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Observer Food Monthly Awards 2015

Observer Food Monthly Awards 2015

by Felicity Spector 22 October 2015

Food blogger and journalist Felicity Spector attended this year’s highly acclaimed OFM awards and runs us through the chefs and restaurants who made the cut this time.

What a night: the country's top chefs, food writers, restaurateurs and photographers, celebrating the best in British food and drink, from established stars to unsung heroes. The Observer Food Monthly Awards have long been heralded as the top event of the year, and not just for the legendary goody bag which is almost impossible to lift off the floor. At the bar, on the way in, I glanced up and noticed I was standing next to Rick Stein. A few yards away, there was Tom Kerridge. Fergus Henderson. Nigel Slater and Yotam Ottolenghi. Outside in a courtyard, Swedish Michelin-starred chef Niklas Ekstedt was cooking up a feast over an open fire. But the point of these awards – voted for by Observer readers as well as an expert panel – are also to seek out the unusual, the inspiring and the unexpected, from the canteen at a school for autistic children to a seafood shack on the remotest fringe of the Irish coast.

I caught up with Derek Creagh, chef at Harry's Shack in Portstewart, who has a stellar background cooking at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Riverside Brasserie. His latest restaurant, perched on the northern-most corner of Northern Ireland's northern coast, almost got washed away by gigantic waves and he now warns prospective customers: ‘It is simply not safe to come near us. Do not even attempt it.’ The weather, he told me ‘does get a bit stormy. A bit cold in winter. But in summer, it's just glorious.’ So too, by the sound of it, is the food: the freshest caught fish, the sheer quality of the local ingredients, the expertly made desserts. In fact it's so good that one of Ireland's leading food guides crowned the place restaurant of the year after it had been open just a few months. Customers, they said, ‘literally ate every piece of food the restaurant had until there was none left to serve.’ Some mornings, they have to turn hundreds of people away. The north coast, says Creagh, is now buzzing.

Yotam Ottolenghi celebrates his win
Tom Kerridge receives his award

Another delighted winner, whose feet barely touched the ground all night, was the irrepressible Max Halley, who runs the glorious Max's Sandwich Shop in Crouch Hill, north London. His frankly astonishing creations, like ham hock with fried duck egg, shoestring fries, piccalilli and mustard mayo, are stuffed between vast wedges of homemade focaccia. ‘Focaccia is the only bread for it’, he said, ‘it holds everything together and really soaks up the goodness!’ And they're just £7: little wonder there was a resounding cheer when he picked up the award for best cheap eats.

There was recognition too for Veggies Galore – Amanda Stradling's family-run fruit and veg business in Ross-on-Wye, for Beanies Wholefood shop in Sheffield, which was named best independent retailer, and the Clink restaurant in Brixton prison – which won best ethical restaurant. And more huge cheers for Yotam Ottolenghi, as Plenty More picked up the cookbook award, and Tom Kerridge – who after slightly surreally picking up Mary Berry's lifetime achievement award on her behalf, got to win his own – as food personality of the year.

But the most poignant award of the night was perhaps the readers' recipe: a wonderfully composed Masala chai banana bread with coconut cardamon cream cheese icing, created by Selma Jeevanjee from the Selma's Table blog. The award was picked up by her son: Selma sadly passed away earlier this year. Her banana bread, made to serve at the ceremony, was delicious: the award, richly deserved.

And so: a night of celebrating food heroes and feasting on all kinds of Swedish-themed dishes, from ash-smoked char with broccoli purée cooked outside on that wood fire, to a bowl of hazelnut cake with yoghurt and cloudberry butter which was both revelatory and unforgettable. This month's OFM magazine is dedicated to all the winners, from the big names to those you'll be hearing a lot more of in future. They are the very best in British food and drink: and we can all raise a cheer, or three, to that.

All images courtesy of The Guardian Press Office.

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