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Celebrating the City with The Leicester Curry Awards 2020/21

A personal view by Gary Newby

We’ve such an abundance of quality curry houses in the city you could be forgiven for thinking Leicester alone had invented them. Wonderfully different, but each sharing the same ambition to offer the best experience.  They can feel familiar or strange places to visit, sometimes garish and noisy, or cosy and serene, almost always friendly and with exquisite-tasting food from menus which seem constantly evolving. There’s nothing quite like them and whether restaurant or takeaway we’ve been blessed with so many for as long as most of us can remember.

Picture Credit: Pukaar News

They are also an important barometer of the city’s economic and cultural vibrancy, and serve as a living repository of social history for they tell us much about where we are and how far we have come as a city.  The pioneers of this industry, often in the face of prejudice, trailed a path that others followed more easily and together helped to open the collective mind and soul of Leicester to something that still excites and endures.  We owe much to those early founders for their enterprise and vision and to those who loyally followed, not least for having helped us to embrace our city’s heritage.

So why no-one thought to honour the industry with a Leicester Curry Awards until as recently as 2017 is a mystery.  Maybe we became so accustomed to the ritual indulgence of fine eating that we thought there was no time for distractions. I have my own theory:  the discovery of a fantastic curry house or pleasing new dish has to be one of life’s great pleasures.  (Or perhaps I need to widen my interests).  But therein lies a dilemma. Should I share my discovery and risk it being spoiled by some unintended consequence – a surge in demand or change made by the outlet’s owner in response – that leaves me wanting?  Or do I selfishly keep my secret pleasure hidden from those not in-the-know?

I shouldn’t be so cynical. There is a popular restaurant visited some years ago by a celebrity chef as part of his filming for a TV series. Some could have been forgiven for thinking such exposure on national TV the owners rightly deserved and enjoyed might lead to unwelcome changes.  It did not.  That tells us something about the integrity of the owners and hopefully more widely about standards in the industry in Leicester.  Competition is robust and keeps the industry on its toes. It leads to change, to failure sadly, and to success particularly for those recognising and valuing in that which sets them apart. Few endure for decades and those that have shared the staple of a reputation not only for exceptional food but also a warm, welcoming atmosphere, clean surroundings and attentive staff.

Like the unfounded fear of the TV celebrity’s visit, the Leicester Curry Awards had its own detractors largely from those who viewed the industry less cohesive and with more dispiriting voices than others saw it. The Awards has sought to find common themes and a collective celebration whilst still acknowledging the healthy competition upon which the industry survives and thrives. If nothing else, the awards have shone a light on the industry to raise its prominence in the minds of the public and the wider business community.  But of course it’s done much more than that and by highlighting success it has hopefully brought economic rewards for those curry houses taking part, and is building a legacy for many to enjoy and to be reflected upon in the future. ITV News Central has been a supporter of that legacy and is proud that its presenters Sameena Ali-Khan and Rajiv Popat have hosted the awards.

Picture Credit: Pukaar News

Rajiv hosted the most recent on 27 September 2021 after the previous year’s awards had to be cancelled due to restrictions imposed because of the pandemic – a global catastrophe which has had a huge impact on the industry.  We’ve seen curry houses prosper by adapting to change brought about by restrictions, some were unable to do so but still survived largely intact, others have sadly disappeared.  Fittingly, the Awards also recognised those individuals and establishments who had helped vulnerable people in the community during the pandemic. It was my honour to have been able to present one of those richly-deserved awards.

A telling point for me of the last Awards was that ‘Restaurant of the Year’, ‘Best Fine Dining Restaurant’ and ‘Best New Restaurant’ awards all went to venues outside of the city to the county. I should avoid reading too much into it, but maybe the exceptional dining and eating experience in Leicester is spreading further afield or perhaps a culinary entrepreneurship is developing in its own right in the county.  It will be interesting to see what might develop in this area in the months and years ahead.

Whether in awards, everyday diners’ experience or the perception of the trade as a whole, triumph will come from the ability of those who work within the industry to continue to believe in themselves as well as to ensure their establishments have skilled cooks with a genuine passion to their craft and all colleagues deriving pleasure from producing high-quality food and service.  It cannot be stated too highly that our lives’ timelines are punctuated by memorable events, celebrations and nights out with family and friends where their success relied in no small part on the skill of the hosts of the venues where they have taken place.

Crucially, too, the industry has never stood still.  Many understand the need to adapt and change and, as we come through an extraordinary period of challenge in which new and more efficient ways of working and of delivering customer experience have been found, there should be optimism and excitement about the future.  Who knows where new competition may emerge or what other inventive ways the industry might embrace. Thankfully, it appears to be in robust health and the challenge for The Leicester Curry Awards is to continue to play its part in supporting and celebrating this remarkable contributor to the city’s business and cultural life.