“I’ve got a nickname: Poirot with a torch.”
Wearing a white coat, fedora, and a neat little moustache, Michael Pili—the longest-serving judge of the Seafish Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Award—is pointing a torch at the underside of a fridge door.
Fish and chips are the closest Britain has to a national dish. Unlike Yorkshire puddings or Cornish pasties—or even chicken tikka masala—no county or area can lay a particular claim to it. Fat chips and battered cod are ubiquitous around the country.
And after two hours of rummaging around the unseen parts of Poppie’s Fish and Chips, I’m beginning to grasp that there’s more to a decent portion of the deep-fried classic than I ever could have imagined.
To be clear, Poppie’s is a prizewinner. The East London chippy won the title of “Independent Fish and Chip Restaurant of the Year” at the start of 2015 and owner Pat Newland (a.k.a. Pop) has 63 years frying experience.
But even with such accolades, Pili will judge Poppie’s using near-forensic precision—as he does with every chippy he visits.
“I go all over the country and I see good and bad,” he says. “I go in—unknown—and make a purchase. I’ll have the car parked nearby. I open the boot, put the food down, take a picture, and get the thermometer out to record the temperature. I cut the food open, look at the packaging, and think about how I was served.”
Pili carries everything he needs to assess the quality of a portion of fish and chips (probes, laser infra-red thermometers, a checklist that runs to 184 points, spare hair nets, torches) in a suitcase. It never leaves his side.
He checks seals on fridges, looks for ingrained dirt in strange places, and pokes mirrors through the underside of closed doors. He wants to be sure chip shops are following every health and safety regulation and all paperwork is in order. And this is before he’s even tasted so much as a fish cake.
On initial inspection, Poppie’s has all the signs of a chippy you’d want to eat in. It’s busy with lunchtime trade and people are queuing outside to pick up takeaways from smartly uniformed staff. The walls are covered in memorabilia from the 1950s and paintings by the Kray twins, and a genuine old-time jukebox cranks out hits from the corner.
Fortunately, the back of the shop doesn’t let the front down, otherwise we’d have a problem.
“I always start at the back of the premises and I work my way through stage by stage,” Pili explains. “You see, most shops have a very nice front-of-house but you have no idea what’s going on at the back. I want to know where they leave the refuse. I’m interested in that.”
There are about 30 Seafish judges sniffing around the bins of chip shops across the UK. Pili has been doing it since 1991.
“It’s hard work,” he says, “But the good thing about fish and chips is that it’s regional. What they do in London might not be acceptable in the Midlands or the North, so you have to take the differences into account. It’s not like if you go to McDonald’s for a burger and wherever you go it’s the same. It doesn’t work that way.”
The variation keeps the job interesting, with judges given a different patch to cover each year so that chippy owners don’t recognise them. Pili tells me he has been as far north as Shetland (“What a game it was to get there!”), as well as over to Plymouth: “I drove all the way there and all the way back—in the rain both ways—and got busted for driving in a bus lane. Twice.”
For all the lengths Pili has travelled, judges can still end up visiting places more than once.
“We have to wear disguises,” says Pili. “I’ve been in as a country gent with my shooting jacket and a hat. I’ve been in as a railway worker in fluorescents. I’ve been in as an old man with a wig on and a stick, shuffling along. They expect someone with a suitcase coming to inspect so we have to catch them out.”
Fish and chips bought and logged, Pili will then return in his guise as Poirot-with-a-torch in his whites with his tools.
“I go in eyes open, open mind, clipboard and pad, start looking, and record everything,” he says.
Moving through Poppie’s following this list, Pili seems generally impressed, approving of the choice of oil, the freshness of the fish, the allergen menu displayed for customers to see, and the portion size. Poppie’s is also one of the few fish and chip shops that has an on-site fishmonger.
“A lot of fish and chip shops use frozen fish,” explains Newland. “And they don’t change their oil regularly. They think they’re saving money but all they’re doing is losing custom.”
These points of pride are the things Pili looks for.
“Is the fish fresh or frozen at sea? Are they preparing their own chips or buying them in? What range are they frying on?” he asks. “What oil are they using? How often do they change it? All these things make a difference.”
This is all well and good but I am not going to poke around a chip shop’s bins, neither am I going to ask to see the back of the shop nor wave a torch around at the fridges. So what should I, the ordinary punter, be looking for in a good plate of chips?
As I tuck into my plate of traditional cod and chips, I notice Pili is surveying his pensively.
“First of all, I can smell a lovely aroma,” he says, leaning in. “The chips are freshly fried, a good colour, and when you squeeze them corner to corner, they keep their shape. That’s all good. Crispy on the outside, soft in the middle.”
Pili then turns his attention to the fish.
“Sometimes, you can take the fish out and you could use the batter as a glasses case. That’s no good.”
With almost surgical care, he makes an incision into the batter and peels it back. I look underneath.
“Is there any white, or yellow, or gunge?” he asks. “Those are all signs it’s not cooked properly.”
There is no white, or yellow, or gunge. “All I can see is batter,” I say.
Pili agrees: “Which means it was cooked at the right temperature. And the fish is white and flaky which is good.”
He pauses and finally takes a mouthful. And then another. And another. We pass a few moments together in companionable silence, just eating fish and chips.
“It’s quite good,” Pili says. “I’m enjoying this.”
After all the Poirot-style poking around, Poppie’s still passes the Pili test. High praise indeed from the man who eats fish and chips for a living.
For more on traditional British dishes, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running every day this week on MUNCHIES.