Every year, on my birthday, I gift myself a meal of fish and chips. As a vegetarian, I can’t quite face life without my favourite food, so transgress once a year in the form of crisp, battered fish, pickled onion, vinegar, mushy peas, and perfectly fluffy chips. Former birthdays have seen me travel to Whitby, South Shields, and across London to secure the best version possible, in order not to waste my annual opportunity.
So, naturally, when I was invited to the 31st National Fish and Chip Awards, I was ecstatic. I envisioned platters of the dish in various iterations (posh / deconstructed / crappy but still good) distributed on silver platters around the room. Seas of those little useless wooden forks. A fountain of malt vinegar. I knew there would be awards, maybe some speeches, but honestly, it was mainly the prospect of eating a lot of fish and chips that appealed.
Held at a hotel in West London, the awards were obviously not founded to feed hungry journalists, but instead to recognise high achievers of the fish and chip trade in categories such as sustainability, innovation, chips quality (the “from field to frier” award), and overall tastiness. Run by Seafish, a non-governmental public body, the ceremony also fundraises for a charity that helps British fisherman in their insecure, isolating, and often dangerous careers. (Fishermen are 115 times more likely to suffer a fatal accident than any other job.)
I arrive at the Royal Lancaster Hotel on a freezing January day and immediately spot a mass of guests in suits and formal dresses. The National Fish and Chip Awards are far, far fancier than I anticipated—there’s even a baby in a black tie. Earlier that morning, I managed to pull out my one-pair-of-shoes-that-aren’t-trainers, but my H&M dress is clearly inadequate attire in which to respectfully appreciate the fish and chip industry. Luckily, I applied some mascara on the tube on the way over, so I can just about disguise being upstaged by a baby.
The Awards begin with a short drinks reception, during which I accidentally order an £8.50 gin and tonic, having been told moments before that there was an open bar. Once I squirm my way out of that awkward scenario (G&T still in hand) I take a seat at a table, in a room full of people who just honestly get their rocks off at the idea of fish and chips. These are my people. I am home.
The room is set up like most other industry awards: circular tables around a stage, some gentle hubbub, and too many wine glasses. However, it quickly becomes apparent that I will not be eating any fish and chips today. I will be taunted by them, with images and mouth-watering speeches about the freshest fish and crunchiest batter, but over the four hours that I am at the National Fish and Chip Awards, no one will let me eat any.
I mean, it does make sense. The award nominees spend every day chucking battered fillets into a hot, bubbling fryer and flinging chips over the counter, so it’d be quite unfair to subject them to the same thing at the awards. Conceptually, I know this. Rationally, I get it. But deep inside, I am upset. I mean, what the fuck? This is the fish and chip awards. What else would we eat?
We eat fish (that is not fried), no chips, a brownie with a chocolate fin (good enough), and then the award-giving begins. There’s lots of industry banter, sincere pledges to great sourcing and suppliers, and at one point, in a very Lynchian twist of events, a man from a sausage company brings a very muscley guy onto the stage. From what I can make out, the sausage company sponsored the muscley guy to become extremely stacked, and then named a sausage after him. I am not sure what this has to do with fish and chips. Finally, after standing menacingly at the back of the stage for a few minutes, the muscley guy speaks and encourages everyone to buy “The Beast” sausages. It is very confusing, and a little arousing.
Aside from this, the awards are largely uninteresting, until the last two: “best young fish frier of the year,” and “best fish and chip shop of the year.” There are six nominees for the former, and ten for the latter, so the competition is tough. The young fish frier accolade goes to a woman, which is great for an awards ceremony dominated by white men making “your wife” and “sausage”-based jokes, while the best fish and chip shop of the year goes to Krispies Fish and Chips in Exmouth, Devon. I quickly look up how long it would take me to get there and whether it would be mad to try and do a seven-hour round-trip to try their award-winning chips.
After the ceremony, I grab some guests and ask them how they think the event has gone.
“Oh it's electric,” Jesette Foster, owner of Fish and Chips at Western Grove, tells me. “For anyone who's never been here, they think, 'Fish and chips? Oh, it's just a takeaway, you know.' But it isn't, it's the most passionate industry you'll ever come across.
“It’s superb here,” her friend adds. “It's probably one of the best events you'll get for fish and chips.”
I wonder how many fish and chip-based awards there are to compare.
Next, I chat with the winners. Kelly and Tim Barnes opened their Krispies in Devon in 1999, and have co-run the shop since then.
“It's very overwhelming,” Tim tells me. “20 years of working towards this.”
I give them a chance to relax, as they cradle the trophy filled with actual fish and chips (could I…eat one?) and then ask them to tell me a bit about their shop.
“We bought our shop in December 1999,” continues Tim. “I was 21 and Kelly was 19, and we've been doing it every since together."
“Tim fries, I serve. That's kind of how it works,” adds Kelly. “The two us together.”
They’ve been together, as a husband and wife team, ever since? My throat starts to tighten and I can feel my eyes well up. The idea of these two people in love, starting a fish and chip shop together, utterly content in their lifelong pursuit to make the best food in the world, then winning the ultimate accolade? I couldn’t take it.
“No way!” I exclaim, trying to hide my weirdly intense reaction. “That’s… lovely.”
Voice croaking, I change the subject to what they think makes the best fish and chips.
“I think you need to find the best ingredients, and we are very unique because do battered chips,” explains Tim. “So, I think fish and chips with battered chips. You can't beat it.”
Do they ever get sick of fish and chips?
"We don't eat them as much,” says Tim, “but I never get sick of cooking them. I don't know why. After 20 years I still get that excitement when I take the fish out and it looks great."
Already emotional, this level of fish and chip-based sincerity is too much. I wrap the interview up and leave genuinely moved. Maybe I’m tired or slightly drunk off the free wine, but the subject of love and takeaway food is too much for me. All my feelings of bitterness at the absence of fried fish have gone. All is forgiven.
It’s not long until my birthday, anyway.