As most of us recovered from May Day hangovers and got an early night, Friday saw the arrival of the central and eastern heat of The British Street Food Awards arrive in the grounds of Oxford Castle. The awards are the brain-child of food columnist and broadcaster Richard Johnson, and brought with them a plethora of vendors; performances from Universal Music artists; and even crazy golf. Richard told me how after a night of partying with Marco Pierre White and Jay-Z he went in search of something to eat and realised that in New York one could “eat the world on a lattice of streets, while in Britain lunch still meant a sandwich at your desk”. In light of this in 2010 he arranged the first British Street Food Awards with a hand full of traders in London. Five years later the final will be returning to London: however it is now preceded by four regional heats with 14 to 20 traders exhibiting in each, at iconic locations such as the castle, a beech in Cornwall, and the docks in Leeds. Richard described British Street Food as a “young, DIY, punk movement” where “if you’re good at what you do, you’ll get a chance”.
Few traders started out as professional chefs, many were simply lovers of cooking who decided to share their gift with the world and saw street food was the best way to do so. Students, bankers, and journalists are amongst those who decide to buy a van and start selling great food from it. In addition to raising the profile of their delectable comestibles many utilize the awards as a platform for environmental and ethical issues surrounding overfishing and meat farming practices. Roadery use “unloved cuts of meat” in their cooking, while Happy Maki produce amazing vegan sushi rolls from delicious meat substitutes, which could easily pass for the real thing.
Sharps, makers of Doombar, were one of the breweries present. They were showcasing a range of beers which perfectly compliment a variety of food in a sleek tasting bar, obviously in the back of a van. It may seem strange for such a big name to appear alongside smaller, independent traders but just ten years ago they were a microbrewery in Cornwall! This really goes to show how, in an environment such as this, small businesses stand a real chance of success.
While all of the traders are in competition for the awards, they share a real sense of community. James (aka The Cake Doctor) took a break from baking in his converted ambulance to describe the camaraderie and shared motivation. “Everyone one is lovely and everyone is loud, it’s full of characters,” he told me. The traders generally follow one another on social media and catch up at markets and festivals. For the quality of food on offer the trader’s prices were also astounding – James explained: “It’s not about making money, I wanted to recreate that experience for people of when you’re little and cooking with someone and you get to lick the spoon at the end.”
It’s heart-warming to see this growing community of street traders thriving, and being recognised in the face of the global chains which dominate fast food as we know it. It can only be hoped that they continue to go from strength to strength.