The Seafish National Fish & Chip Awards 2016 have just announced Simpsons in Cheltnam as the best fish and chip shop in the UK. The awards' longest-serving judge and former National Federation of Fish Friers chairman Mike Pili talks to Hannah Thompson about food trends, great service and how to judge the perfect chippy
You are the longest-serving judge on the panel. What are the biggest changes you've seen in 20 years?
The underpinning knowledge of how to prepare the dish has greatly improved, as has the attitude of the fish friers. They've become increasingly professional and business-savvy like never before.
Why is it important to hold the awards?
They are the "Oscars" of the fish frying world. They provide an excellent opportunity for individuals and businesses to put their skills to the test. They also play a role in raising quality standards and providing a benchmark for businesses to aspire to and help us to reinforce the UK's reputation for the world's best fish and chips.
What do the awards bring to the businesses who take part?
A platform for recognition. The benefits of entering are substantial and many of the past finalists and winners have gained international fame, increased shop footfall and turnover, and even launched their own products.
What's the most important thing to consider when judging a shop?
It has to have that "wow" factor; there has to be something that appeals to me and makes me want to explore further. I'll always ask myself "Would I be happy to visit this shop again as a customer?"
What should independent shops know about this award?
What makes the perfect fish and chips for you?
It's about look, smell and taste. They should be appealing to the eye, with a fresh aroma. When you take your first bite, they have to taste delicious and live up to your expectations.
What is the one thing that can ruin a good dish?
The batter. If that's wrong then the dish is well and truly spoiled.
You are a former frier - how does this help you with judging?
It allows me to assess how all the different elements of the shop are marrying together; the frying process, the customerservice and the staff's skill base. If they are cutting any corners, I will find out!
Your parents also ran fish and chip shops. What did they teach you?
They taught me what a fish and chip business needs to be successful: quality and service. You have to have a good-quality product but you need even better customer service skills to be able to sell it.
Do some places have a higher number of great fish and chip shops than others?
Shops will cluster around the coast, but great fish and chips can be found in all parts of the UK. Many of the best shops are in residential areas, where they cannot rely on passing trade. Distance from the sea is no barrier.
How do 'traditional' fish and chips stay relevant today?
The dish consistently remains the nation's favourite takeaway, and for good reason. I think the heritage behind fish and chips will always help; they're a symbol of British identity. Many operators also keep the dish relevant by offering a wide variety of fish and alternative cooking methods, such as pan-frying and grilling.
Do you think newcomers will always be at a disadvantage in the awards?
I think they are actually at an advantage; they have an amazing opportunity to learn from established shops. They can also offer something different as they haven't had the chance to get stuck in a rut. The only disadvantage is their lack of experience.
Can city centre restaurants ever compete with seaside shops?
Restaurants are now catering to the 'posh nosh-talgia' trend and using this effectively as a major selling point. Location does play an important role, but if your business has a good product and service, you'll succeed.
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