The British Street Food Awards have progressed from car park jamboree to fashionable food event in just one year. And the trend for street food is here to stay, claims Richard Johnson
Generation Y is not only changing the way we communicate; it’s changing the way we eat.
The new breed aren’t so much about meat and two veg on the table at 6pm as ‘spontaneous meal occasions’ from a diverse range of cuisines. According to research by Harris Interactive, they are cost-conscious and informal with a reformed palette, open to wider food tastes, and less likely to be loyal to brands. They also feel strongly about the local community. They are the street food demographic.
I created the British Street Food Awards in 2010 to recognise the best of the 10,000 ‘mobilers’ who sell their wares on our streets. They were held in a car park in Ludlow, and the first prize was a food mixer. This year the awards will be at Harvest at Jimmy’s a cool, family-friendly food and music festival at Jimmy Doherty’s farm in Suffolk and the winner will leave with a business makeover from M&S and a pitch to trade in the Olympic village. We’ve come a long way in such a short space of time.
At last year’s awards, there was still a mistrust of street food. Yianni Papoutsis, the man behind the Meatwagon burger van, lost thousands of pounds. The farming community of Ludlow took one look at him and even though his beef was 28-day-aged and his rolls were baked to his own recipe walked on by. Ludlow just didn’t get it. A year later, it’s a different story. The Independent on Sunday recently called it “the number one food trend of the year”. And no-one is arguing.
It was Marco Pierre White who first gave me the idea for the British Street Food Awards. It was a summer lunchtime in a New York park and we were hungover from a night of sambuca at Jay-Z’s party. Sat on the grass, and eating a street vendor’s burger slathered with mustard and ketchup, we wondered why we couldn’t offer the same thing in Britain. I decided, then and there, that I would do something about our street food once I had ordered another burger.
In my time as a food writer and broadcaster I’ve travelled the world. I’ve been sent to find the birthplace of coffee and the best chocolate that money can buy. But the best food I’ve ever eaten has been on the streets the streets of Bethlehem, with its hole-in-the-wall falafel shacks serving up pittas fat with houmous, pickle and broad beans. And the streets of Mandalay, with its huge bowls of fishy noodles still salty from the sea.
Coming back home to Britain was always a disappointment. Our restaurant food might be the envy of the world, but our street food? An embarrassment. It was either a bag of chips, a Mr Whippy, or a cheap sausage on a rusty metal handcart pushed along by a man with three fingers. Clearly, we needed a revolution. Jamie was doing it with school dinners so I would do it with street food. And, like any good revolution, it had to start on the street.
I had noticed how at the increasing number of farmers’ markets the stallholders selling rare-breed sausages were starting to hook up with the stallholders making organic sourdough rolls. They were frying the sausages, stuffing them into the rolls, and then selling them at a premium. A few bright sorts put the rolls into vans and got mobile.
Pretty soon, the three-fingered man had to share the pavement with a new generation of street food heroes. And they all came along to the first British Street Food Awards.
This year, street food is even more ‘on-trend’, as the analysts like to say. In these times of recession, street food feels very affordable and it makes sense of all those hifalutin concepts that food magazines are bandying around these days it’s ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ just because traders tend to grab whatever is cheapest at the market. When they’re charging no more than £6 for a main dish, they are working on very tight margins.
Street food sells on its freshness. Whether it’s Dominic the barista at the Caffe Banba cart, grinding only the beans he needs (so his coffee tastes alive) or Rich at Hall’s Dorset Smokery actually smoking the fish in front of you it’s all about immediacy. Add in a touch of theatre, with traders making churros dough or throwing their crepes in the air, and you’ve got a winning formula. Which is why larger organisations have started to approach the British Street Food Awards.
I have worked with M&S before: they asked me to chair a round table on supermarkets and small producers that was hosted by the Duchess of Wessex, and I interviewed their buyers at Taste of London.
When I presented the RSPCA’s Good Business Awards, I got tired of handing out trophies to M&S. I like their style. And when they suggested the winner of the awards could work with their product developers and marketing experts, I jumped at the opportunity.
Clearly, everyone benefits. M&S are genuinely excited by street food (I still remember their faces in that first business meeting) and want to interpret it on their menus. But how to capture the immediacy of street food, as it’s passed from cook to consumer? The answer lies in offering quality, of course, alongside variety, value and small portions. But nobody knows for sure. That is what M&S are hoping to find out.
Some argue that street food is becoming too commercial. But they’re the same people who complained when Tommi Miers from Wahaca (a judge at last year’s British Street Food Awards) took her ‘brand’ out to a new audience. And the same people who complained when we named Street Kitchen as one of our finalists for 2011 run by restaurant chef Jun Tanaka. We had sold out the punk aesthetic, apparently. But we just happened to like Jun’s slow-cooked lamb casserole.
The future of the awards looks rosy. We’re advising on how to get street food into the Olympics, and we’re consulting on projects to put street food into two of Britain’s largest city centres.
We’ve already had 2,000 entries for this year’s awards, which will be judged by Richard Corrigan and Antony Worrall Thompson, among others that’s five times as many as last year and the whole shebang is only going to keep growing. Street food isn’t a food fad, like edible flowers or nouvelle cuisine. Come along to Harvest at Jimmy’s to find out for yourself street food is here to stay.
Richard Johnson is the organiser of the British Street Food awards and author of Street Food Revolution. For more information about the British street food scene visit www.britishstreetfood.co.uk