The Apprentice: Unpalatable results prove to be a recipe for disaster

Don't you just love those hats? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk) Don't you just love those hats? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

WARNING! Contains spoilers

We may be halfway through this year’s Apprentice, but still the teams continue to make a right (meat)balls-up of familiar tasks, leaving themselves in a stew. In a closely fought contest selling gourmet food in Edinburgh in which both teams made tasty profits, Phoenix’s meatballs proved slightly less appetising than Sterling’s Scottish-themed stew, and in the boardroom Katie Wright found the end result tough to swallow as she became the sixth casualty of Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™.

Don't you just love those hats? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Cheap versus gourmet

Ricky - categorically NOT the Six Million Dollar Man (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

For once, the candidates are enjoying some down-time at the Apprenti-Mansion™ as they play XBox Kinect. We learn that Jade Nash throws like a girl – and that Ricky ‘Even More Camp Than The Other Ricky Martin’ Martin and Adam ‘I’m Brilliant, Me’ Corbally run like girls too. To their total surprise – and that of the camera crew who have been meticulously setting up all afternoon to catch their ‘surprise’ – they receive an (un)expected house guest. Azhar ‘Tight Shorts’ Siddique proves he was the right man to front last week’s fitness video by winning the Race to the Door™. Lo and behold, it’s Lord Sugar. Well, I never!

Sugar lays out this week’s task: to take a bite out of the gourmet street food market, selling their signature dish from a mobile unit in Edinburgh, “the culinary capital of Scotland” – as opposed to just, you know, the capital. (I wonder: does this count as this year’s ‘foreign’ task?) There’s no Apprenti-Team Shuffle™ this week, but Sugar does appoint the two project managers: Adam and Jenna Whittingham. So that makes this week’s line-ups Jenna, Ricky, Gabrielle Omar, Laura Hogg and Nick Holzherr for Sterling, while Adam leads Azhar, Jade, Katie Wright the (Not So) Silent AssassinStephen Brady and Tom Gearing.

Gabrielle's suggestion steered Sterling towards a Scottish stew (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The teams get down to work, but not before Adam declares “I’m perfect” and stereotypes all Scottish people as haggis and deep-fried Mars bar eaters. (He doesn’t like clichés: they’re not his cup of tea.) He seizes on Katie’s not-particularly-gourmet suggestion of meatballs and pasta.

Meanwhile, after Gabrielle notes that Edinburgh is a tourist city, Sterling decide on a Scottish-themed dish.

Next it’s off to a gourmet food fair to do some market research. Shockingly, Adam’s sub-team of Stephen, Katie and Jade discover that the key to gourmet food is high quality ingredients. No, really? Adam, who evidently thinks a Pot Noodle represents the height of culinary achievement, thinks differently, warming to his meatballs idea by saying:

You can slop it out on the trays like school dinners.

It is all that poor Tom – who evidently has somewhat more refined taste in food – can do to dissuade Adam from using corned beef. Still, it could have been worse. He could have suggested using Spam. Or Belissimo.

Utterly Delicious branding (not)

Upon arrival in Edinburgh – for once, the candidates travel by train rather than Apprenti-Carrier™ – both teams get the help of a top chef. Phoenix consult with Italian chef Matteo, where Adam is obsessed with driving down cost. Cheap cuts of meat, dried herbs, everything’s game for the project manager who advises his team “It’s about profit, not taste.” Tom, however, insists on a more appropriate balance of quality versus cost.

Nick Hewer, who does not strike me as a doner kebab and Pukka Pies kind of a guy, observes:

The thought process that’s running through Adam’s mind is cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. Tom’s having none of it: “We’ll do this properly.” And he’s right.

Adam had three clear priorities: cost, cost and cost (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Actually, Nick, I think the only thoughts going through Adam’s bird-brain are “cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep” – with his initial calculations putting the cost per portion at under 50p.

Adam’s original idea is to name their product ‘Matteo’s Meatballs’, but he eventually runs with his sub-team’s idea of ‘Utterly Delicious Meatballs’ which, while not awful, is dreadfully bland and undescriptive. Either way, their product is about as gourmet as my local KFC is likely to be awarded a Michelin star, as we see tins of cheap ingredients from Morrisons being used to make meatballs which are more meat-pellet in size.

Sterling have a chef from the Balmoral to assist them with their ‘Gourmet Scot-Pot’ beef casserole – we’ll ignore his suggestion to Jenna that she goes for something, ahem, ‘well-hung’ – which initially comes in at a whopping £2-£2.50 per portion to make. It’s expensive – and therefore risky – but it’s certainly ‘gourmet’.

