I’m at an awards ceremony in a marquee, with a glass of free champagne in my hand to calm my nerves. I’m trying not to drink too much because I’ve been asked to present an award myself. I’m a bit nervous because I feel like a bit of an imposter and I’ve never presented an award before. In fact I’ve never spoken in public: not even a best man speech or a funeral oration or anything that involves standing up in front of strangers. And there are a lot of those here - strangers in a tent – all of them wearing black tie and looking forward to finding out who won the biggest prizes.
The host, an irrepressible fellow called Mark, isn’t at all nervous; at least if he is, he doesn’t show it. He has a booming voice, an affable manner, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of self-confidence, ebullience, self-deprecating gags and blokey banter that tests the boundaries of our post-Weinstein post-#MeToo memeworld – yet somehow emerges unscathed (probably due to the aforementioned self-confidence and ebullience - as well as a great deal of experience in the presenting game).
After dinner, as we start edging towards my big moment – my award is the second-last so there’s a lot of (not) drinking time to get through first – Mark has already made mocking remarks about most of the other presenters, and even a few of the recipients, so I’m not exactly at ease. He has aimed some well-researched barbs at their backgrounds, their businesses, their physiques, their clothes and, in a couple of cases, their funny foreign names. No one has hit him yet and the audience seems to have taken it well; possibly because we are not in a London university populated by students eager to take offence and bundle him from the stage in protest, but at a large country house just outside Nottingham.
Consequently, I’m fully expecting him to have a go at me when I wobble my way to the stage towards the end of the inaugural Nottingham Restaurant and Bar Awards to do my thing. But Mark has dug deep on me too, and drawn the conclusion from my columns that, if he did, he’d risk me writing something nasty about him in revenge. And I’d never do that because, despite his approach towards political correctness having more in common with Benny Hill or Dick Emery back in the 1970s - somewhat to the dismay of the woman in her mid-20s sitting next to me - he seems like a nice chap.
So there I am, as nervous as hell and confronting the awkward contradiction that trying not to drink when you’re nervous as hell is requires nerves of steel. Anyway, a lady whose job is to escort presenters to the stage comes to get me and I step gingerly onstage, shaking only a little, as Mark tells the assembled audience – a few hundred of the great and the good of Nottingham’s thriving food and drink scene – that I’m always ranting about things in my columns, which I’m sure I’ve never done, and making sarcastic remarks, which I’m sure I never do; at least not to anyone who didn’t deserve it. Which definitely doesn’t include Mark, because both of us want to go back to Nottingham next year.
So I stand there in the spotlight and read out the nominees for the Critics Choice Award, wondering who the critics are and, if I’m honest, what they were choosing – I’m guessing it’s a kind of Lifetime Achievement thing - before announcing the winner. At the last minute I drop my ‘hilarious’ plan to read out the winner as ‘La La Land’ because I’m worried that no one will laugh; or, worse, that no one will laugh except me.
So I just read out the name of the winner, who is Sat Bains, the most famous chef in Nottingham, with two Michelin stars. And guess what? Unlike all the other winners, Sat’s not there. Luckily I knew that, because the organisers told me in advance, so I kind of wink at Mark, who luckily doesn’t embarrass me for that, but plays Sat’s pre-recorded film clip thanking everyone for voting for him and apologising that he can’t come because he’s cooking dinner at his restaurant.
And then someone hands me a nice big trophy to give to Sat, which I’ll never do because we’ve never met, and I’ve never been to his restaurant, and I’ll be on a train back to London in the morning while he’s probably prepping his 15-course tasting menu or whatever it is that superstar chefs do, like inventing a new ‘foam’ or experimenting with different textures of ‘crumb’ (I may have been watching too much Masterchef).
As it happens I’ve had my fill of foams and crumbs and tuiles because I was one of the judges of the Restaurant of the Year (and the Best Kept Secret category) which meant I was invited to Nottingham for a weekend in October, when I managed to cram in meals in four restaurants, and cocktails in two bars, over the course of just 48 hours: the archetypal tough job that someone has to do.
I know it’s polite to say it was a tough decision and almost impossible to choose between the contenders because they were all so brilliant but it was actually pretty easy for me because I thought the winner – a new tapas joint called Bar Iberico – was far and away the best. It was also the last one I visited.
The first, from a shortlist following nearly 50,000 diners’ votes, was a French bistro where I knocked off marks after asking the waitress whether she thought a Bordeaux might go well with my steak and, after disappearing to seek an opinion from someone else, she came back to tell me they didn’t have any wine from Bordeaux. Which seems a bit like an Irish pub not serving Guinness.
The second was a country house hotel with a longstanding reputation as the place that locals go for special occasions – and it was starting to show its age in the service. First my friend and I were offered a drink and shown into a room without a view, filled with tables piled together for storage, rather than our table in the beautiful conservatory overlooking a lovely cottage garden.
I could go on, about how we watched the pot of butter melting on the table while wondering whether anyone would offer us some bread to go with it (they didn’t) or the waitor, who looked about 20 and might have started that day, forgetting the wine I’d ordered three – or was it four? – times in a row and repeatedly coming back so I could point it out on the wine list.
But we also went to an Indian restaurant with fantastically glitzy decor and a hostess in a glittering sari who seemed to have walked straight out of a Bollywood movie – little surprise that she won the Front of House Award, where we sent a starter back because it was seafood and it just didn’t seem quite right, which is not the best reason to return food to the kitchen. To their huge credit, the staff apologised, took it away and removed it from the bill without question, while the rest of the meal was superb.
But then, still stuffed from the country house hotel earlier in the day, we ventured into our fourth and final contender: Bar Iberico. We didn’t expect too much because, well, it’s a tapas bar. But on a Saturday night in Hockley, the epicentre of Nottingham nightlife, it was sensational – buzzing with a boozy crowd enjoying splendidly authentic Spanish snacks, including the titular Iberico ham from acorn-fed black pigs, offered at a fraction of the price in London (or Spain).
Honestly, our decision was a no-brainer and there’s something immensely satisfactory about seeing the place you voted for pick up a prize. But not as satisfactory as finding out that this public speaking lark isn’t as daunting as I thought. Next year I might even try the Oscars joke. If I’m invited back.