The basement of the Park Plaza Hotel at Westminster Bridge is rather like a TARDIS. The further underground you go, the more the hotel seems to expand until you arrive in a sprawling ballroom filled with over 1,000 people and room for a few more.
It’s not quite China’s Great Hall of People, but if you raised the ceiling, added a couple of balconies and toned down the neon lights, it could come close. The space makes for a marked difference from Britain’s political meeting room (the House of Commons is surprisingly intimate in person). Still, other than this, there are fewer differences between the British Kebab Awards and the sitting of the British parliament than you might think.
There are all the same smug faces attempting to curry (or should I say kebab?) favour in one way or another. Both events operate under a comparable air of confusion, mainly because most attendees fail even to pretend to care, knowing a brief, contrived appearance is enough to satisfy some vested interest or pocket a few quid. And then, most damningly, there is the shrinking legitimacy of each, where the substance of the event is increasingly secondary to the show itself.
By the time I entered the great hall, the show was underway, with the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, in full flow. Most people were talking amongst themselves, but Rayner, for her part, was actually quite funny. She took the audience’s apathy in her stride, acknowledging nobody was listening but ploughing on anyway. The gags were somewhat predictable, but it’s not every day you get to see one of the nation’s senior politicians going on and on about how much she loves a rave and, more crucially, the end-of-the-night chicken kebab that follows.
“If I’m really drunk,” Rayner clarified towards the end of her speech, “I don’t mind a doner.” The whole thing was almost surreal when she left the stage, but it set the tone for the evening to come.
Among other significant politicians in attendance was the recently dismissed Chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadim Zahawi. He, too, referenced kebabs, making a poor pun about exchanging donors for doners, but otherwise seemed to be received surprisingly warmly.
Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, had to endure a rather embarrassing few minutes in the reception because his name was not initially on the guest list (though mine wasn’t either, so I can’t really slag him off). Anyway, after a few hundred people had walked past poor Ed standing awkwardly at the door, he and I were allowed in.
If his recently dismissed cabinet member wasn’t enough, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appeared digitally, sharing an inspiring message in a way only our darling Rishi could. “Kebabs are as much a part of our culture and heritage as fish and chips and curries,” he said, “reflecting our broad diversity and our nation’s love of food.
“I know it has been a very difficult few years, but I am confident that the sector can and will play a leading role in the UK’s recovery, and help us deliver the growth we want to see right across the country.”
Anything Sunak does, Starmer must attempt to do better, and the Labour man sends a message of his own. “Contributing over £2.8 billion annually to the British economy and supporting around 200,000 jobs within the restaurant, suppliers, and food industry in the UK, it is a truly British institution,” Keir said.
“I know that those working in the service and catering industry are facing tough times, particularly during this cost-of-living crisis. The increases to energy costs, rising food prices and staff shortages are testing your businesses’ resilience, and highlighting your ingenuity.”
There’s such a strong political influence because of the man behind the awards – Ibrahim Dogus, a Labour councilman who founded The Centre for Turkey Studies. The Kebab Awards are the organisation’s flagship annual event, bringing together leading kebab restaurateurs and suppliers for a night celebrating the industry.
Dogus himself spoke just before the awards ceremony. His speech was by far the best, most impassioned and indeed the most listened-to of the evening, as he rallied in favour of migrant rights and the mutually positive impact of Britain’s Turkish population – as seen on display in the room that evening.
He also spoke at length about the earthquakes to have hit Turkey and Syria earlier that month, including Dogus’ hometown of Elbistan in Eastern Turkey, which was “obliterated”. As a result of the disaster, the Centre for Turkey Studies launched its Donate a Doner campaign for earthquake relief, and Dogus highlighted the work of British kebab restaurateurs who had visited the region to help in the weeks since.
This rousing speech was the evening’s high point, as the awards soon began and the chaos soon ensued. Having already been plied with bottomless wine and Cobra at a drinks reception upstairs, the booze continued to flow at a dangerous speed. Two courses of food – the latter of which was, unsurprisingly, a kebab – perhaps kept people on the straight and narrow for a while. Still, not long after, you could feel the alcohol in the air, and the events on stage were decidedly less interesting than mingling.
The already amorphous seating plan devolved further, and the celebrity judges became harder and harder to find. Almost every award needed to be repeated time and again, and the ill-fated pair of presenters were constantly trying to track down an MP as the ‘celebrity judge’. Each time, just about, they found the person worthy of ordaining a kebab award, and the night marched onward.
I was sitting at a table with Navson, the Kebab award-winning water suppliers. They weren’t the most talkative, but they did ask if I was an MP. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Also at the table was an expert on Sweden-Turkey relations called Paul Levin, who was, for his part, a very interesting company.
The writing for the end of the evening was on the wall when a Conservative MP – whose name I sadly never gathered – appeared at the lectern to auction a painting. He began at £500, and whether due to his own inability or the inebriation of the dwindling audience, he succeeded in only fetching £750, despite almost pleading for someone to surpass it for the best part of 30 seconds.
In his defence, the ballroom was abandoned by this point. Hundreds had already left in a stupor to the smoking area or another of Westminster’s many watering holes.