If you’re plugged into the foodie scene here in Nairobi, you have heard the buzz around the 2015 Taste Awards. As some of you may know, I had the privilege of attending the Taste Awards this year which were held at the contemporary Dusit hotel. I’d like to share with you my two cents on the event and the award ceremony as a whole.
The Taste Awards is a chance to rub shoulders with some of the Who’s Who of Nairobi’s food industry. Some notable names seen at the 2015 Taste Awards were michelin star chef Jeff Baker, last year’s mixologist of the year and judge this year Alex Kavita, and food critic and all around foodie Susan Lucky Wong.
The Taste Awards were founded in 2011 by SHK Consulting and EatOut Kenya. Their mission was simple, to create a platform that celebrates the food and beverage industry in Kenya. Taste hopes to raise the profile of Kenya’s hospitality globally through events and campaigns that become a landmark of the local scene such as the Taste Awards and Nairobi Restaurant Week. Before the Taste Awards, an event of this nature was unheard of in Kenya. As the Taste Awards have grown, so has the restaurant and bar industry with new restaurants and bars continually being opened forcing the older, more prominent establishments to ‘up their game’.
The event was beautifully crafted with elements of food seen throughout the venue from the hanging decorative forks to the delicious hors d’oeuvres courtesy of Dusit hotel. The event began at 7:00 PM with a cocktail hour which I was unfortunately late to (end month traffic can be a pain). It was an open bar cocktail hour with drinks provided by sponsors Nederburg and Absolut. Absolut offered two cocktails: a Mojito and a Strawberry Caipiroska and Nederburg provided red and white wine which, in my opinion, were lackluster in body and flavor.
As guests mingled and hydrated, an array of hors d’oeuvres were passed around the room. I didn’t always catch a server when he/she walked by but the hors d’oeuvres I did taste were delicious: a salmon pizzette (mini pizza), veggie spring rolls, and a Thai chicken wing.
The award ceremony itself was a successful event, no one spoke for longer than 3 minutes and the pace of the ceremony was quick enough to hold everyone’s interest. The atmosphere of the room felt like a group of friends getting together to celebrate each other. The room was often filled with laughter as a presenter jested and whoops and screams when an establishment won in their category.
The awards are separated into two categories: the People’s Choice Category, and the Prestige Category. The People’s Choice Category is open to public vote and the Prestige Category is judged by a panel of judges who are experts in each subcategory. You may see a full list of the People’s Choice sub categories here and the Prestige sub categories here. You can view a comprehensive list of all the winners of the 2015 Taste Awards here.
This year’s Taste Awards has come under some scrutiny specifically for how voting is conducted in the People’s Choice Category. Essentially, the voting process can feel like voting for high school prom king and queen. It’s often seen as a popularity contest where the (big-name) establishments who can market to their customer base most effectively end up taking home the prize. Although I can appreciate that sentiment, I think it’s important to take a step back and look at how far the Taste Awards have come and developed since they were founded.
Since the foundation of the Taste Awards in 2011, SHK Consulting and EatOut Kenya have ensured credibility for voting and judging criteria by benchmarking themselves against the AAA Five Diamond rating system. This rating system is used around the world for both hotels and restaurants. The restaurant rating system represents a combination of the overall food, service, decor and ambiance offered by an establishment. Secondly, this year’s results were fully audited by BDO East Africa.
In 2011 there were two categories at the Taste Awards, Restaurant of the Year and Bar of the Year. Today, the “Gold Excellence” listing has replaced these two awards with winners derived from the Taste the Best workshops. Here, a panel of judges identifies the top 12 restaurants and bars in Kenya using a specific criteria. Then, the chefs and mixologists of these top 12 establishments are invited to go head to head and compete to create the best dishes and drinks they can. The chefs and mixologists are provided with the same ingredients, venue, guidelines and a limited amount of time to create their masterpieces. You may read more about this process and the judges here.
The subcategories listed in the People’s Choice Category (i.e. Most Popular Italian) are adapted each year to reflect the areas in which competition in the industry has been strong. This year, in a single subcategory there were 50 establishments nominated. These establishments needed to be reduced further, vetted, shared with judges and triple checked to comprise the final list of 8 – 10 establishments nominated in a subcategory. A lot of work goes into ensuring that the final restaurants and bars that are put forward for a vote in their category are worthy of their slot. Bearing the selection process in mind, I believe for an establishment to be put forward to a vote in any of the People’s Choice subcategories is a feat on it’s own and they deserve our recognition and applause.
SHK Consulting and EatOut Kenya work hard to adapt the awards and grow them with each passing year. Look at it this way, the Taste Awards are still finding their footing as many international awards have done in the past. Any world-renown awards ceremony has had years to develop their concept and get it just right. The Taste Award team is learning from international standards and adapting them to the Kenyan food industry scene. It’s a process which takes time to refine and hone. The Taste Awards team has worked hard to establish a prestigious ceremony and I would hope that instead of scrutinizing and speaking ill of the awards ceremony in privacy, we would choose to work together to help build upon the strong foundation we have.
Can the Taste Awards be improved? Yes. Here is my biggest suggestion:
- Create a category parallel to the People’s Choice category in which the restaurants can be judged by a panel of expert judges to determine the most authentic cuisine in each subcategory. And/or have a panel of expert judges award the best pizza, burger, nyama choma, establishment in Kenya. Therefore allowing the people of Kenya to have a say but equally rewarding restaurants in the same categories based on merit.
If you have a recommendation for the next Taste Awards ceremony in 2017, SHK Consulting and EatOut Kenya would love to hear from you!
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A special thank you to Shreya Karia co-founder of the Taste Awards for providing me with an interview to build this article off of.