This week I was involved in this year's award ceremony for the best places to eat and drink in Oxfordshire. The winners were:
Best Traditional Pub: The White Hart, Minster Lovell
Best Cafe: Aston Pottery Country Cafe, Aston
Best Service: Malmaison, Oxford
Gastronomic Restaurant: Restaurant 56 at Sudbury House Hotel, Faringdon
Best Gastro Pub: The White Hart at Fyfield
Best Asian Restaurant: Yeti Nepalese, Oxford
Living In Oxford Magazine, Editor's Choice: The Oxford Kitchen, Oxford
Belmond Le Manoir Award for Excellence: The Mole Inn, Toot Baldon
(But I have since received a very strong vote for The Sweet Olive Aston Tirrold from someone unconnected other than as a very enthusiastic client.)
The city of Oxford has played an important role in our family. It was home, education and inspiration for Jancis and Will for three years while they were students at St Anne's and The Queen's College respectively. More recently, the redesign of the Ashmolean offered me gainful employment as the consultant to their now very busy rooftop café. Consequently, I had not the slightest hesitation in offering a prize for the auction at the 2015 Oxfordshire Restaurant Awards that took place on 6 October in the magnificent Victorian surroundings of the city's Town Hall.
But in the weeks leading up to the awards, I found myself being increasingly sucked into the proceedings. I was asked initially whether I would object to being a 'guest of honour' and going up on to the stage and answering a few questions about my career as a restaurant reviewer. The final question, have I ever done a runner, ie left a restaurant without paying the bill, I could answer 'no' honestly as I pointed out that all receipts are useful for the self-employed. Then a week before the dinner I was asked if I would mind being the auctioneer as the professional they had lined up for the event had just pulled out.
I agreed despite the fact that the auction prize I offered – lunch with me to review a new restaurant – meant that I would have to go on stage and effectively auction myself. But this was all in a very good cause. The 2015 awards, for the first time, had teamed up with a charity, the Oxford branch of the Red Cross. At the moment this organisation is having to deal with a rapidly growing number of refugees both in the UK and overseas, so this seemed a particularly worthy association to support.
The juxtaposition of refugees and restaurateurs may appear initially unlikely but it did provide me with a fitting, and very personal, introduction. I was able to tell the audience of 300 with considerable pride that our son, Will, had just won a Michelin star for his second restaurant, Portland, and that he is named after my grandfather, Willy, who arrived in the UK in 1910 as a 15-year-old from Vitebsk, Belarus, as a religious refugee from the pogroms then sweeping Russia.
Although I do not find that public speaking comes naturally to me, talking and answering questions proved to be considerably easier than acting as auctioneer, which I have done once before. It was not just that the acoustics in the hall were not great or that none of the audience had paddles to raise, but the large room had two design features that would have tested even a hardened professional. The first was that the orange design motif of the room had been picked up in the floral arrangements that consisted of large stems of tall Chinese lantern flowers, which successfully blocked a good half of all attendees from my field of vision. Nor did the table numbers provide any succour because as soon as I tried to pin the first bidder down by this means, I noticed that almost all of the numbers were turned to face the entrance rather than the stage so that they were impossible to read.
Still, the audience, spurred on by the generosity of Laurent-Perrier champagne at the reception, Navajas Rioja from the Oxford Wine Company and a glass of Cognac from the Frapin family, rose to the occasion and the auction and the raffle, with numerous cookbooks kindly donated by Phaidon, raised £3,500 for the Red Cross. And I know now that if I am ever invited to be an auctioneer again, I will stipulate that Chinese lanterns, despite being one of my particular favourites, be banned.
Then the fun, and the justification for such an evening began. An evening such as this, which now takes place in numerous cities around the world, aims to fulfil three very different functions.
The first is to give all those who devote many hours a week to looking after their customers an evening out as good as they themselves provide and, of course, to share in the glory of the winners in each category. The second is to encourage young people into the hospitality industry that is in urgent need of enthusiastic recruits. And the third, and one that invariably becomes more obvious as the evening progresses, is to give everyone an opportunity for a good moan.
All these expectations were met. The awards, open to every restaurant, cafe, pub and fast food outlet were judged by a panel of 12 under the chairmanship of Alain Desenclos, the now retired restaurant director of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, which has done so much to put this particular county on the culinary map. Each winner was greeted with whoops of delight and genuine enthusiasm – much more, I suspected, than would have been the case had this event taken place in London.
The evening's role in encouraging the next wave of chefs and service staff emanated from the fact that the dinner for 300 was entirely cooked, prepared and served by students at NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) levels 2 and 3 from the City of Oxford College. Conditions were far from ideal in the kitchen and the menu of a beetroot pannacotta, slow-cooked shin of beef and, best of all, a poached pear with salted caramel was not bad under the circumstances. The service was fresh-faced and charming with just the odd touch of nerves. But it was delightful to see all these students march on to the stage at the end of the meal to receive a well-earned round of applause.
By that stage, our table had already applauded four of its occupants who had gone up to receive awards. Prem and Kabita Kandels, the proprietors of Yeti Nepalese won the best Asian category (Kabita should also have won for the best dressed woman in a very striking green outfit) while Josh and James, two young cooks in the kitchen of The Eyston Arms in East Hendred, near Wantage, were runners up to Amy Bulgin from The Red Lion at Northmoor, near Witney, David Cameron's constituency, in the City of Oxford College Trainee Awards. I presented each of them with a copy of my book The Art of The Restaurateur. They promised to read and inwardly digest it.
As these proceedings drew to a close, the opportunity presented itself for those in the hall to reflect on their achievements and also to voice their concerns. Most of these centre around the challenges of recruitment, particularly in the kitchen, and especially in a county where housing is at a premium. Naturally Conservative voters by nature, I guess, many realise that they have only been able to cope to date because many immigrants have filled these roles, a source that may soon no longer be as readily available. The proximity of many colleges is both an attraction to their business and a rival: while they draw many, many visitors, the university colleges are also looking to fill similar roles –chefs, cooks, waiters and bar staff – but with the obvious attraction of a city- centre location and a dinner service that comes to an end much earlier than in most restaurants and hotels.
There was, inevitably, an after party. But, as I headed back to London, my respect for the collective role played by these restaurateurs in the appeal for any visitor to Oxford or Oxfordshire today was considerably enhanced.