Baker and YBFs co-founder Lily Vanilli on setting up the awards and becoming a tastemaker
The YBFs have become some of the UK's most prestigious food and drink awards. Co-founder and baker Lily Vanilli tells us why they were and still are so important and what makes a YBF
In the seven years since they began, the YBF Awards have come to represent just about everything that's so great about London – and the rest of the UK's – food scene: cutting edge, innovative and directly related to the personalities driving it forward. Many of our best restaurants, tastiest street-food traders and greatest food writers have either won or been nominated for a YBF somewhere down the line, testament to the YBFs status as tastemakers and influencers.
Much of that is in no small part thanks to Lily Jones, or Lily Vanilli, YBFs co-founder and baker extraordinaire. Flip to her Instagram and you can feast your eyes on bright and brilliant fancies and sweet treats sold through her bakery on Columbia Road.
But behind these beautiful creations is a woman with her fingers on the pulse of the UK's food scene, and who is determined to recognise those who are helping to position our food as some of the finest on the international menu. But these are just two of Lily's passions; she's worked on the Bake For Syria, a cake sale on Columbia Road that raised money for Syria, and she's also working on a hush-hush project in China.
Here, Lily tells us why the awards are so important – and why you should enter.
How did the awards come about?
When we founded them seven years ago, we were just waiting for someone else to do it because it made so much sense. We felt like the existing food and drink awards, although great, acknowledged the old school – it was always top chefs, TV chefs, celebrity chefs. What was really interesting, innovative and putting the UK on the world map for food for the first time in generations was happening at grassroots level. That level was also where people needed the spotlight; all these small artisan businesses that were starting up – after a long drought of that kind of thing in the UK – really needed support and recognition.
Despite the name, there's no age limit and it's not just for British people but people who are based here and putting British food on the international map.
How were the awards initially received?
In the first year we wanted to have some judges to represent each category so between us we asked all the people that represented, to us, the first wave of YBFs – the really innovative, creative chefs who were breaking the rules.
We thought only a few of them would say yes, but everybody said did and the general response and feeling was similar to what we'd felt in the first place – that awards like this were the right thing at the right time and everyone had been waiting for them to happen.
And how has it changed?
It's all massively changed, year on year. And it's always more of the same thing we were talking about back then; it's multiplying and the categories keep getting more complex and expanding and it's so much richer across the board. It's a completely different country in terms of food to what it was ten years ago.
Whose careers have really taken off thanks to the awards?
Someone who has always really credited YBFs is Tomos Parry. He was doing a pop-up at Climpson's Arch at the time and had a really quick rise through YBFs. We organised a supper at the Tate that sold out and was really well received, and then immediately he was offered this restaurant in Mayfair – Kitty Fisher's – and he's just gone from strength to strength since then [and recently opened his own restaurant, Brat]. He's always credited YBFs for being able to make that happen.
Other huge standouts would be Bao, who won our street-food award in our first year when they had a food truck.
Last year's baking entry, Terry Mercier from Happy Endings, she's in Harrods now and Spitalfields Markets and has really developed. The stuff she's doing is really inspired. She originally started out as a chocolatier under the name of Fraise Sauvage.
He's outside London, but Grant Harrington, his butter – Butter Culture. He was the winner of the Honorary category last year, and his butter is one of the most delicious I've ever tasted.
Other London names to check out are Newton & Pott's preserves, Rob Simpson of The Clove Club, Kitty Travers at La Grotta Ices, Ruth Spivey of Wine Car Boot, Gosnells London Mead, Sandows cold-brew coffee and Dana Elemara of Arganic, who sells the very best Arabic produce.
Do you have any advice for potential YBFs?
Enter and nominate. What we're looking for is a little bit hard to define but it's also really about innovation in business and ideas. The kind of people we're really looking for think they aren't good enough to enter, or they haven't done enough or aren't established enough but we're looking for new people or hidden gems.
And if people are too uncomfortable to nominate themselves then I would encourage other people to nominate them on their behalf. There's nothing to lose, it's free, and in any case, win or lose, we're really supportive of our alumni, so for me, if you're on the shortlist you're basically a YBF.