In other news: punters aren’t stupid

The following morning, Phoenix set up their mobile unit outside Hearts’ football ground before their lunchtime kickoff. Adam, Tom and Jade do the cooking and selling, but for some reason find it difficult to sell their wares at £5.99. Meanwhile Katie, Azhar and Stephen – dressed up as a pizza, Julis Caesar and the Italian flag respectively (Don’t Try This In Real Business, Kids!™) – are sent out to drum up business. Katie suggests putting the price up to £7.99 to maximise profit, which Adam sensibly rejects. Stephen strikes up a deal to divert tour bus passengers to their site, which fails spectacularly.

Stephen's idea to rope in tour bus customers proved less than successful (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Panicked by the lack of sales at the football ground, Adam slashes prices as low as £2 just before kickoff. He then packs up and heads over to Grassmarket, a tourist hot-spot which is the start and finish point for many of the city’s walking tours. But even there, sales are less than stellar. Critically, they have missed the peak lunchtime period.

Sterling, who have set up in tourist-heavy Parliament Square, also experience a slow start to their day before sales pick up at lunchtime. Their sales also stall as the afternoon wears on, and Ricky and Laura scout out an alternative pitch in a high footfall area on Princes Street near a rival gourmet burger stall. It forces them to drop their prices, thinning out their margins, but it does help them shift volume.

As usual, towards the end of the day both teams slash prices in a desperate attempt to shift unsold stock. Every sale counts, as we will soon discover.

Boardroom brouhaha™

The two project managers appear in stark contrast as they return to the boardroom. Adam is his usual cocky, confident self, while Jenna is nervous and worried.

Lord Sugar starts by interrogating Phoenix, noting their £5.99 price point was quite high for Hearts: “They don’t pay that for a striker there.” Adam receives the usual half-hearted platitudes from his team when asked to rate him as a project manager.

Jenna also gets the thumbs-up from her team as the discussion focuses on the fact they spent three times as much on their ingredients. Ricky says:

In total, I think we spent round about £268.82.

‘Round about’? I’d hate to see Ricky when he’s actually trying to be precise. (“This morning, Lord Sugar, I ate 374 Rice Krispies for breakfast. Approximately. It may have been 373.”)

A narrow but deserving win for Jenna (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

We cut to the chase. Phoenix spent £90.25 and generated sales of £388.29, for a final profit of £298.04. Not bad at all. By contrast, Sterling splurged ’round about’ £268.82, but converted this into sales of £588.60 – a profit of £319.78. Jenna’s team wins, but by less than £22 – four or five sales either way and the result would have been different.

Nonetheless a win is a win – and, in my opinion, just reward for having the bravery to stick to the brief and invest in quality food – for which Sterling are rewarded with a trip to a five-star country club where they hoon about on Segways like joyriders on a high-rise council estate. Nick manages to high-side one and absolutely stacks it. No way he’s ever going to be the team’s designated driver again, then.

For Phoenix it’s the familiar trip to the no-star Cafe of Broken Dreams™, where Adam takes the opportunity to remind us how brilliant he is, saying he doesn’t accept any of the blame for the failure in the task.

Back in the boardroom, Sugar identifies the key causes of failure as poor selling and choosing the wrong direction with their low-cost product – a Statement of the Blahhdy Obvious™, but a correct one. Adam refuses to accept his cheap-and-cheerful product wouldn’t pass muster at the Fat Duck, reiterating:

With regards to the quality of the food, I do believe it was gourmet.

That creaking you can hear is the sound of the Oxford English Dictionary straining to expand the definition of the word ‘gourmet’ to fit Adam’s description.

Katie comes under fire as she unwisely defends her choice of a football ground to sell upmarket food:

You know, I go to football games, it’s £6 a burger.

Katie’s profile, by the way, states she is a Fulham fan. I’ve been to Craven Cottage several times. It and the demographics of its clientele bear about as much resemblance to Hearts and its supporters as a Cabinet minister does to the residents of a sink estate.

Yet again, Tom was shown to be the clearest thinker on the losing team (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Stephen doesn’t get off lightly either, as his unsuccessful bus tour deal puts him under the spotlight. However, he just about manages to deflect attention on to Azhar, but not before Tom nails him by condemning his whole Grassmarket strategy and his tendency to be less than entirely truthful in the boardroom. Stephen’s no ‘Jedi’ Jim Eastwood, that’s for sure. The Force is weak in this one.

However, Stephen – who is clearly good mates with Adam – gets off the hook, as the project manager opts to put Katie and Azhar in the firing line alongside him.

