Quayside in Whitby is officially Britain's best fish'n'chip shop – but it had to fight off strong competition from a new wave of top-quality chippies
Britain has a new fish'n'chip shop of the year. On Wednesday night, Quayside in Whitby, North Yorkshire, went head-to-head with the nine other regional finalists at the 26th annual National Fish & Chip awards to take the industry crown. If past years are anything to go by, the winners, brothers Stuart and Adrian Fusco, will enjoy a cash bonanza. Calum Richardson, co-owner of The Bay in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, last year's top pick, says: "It doubled turnover; it made winter like summer." Frankie's Fish & Chips in Brae, Shetland, earned second place, while Papa's Barn in Kent came third.
For the wider world, this elevation of another name to a growing pantheon of great British chippies is an opportunity to celebrate an industry which, quietly and unpretentiously, is in the throes of a revolution. What's that? You haven't heard about it? Well, no. With the exception of London newbies, such as Poppies and Kerbisher & Malt (which will open three new shops this year), the media has been slow to pick up on this – cough – sea change in fish'n'chips. Battered sausages, it seems, just ain't sexy. But as ex-chef Garry Rosser, who opened the Scallop Shell in Somerset in 2012, puts it: "There is a real buzz in the trade now. The younger generation's enthusiasm is quite exceptional."
With 2,000 of Britain's 10,500 chippies entering this year's awards (that number has increased by 10% each year for the past three years), there is clearly a growing emphasis on quality. Once-pioneering new-wave chippies, such as the Fish Shed in Topsham or the Tailend in Edinburgh, are no longer rarities. In 2011, the awards organisers Seafish introduced a "best newcomer" gong to acknowledge this growing network of new independents, who – often young fryers, many new to the industry – are bringing a foodist rigour to your cod'n'chips.
Craig Buckley, 27, is a former estate agent. He now runs two shops in Crewe, including Crewe Fish Bar, a pristine, contemporary space that features plenty of product information. He also teaches at the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF) training school in Leeds, where he meets many people (a significant number retraining after recently being made redundant) who "are spotting tired shops, tired owners in their area and thinking: 'Turn that around, run it better and it could be a good little business.'" Certainly, fish'n'chips is booming: Britain eats 255m portions annually, more than any other takeaway food.
We are far pickier about what and where we eat these days, and intelligent fryers realise that the chippy must adapt. Particularly when big-name chefs and restaurateurs, such as Rick Stein and the former Ivy head chef Des McDonald, are opening glitzy, high-end chippies (takeaway cod'n'chips will cost you £10 at McDonald's Islington Fish & Chip Shop). "There has been a huge change in the perception of what a fish'n'chip shop can be," says Fred Capel, owner of Chez Fred in Bournemouth and an awards assessor. "People used to think it was an easy option. Now, chefs are coming in and giving it a hell of a lot of respect."
What should you look for in a great chippy? First, proper chippies fry to order, rather than letting their fillets sit in a hot box. They use fresh fish, not frozen. Richardson says: "Fresh haddock is sweet, flaky, soft in the mouth, not that rubbery, frozen texture." Chips are an art, too. A chippy should change their potato variety seasonally, not just rely on the standard maris piper. At Crewe Fish Bar, daily sugar tests ensure that the potatoes are up to snuff.
Nearly every chippy buys in batter (or, rather, the flour/raising agent base to which iced water is added), but many owners tweak it by adding eggs, vinegar and various seasonings. Those frying in blander oils, such as rapeseed, want to boost the batter's flavour, whereas the likes of beef dripping already provides plenty of savoury oomph. For The Bay's batter (now also used at the highly regarded Edinburgh fish restaurant Ondine), Richardson developed a bespoke mix of four flours with his supplier.
Side orders should be taken seriously. "Making your own tartare, curry sauce or coleslaw is well within the capability of somebody running their own fish'n'chip shop," says Capel. "It's whether they want to go that extra mile." Crewe Fish Bar does a roaring trade in homemade pies (£2.40).
Aware of the negative connotations around fast food, forward-thinking fryers are also stressing the relative health benefits of their food, by including independent nutritional analysis of their dishes or offering healthier, grilled options. Similarly, they are attempting to green their businesses by introducing recyclable packaging or sourcing from sustainable fisheries.
Nationally, just 30 fish'n'chip shops are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Those 30 serve one or more sustainable species that are fully traceable net-to-fryer. However, many more chippies source from MSC-approved Norwegian and Icelandic fisheries, or follow buying advice from the Marine Conservation Society. Initiatives to lower the cost of MSC certification (currently around £1,000) will, hopefully, make full-chain transparency more common. "Five years ago, I could have sold any white fish," says Buckley. "Now my customers ask: 'Is it cod? Is it haddock?' We're being more responsible in sourcing and top shops are telling that story to customers."
It's all about being honest and open. Sometimes literally. Buckley has a glass prep room, "so when the lads are peeling and chipping potatoes, it's all on show". That said, he still refers to fish'n'chips as a working-class dish and keeps his prices relatively low. According to the stats from the NFFF, and anecdotal evidence, chippies around the country are charging between £4 and £7 a portion (although it shoots up in London). For Richardson, value is key. People will pay £6 for haddock and chips if it's fresh, sourced responsibly and tastes fantastic, he says. "Customers see it's not about greed and squeezing every penny out of that fish supper. I never get anyone complaining."
Fish'n'chips may not be having a fashion moment. It isn't all over the food blogs or trending on Twitter. It doesn't have the hipster cachet of burgers and BBQ, but it is undergoing a genuine, grassroots upheaval. One that should last.
These finalists beat off 2,000 others to make the shortlist
Winner: North East England – Quayside, Whitby, North Yorkshire, Stuart and Adrian Fusco
Second place: Scotland – Frankie's Fish and Chips, Brae, Shetland, Mr John Gold and Mrs Valerie Johnson
Third place: London & South East England – Papa's Barn, Ditton, Kent, Michael and Theo Adams
Runners-upWales – Hennighan's Top Shop, Machynlleth, Powys, David and Eleanor Hennighan
Northern Ireland – John Dory Traditional Fish and Chips, Belfast, Mark Polley and Kat Deuchars
North West England – Richardson's Fish Bar, Fleetwood, Lancashire, Chris and Jennifer Richardson
Midlands – Merchants, Stourbridge, West Midlands, Anthony Akathiotis and Christopher Preece
Eastern England –The Boundary, Peterborough, Bill Shaw and Blair Butler
Central & South England – Godfrey's, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Luke Godfrey
South West England – The Tavi Friar, Tavistock, Devon, Mr John and Barbara Murphy
• This listing panel was amended on 23 January 2014. An earlier version referred to Brae, Shetlands. That should have been Shetland, as cited correctly in the text.
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