Fake bistro tastes instant success

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The Independent Online
During its brief life, the Chilli Pepper restaurant boasted a Chef of the Year, a five-star rating for its atmosphere and - the icing on the cake - a Restaurant of the Year title. The only thing it did not have was any food.

Despite being awarded several top prizes, the Chilli Pepper was nothing more than a fake letterhead and an accommodation address set up to expose bogus restaurant awards.

The ruse, devised by the BBC's Food and Drink programme, is likely to result in a trading standards investigation into the awarding of titles and certificates for money after two companies bestowed prizes on the non-existent bistro.

"We wrote to the companies saying we were a new restaurant and invited them to inspect us to see whether we were worthy of a rating," said Tim Hincks, the programme's producer. "Several weeks later, both wrote to us to say they had inspected our restaurant and wanted to give it some awards ... for a fee."

One of the companies, Quality Cuisine UK, based in Edinburgh and Dunfermline, said its inspector was so impressed he had named the Chilli Pepper his Restaurant of the Year and its chef the Chef of the Year. And, for only pounds 93, the owners could have two certificates to display their achievements to their adoring clientele.

A second firm, Masterchef Roll of Honour, based in central London, said its inspector had sampled the restaurant's cuisine and was prepared to offer it a five-star rating - with a certificate for pounds 62.50.

When told that the Chilli Pepper did not exist, Masterchef failed to reply to the programme and Quality Cuisine claimed that the person responsible for bestowing its accolades had been sacked. However, they refused to name the mystery inspector.

The programme's researchers have now handed over their findings to trading standards officials. They found seven other companies prepared to give awards for money, but it remains to be established whether any offences have been committed.

"It's a bit of a grey area because it is unclear who is being ripped off," said Mr Hincks. "I'm quite sure a lot of restaurateurs receive unsolicited letters from these people and are genuinely pleased to have won an award. In those cases, who's being taken for a ride? The restaurateur or the customer?"

Mike Drewry, director of consumer services at Edinburgh council, said: "We have been contacted by restaurants all over the UK who have been approached by Quality Cuisine UK, and now we're expecting a flood of complaints after the Food and Drink programme.

"We are concerned that this type of scam devalues bona fide certificates and grading schemes."