Sugar, Nick and Karren Brady deliberate their options. Adam lost control of the task, Katie made several bad calls. Azhar was very quiet. Calling the trio back in, Sugar suggests that Adam’s market trader mentality kicked in during the task, leading him to prioritise cost over quality. He strenuously denies this, and can’t help bigging himself up despite his position of weakness, coming up with “I’m your number one candidate” and “I would be perfect as your business partner”. Azhar notes his tendency to pass all responsibility to Steve, while Katie adds that he only listens to who he wants to.

It all falls on deaf ears, though. Sugar offers Adam one more chance. I suspect this is more in the grand old Apprentice tradition of retaining a joker in the pack for comedy value until close to the end – Tre Azam, Michael ‘Kosher’ Sophocles, Stuart Baggs ‘the Brand’ – than because he sees any genuine potential. But he does indeed live to fight – and announce his brilliance – another day, and instead it is Katie who is fired. The self-proclaimed Blonde Assassin has been taken out.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, a disappointed Katie says:

I do feel absolutely robbed. I believe that Adam should have been fired. He made a complete mess of this task. But the decision’s been made. The plan was to make Lord Sugar a lot of money, but it looks like I’m going to have to go off and do that by myself.

One bad call too many meant Katie had to go (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Although I think Adam has outstayed his welcome – even Sugar has made comments about him being out of his depth – Sugar was right to fire Katie this week, as she either made or was heavily involved in too many bad decisions. Meatballs and pasta was her idea, which never really fit the ‘gourmet’ brief, and while she was a source of creativity in the team, her ideas tended to be a bit too much ‘out there’. (Remember her suggestion of a dating fitness class last week?) She championed pitching at the football ground – a terrible fit – and was also part of the sub-team which came up with the uninspiring ‘Utterly Delicious’. She did Adam a huge favour by making everything she touched in this task turn to dust.

The one thing I won’t criticise her entirely for is her suggestion to push the price up from £5.99 to £7.99, which came from a piece of clear – if cynical – thinking that it didn’t matter whether punters think the product is rubbish, as long as they make the initial purchase. Apprentice tasks are not real-life. Teams don’t have to worry about reputation or securing repeat business. Tasks are a one-off hit where it’s all about maximising sales on the day. Katie understood the rules of the game here – although £7.99 would have been a step too far – and I very much doubt she is the first candidate to show this level of awareness about the artificial nature of tasks. It’s just that this was the first time we have ever seen such ruthless strategising make it to the broadcast edit.

Azhar was also a touch fortunate, as was Stephen, who Adam seems to lean heavily on as a friend and sounding board. I’ve been unimpressed with both so far. Yet again, the shining star on the losing team was Tom, who recognised that quality was vital and stood his ground against Adam, forcing a degree of compromise on ingredients out of him – a fact acknowledged by Sugar on Twitter:

Despite all Phoenix’s failings, Adam’s cheap and cheerful strategy nearly won the day. We have seen this before in similar food-based tasks. In season five’s catering task, Yasmina Siadatan – a real-life restauranteur – got away with murder, skimping on ingredient quality and production volumes, and even offering up chicken wraps without chicken. In the real world, that would be a recipe for going out of business. In Apprentice world, she won the task – and went on to become the overall winner.

The reality is both teams performed to a similarly poor standard. Site selection and selling strategies were poor, and Jenna appeared reluctant to make aggressive decisions on pricing later in the day, relying heavily on prompting from Nick. Had Sterling lost – and their winning margin was tiny – Jenna would probably not have survived. But she and the nine other survivors remain in contention as we head into the second half of the season.

My current favourites? Well, last year Tom Pellereau won because he was an inventor working in an industry (health and beauty) which Sugar was familiar with. And while he lacked some commercial nous and had a poor task record, he also had a habit of successfully identifying right and wrong strategies and was coolly analytical while also being highly creative. Tom Gearing represents the analytical, strategic side of Tom P, while Gabrielle Omar compensates for her commercial naivety with her creativity. As an architect with a design business, she would also be a good potential fit with Sugar’s lucrative property empire. I’m calling it now: either Tom or Gabrielle will win. (That’s cursed them …)

In the fight for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment, ten candidates remain. Don’t ever ask them to cook for you, though.

Next week: The teams must invest £150 in goods from wholesalers, sell them and flip their profits to reinvest in more stock. Last year this task saw ‘Jedi’ Jim Eastwood selling umbrellas with a display which was half Gene Kelly, half Rihanna.

The Apprentice continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC1. Companion programme The Apprentice: You’re Fired! airs immediately afterwards at 10pm on BBC2.

Link: BBC official website

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