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Food and Drink Awards Sideline Popular Restaurants...

Establishment Closes Ranks To Promote Norfolk's Most Exclusive Venues

This may sound like sour grapes, but bare with me... This year's finalists for the relaunched Food & Drink Awards have been announced, and all of the county's most popular restaurants have been ignored in favour of Michelin and double AA listed establishments, that will cost you an arm and a leg to eat at. The finalists for the best front of house, best chef, and best restaurant, reveal a conservative food culture in thrall to the twin hagiolatries of Saint Michelin and Saint Delia. Not one of the establishments in those three categories is doing something truly different, all take a similar path down meat and two veg road to arrive at a destination that's not unfamiliar to visitors of fine-dining restaurants for the last three decades, or in any location in the UK.

Before 2018, the Norfolk Food & Drink Awards (NorfolkFADA) were decided on a public vote. I'm not advocating a return to such anarchy! Any restaurant with enough customers on its' mailing list could potentially beat others into a cocked hat, restaurants with smaller dining rooms were at a disadvantage, and the system was open to abuse with incentivised voting. However, in 2018, when we were last finalists, the judging system still took in a broad range of popular restaurants from across the county. A shortlist of venues was visited by the judging panel and the result was a disparate collection of finalists representing a range of restaurant styles.

This year, the final restaurants are all Norwich based, all 'fine dining,' all Michelin listed, and you won't be able to get a meal in any of them for less than £65 per person. In these days of 'cost of living' crisis, food inflation, and reduced spending, should these awards be celebrating those restaurants that can only be visited for very special occasions, or more frequently only by the well-to-do? Moreover, None of these restaurants, nor those in the front of house or best chef categories are even in the top 20 most popular in Norfolk, according to Tripadvisor, and surely if something is to be celebrated as 'best in the county' the shortlist should reflect those restaurants which have been consistently well received and endorsed by customers, both regular, and visitors to our county? Only one Michelin restaurant makes top ten in Norfolk, and that one doesn't feature in the awards. Admittedly, the top ten in Norfolk also includes 'The Doggy Diner' in Cromer! But the rankings are based not just on how many people visit a place, but the consistency and recency of their good reviews.

Getting into my flow, I'm going to start grinding my axe now; I have been constantly at odds with the hospitality industry for the lack of training in plant-based cookery. The curriculum for chefs starting in the industry, has changed little since the 1960s; You can't get a full qualification without dismembering several animals, vegan cooking is regarded as an afterthought, along with food allergies which should be more important anyway! River Green has been pioneering meat free cookery in Norwich for 12 years+ now. We know that in order to save the planet we must reduce our meat consumption, and restaurants could be leading the way in this, but this year's list does nothing but endorse the carbon-intensive status quo. I'm sure the chefs in those restaurants are doing clever things with turbot, and utilising Norfolk venison and pigs in interesting ways. I also have no issue with any of the restaurants individually, in fact, the wife and I chose Benedicts for our anniversary celebration last year; They certainly can make a decent vegan meal (as long as you give advance notice,) and it is the only restaurant we have visited recently where my wife has not complained that she could be eating better at home! I would contend however, that for all their innovations, they are still making variations on a well worn theme, none of the restaurants are making dishes that diners really haven't seen before.

Perhaps, having introduced a streetfood category, and allowed for innovation in the best newcomer, the organisers thought they had given sufficient lipservice to the real progressives in the county? Just a thought though? Five years ago both Tofurei and Tipsy Vegan were finalists in the best newcomers category (with Tofurei taking the honours). Both have gone on to success, opening new venues and garnering national recognition. Why have either of these not been shortlisted in the established categories since? Is it because the judging has been undertaken by conservative, established industry insiders who are afraid of veganism, and dismiss plant-base as a fad, when it is clearly a trend? Can they not imagine a situation where none of the dishes on a menu resembles their 'classics', and yet the restaurant is popular with diners of all stripes?

The NorfolkFADA take place next month, the industry will close ranks and pat itself on the back for continuing to serve cuts of animals in defiance of 'fashion', to venerate the traditions of Norfolk cooking established by Smith herself, to aspire to standards which are inflexible and exclusive, to follow the money, chasing after the wealthy and their bank balance, rather than making their food accessible to a wider audience, and to ignore those dissenting voices, be it critics, customers or chefs who disagree with their direction of travel. No doubt they can dismiss my criticism as well, but they can't continue to ignore the popular vote or they will simply confine themselves to a ghetto whose dimensions grow ever more claustrophobic.

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