads of other food podcasts. Jay Rayner's not going, 'Well poo and wee's obviously going to come up a lot'.
JA: You just judge it at the time, in a responsible way that makes sense. And don't ensure any listeners going away [are] feeling bad about themselves, or feeling like you've put across a dangerous message or whatever it is. Also, mainly, I'm just looking for an in to shout "Poppadoms or bread?", or we're just both thinking of callbacks that we could do.
EG: The podcast is mainly callbacks. It's us talking to someone for 10 minutes, and mentally noting everything they've said so for the next 15 minutes, we can shout them back at them.
Have either of you worked in kitchens?
JA: I worked in two different ones. There was one that I made a lot of friends in, friends I still have to this day. But there were also some horrible bullies in the kitchen. And that was not nice. And there was another one that I didn't really have many friends in. But everyone was very pleasant. And it was very quiet. I didn't learn to cook in either of them and I really, really regret that. I thought that if I did learn to cook, I would end up staying in the kitchen and that would be my job, and I wouldn't be able to do what I wanted to do, which at the time was be in bands and play the drums. So I deliberately didn't learn anything. And I was a source of great frustration to one of the head chefs in the kitchen. He kept on being like, 'Come on, you're ready to go on the front now and do the grill. Let's get you out' – they call it the front line because they were really, like, army about the whole thing – 'Let's go to the front line. Come on, pick up the tongs!' I was like 'No, I'm staying on pot wash.' He was like, 'Fucking what?'
EG: That's the one of the most arrogant things I've ever heard. You're like, I cannot touch that pan, because then a Michelin star is inevitable.
JA: Yeah, and it'll become my career. I'll be the next Gordon Ramsay: he wanted to be a footballer, but then he became a chef. And so yeah, I wouldn't learn anything. And I do regret that, I wish that I had learned to cook because then I really would have enjoyed working in those kitchens. The first one was constantly trying to avoid having a jacket potato thrown at my balls or a knife thrown at my feet, that's the kind of environment that was. Or my trousers pulled down entirely, or Tabasco put on my lips when I wasn't expecting it.
EG: I do all of those things when we record Off Menu in real life as well. As soon as we get back in a room together, it's going to be a jacket potato straight to the balls.
Objectively speaking, which guests have presented you with the least appealing menu?
EG: We always talk about Joel Dommett, because he picked protein shake. Everyone was up in arms. But I actually think he had some okay stuff in terms of just, like, comfort food. And we were probably meaner to him and a lot of other people because he's our friend. Victoria Coren Mitchell picked a ploughman's. It's not even unappealing. It's just so boring.
JA: I would hate to have a ploughman's followed by rice pudding, which is what Victoria chose. So even though the cucumber salad sounded nice, in addition to the rest of the meal, I would hate the cucumber salad also.
What's the funniest meal you've ever been at?
JA: One of the most I've ever laughed at a meal with Ed was when we were in New York together and me, him, John Robins and Lloyd Langford went into a cafe to order some food. We ordered the food and the lady went away. And then the cafe was empty apart from us, and inexplicably she was running everywhere. Like, running around at a hundred miles an hour. Didn't need to – we weren't, like, [clicking fingers furiously] 'Come on!' And at one point we heard her running, like, du-du-du-du-du-du, on the other side of the wall. And then we heard her trip and then saw her falling into the room, flailing as she fell in. And it wasn't funny because she fell, it was funny because of how unnecessary the fall was.
EG: We were in Brooklyn, like in quite a deep bit of Brooklyn, there was no one there. Clearly no one had been an all day. And I think it's because she was so startled that people come in to order something that she was like, 'Don't mess it up. I've got to get it for them as quickly as possible as the only customers of the day'. And then ended up taking quite the tumble. Look, we were nice and respectful. We made sure she was okay and stuff. But oh, man, it was funny.
JA: Yeah, she got up, she wasn't hurt. The way she fell was very comical. It was like, limbs all over the place like a starfish. It was like she hadn't fallen over before and was learning how to fall over. But it didn't need to happen, and that's why I couldn't stop laughing.
Finally, can I hear the arguments for and against the cheeseboard, please.
EG: I'm going to make some big claims here that James is going to disagree with. Sometimes you don't want anything sweet. Sometimes you're enjoying the savoury wave. You know, you've enjoyed the starter, you've enjoyed the main, you want to keep that going. The best way to round off an evening is with the cheese board, you get a selection of beautiful things that people have put craft and thought into, each cheese has a story behind it. Yeah, you can have a little bit of sweet: chutney, a little bit of raisin and a crisp bread. That's all you need, really, and it just rounds it off really nicely. Goes perfectly with another glass of wine, you can keep that going – another glass of red with the cheese board. Just delicious. You don't necessarily need to pack yourself full of sugar at the end of the meal.
JA: And I don't really have to come back at that because in a few years' time when Ed has gone on a killing spree, everyone will read this interview and say that the signs were always there. I think we all know that everything Ed just said is the words of the psychopath. We all know what a dessert should be, and it's not cheese. So I don't object to people wanting cheese and biscuits in the evening after the dessert.
EG: Too much.
JA: But dessert should be a different, a different... well it's not too much is it? The cheese and biscuits is too much because it's adding a third savoury course to your meal, which means... [Gamble continues heckling] ...you're just packing the savoury on and you want a bit of variety in your meal, want a different thing to end on something that feels like a party at the end of it all. You want to end with the headliner and end with a lovely, sweet pudding and not end on Boringtown. You're basically starting to become an old man and sliding into death.
EG: The problem with you is you're still a child. You're yet to hit the adult phase of your life because you're still racing through everything else to get to the desert. You ruin everything else because all you can think about is sugar, and it's just because you're addicted to it.
JA: Yeah. So what you've gotta ask your listeners is, are they gonna go with Peter Pan, or Captain Hook?
EG: But it's not Peter Pan is it, because Peter had some years under his belt. Peter Pan would have loved a cheeseboard.
JA: No he did not – Peter Pan would have hated a cheese board. Peter Pan or Captain Hook?
EG: Captain Hook was way cooler. I'm way happier being Captain Hook.
JA: Enjoy it. I'm glad you're happy. That's who you are.
EG: Well you enjoy it, you weird old baby.
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