In the words of The Four Seasons ‘Oh What A Night’. When I arrived at Temple Arches, home of Chow Down, to write about the awards I had absolutely no idea of the events which were about to unfold.
I had been invited by Leeds Indie Food to come along to see what was happening and sample the Friday range of vendors who were plying their wares in the hope of impressing the judges enough to reach the National Final of the British Street Food Awards next month in Hull.
I arrived at the arranged time and was escorted to my seat where a pint of lager was swiftly delivered. As I was alone in the booth I took out my phone and made a start on the Telegraph Sudoku. After a while, Simon Fogal, the man behind Leeds Indie Food, arrived and we caught up on each others’ lives since we last met, pre-pandemic. In my case that didn’t take long! He, on the other hand, has spent the lockdown not only running his PR company, Chapter 81, but also supporting the independent food traders of the city and setting up and maintaining a directory of those who were trying to trade through the crisis providing details of opening hours and ad hoc take-away details. He truly has been one of the heroes of past year and a half.
As it was a pleasant evening weatherwise we moved to an outside table near the entrance so that Simon could meet and greet the other guests. Richard Johnson, the acclaimed food critic, broadcaster and co-founder of the British Street Food Awards was the first there and he and Simon engaged in shop talk – giving me time to finish the sudoku. When they returned to the table they dropped the bombshell and asked if I would consider joining the judging panel! This was not a decision to be made lightly and I realised that it would take some time to mull over so, after reflecting on it for about a second and a half, I accepted. It then struck me what I had let myself in for. As I looked around at the traders’ stands I realised that their fate was now partially in my hands and the memory of my two stints on jury service came flooding back. I realise that the consequences of getting this wrong were not the same as having somebody banged up in error but responsibility is responsibility.
One by one my fellow judges arrived; Jonathan Harris of Yorkshire Food Guide, who I have met several times before at other promotions, Danny Malin who has a YouTube channel called Rate My Takeaway, and Michael and Manjit, the owners of Manjit’s Kitchen whose Kirkgate Market outlet I reviewed a few years ago for my other site the-eat-is-on.com. Finally Chris Kamara made his entrance accompanied by a couple of Chow Down security guards. This wasn’t as ‘over the top rock and roll’ as it sounds but it was Friday night and there was a contingent of blokes who did not seem to have spent the evening drinking lemonade so it was better to have been safe than sorry. Mr Kamara is such a nice guy that those present just wanted to talk to him in the hope that they could become his new best friend. I have to say that he would appear on my list of fantasy besties but, being a realist, I knew that our conversation was going to be purely professional. Because of his popularity, the judging area was moved to a raised private area so that we could dine uninterrupted.
The idea was that we were presented with two signature dishes from each of the traders involved, so that would be ten altogether then!!! They delivered their plates personally and gave us a short talk about the contents answering any questions we had. Every single one of them was truly passionate about what they did, but then you don’t get to be a regional finalist by not giving a damn and churning out any old stuff to the punters. The traders arrived at quarter hour intervals meaning that, after their pitch, we had about ten minutes to sample the food on offer i.e. five minutes per dish. I read somewhere that the Queen only takes a token mouthful of each course when at State Banquets so I thought that if it is good enough for Her Majesty it is certainly good enough for me. Unfortunately my gob is somewhat larger than that of our Sovereign so I had to restrict my intake even more, not easy for someone who was brought up always to clear their plate.
First up was the offering from On A Roll Sushi. There were salmon and vegetable options, both were huge and both hot. They were accompanied by a small salad, a delicate pickle and a not so delicate wasabi. I asked about the potency of the innocent looking green condiment and was told that it was very hot. Having once sampled a version of this sauce in Norway which resulted in every nerve in my face going numb, I approached with caution. Fortunately the Viking influence had not manifested itself in this one and, although obviously hot, was more in the medium category. After it became obvious that the rolls were too large to eat with chopsticks we abandoned the niceties and used our fingers, well it is street food. This also broke the ice amongst the judges and the atmosphere became more relaxed.
The second contender was the vegan trader Seitan’s Kebab. They supplied two flatbread wraps, one a Shawarma Kebab and the other a Doner Kebab. Everything from the ‘meat’ to the sauces was vegan but you would have had a hard time distinguishing them from the authentic carnivore versions. The substitute meat is seitan, the clue is in the trader’s name, a substance made from pure wheat gluten which is often mixed with chickpea flour, but according to the sign on their stall, this is unadulterated gluten. It tastes far better than it sounds, should you not be intolerant that is. Again it was a pick it up with your hands dish.
The ultimate finger food has to be pizza. No trip to Italy is complete without buying a slice and eating it on a park bench or even walking down the street. Like fish and chips it always tastes better outdoors on the hoof. The two slices we had here, in the open air, were provided by Tigellae Pizza from their vanstaurant. They were both superb with the dough being proved for 72 hours and served straight from a wood fired oven. They are described as being Roman style pizzas which are my favourites as the base is thin and crispy, leaving the toppings to do the hard work. I was surprised to find that one was a bit thicker than the other so I asked Giordano, the chef and co-owner, the reason behind this. He said that while the pizzas sold in the City of Rome were the thin base version, the ones from the region just outside tended to be a little more base heavy. You learn a lot doing the judging. Tigellae were very fortunate to have set up a take-away in the car park of the Harewood Arms in Broadbottom, Lancashire just before lockdown so could trade from there in the absence of street food events.
Next stop Sri Lanka from where Colombo Street take their inspiration. Now this is where things got really messy and so a further roll of kitchen towel was ordered. The Coco Chicken Kottu was easy enough as it was served on a tray with a fork. This is Colombo’s signature dish comprising Sri Lankan roti which is finely chopped and stir fried with the meat, fresh vegetables and spices then served with fresh home made coconut chutney. This was a first for me and very enjoyable. The fried chicken wings is where the paper towels were utilised to the max. They are tossed in Sri Lankan herbs and spices before being deep fried and smothered in sweet sticky sauce. It is the kind of dish where you need to check your shirt front at regular intervals wondering what kind of detergent was up to the job of removing any stray sauce. Fortunately I got away unstained.
How do you finish off a feast of this magnitude? Obviously it has to be Fish and Chips and a Baked Potato! They arrived on a trolley belching out smoke so it was obvious that magic was afoot and so it proved. The trader responsible was Skull Duggery who refer to their food as being ‘dessert illusions’. The ‘fish’ was a type of cheesecake covered in biscuit crumbs, the ‘chips’ shortbread, the ‘mushy peas’ gooseberry coulis, the ‘tomato ketchup’ raspberry sauce, and the ‘tartare sauce’ cream. Not only did it look great, but it tasted good too as did the ‘baked potato’. The spud came wrapped in foil and was actually a moist piece of cake, the toppings of ‘baked beans’ – hot peanuts in toffee sauce, ‘cheese’ – shavings of white chocolate, and ‘mayo’ – cream, worked tremendously well. It was a fun way to end a brilliant night.
It is not the done thing to reveal the machinations involved in the process of choosing a winner, what happens in the jury room stays in the jury room, but, as they always say, after much deliberation, we arrived at a clear winner. There is a parallel vote cast by the paying customers of Chow Down so the absolute winner cannot be revealed at the moment. There were also two more evenings’ contenders to judge and various categories to be decided so I will say no more.
During the lockdowns I have been contemplating retirement from my websites and, as the WordPress subscriptions fall due at the end of August, I thought that this would be a suitable time to call it a day. After the amazing gesture from Simon Fogal and Richard Johnson in asking me to join the judging panel, and some exceedingly kind words from Mr Johnson after the event, I realise that I am so totally blessed to be doing this that I would be foolish to turn my back on it. Thank you very much gentlemen. I will be interested to see who makes it through to the British Street Foot Award finals and from there on to the European and World Street Food Awards, but from my point of view, the big winner from Friday Night was me! That being the case I should just like to thank Simon, Richard, my mother and father, the bus driver who got me there, …………..Oh get off!!!!!!
Unless specified, all photographs by Stan Graham
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCd03Ksc7VNypelv_TM3SjSg Rate My Takeaway
https://the-eat-is-on.com/ Lunch in Leeds with Stan Graham