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28 July 2014

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Michelin stars 2013: the reaction

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Last week, Michelin accidentally revealed its results early due to a ‘technical fault’ – had this leak not occurred, the details would have been released in full today. Square Meal examines the changes Michelin has made to the gastronomic landscape, asks how much influence Michelin stars have nowadays, and talks to the chefs and commentators involved.

L'Enclume_2010_-_l'enclume_-_garden_summer_morning_WEB.jpgLast Thursday, new Michelin stars were awarded to 16 UK restaurants – half of which are located in London, including Dabbous, Hedone, Medlar and Tom Aikens. What’s more, three restaurants moved up to two-star status: Sketch: Lecture Room & Library, in Mayfair, L’Enclume (pictured right) in Cumbria, and Michael Wignall at the Latymer in Surrey. On the negative side, seven restaurants lost their stars, including two in London: Zafferano and Gauthier Soho.

As usual, the little red book showed restraint and patience in awarding its much-coveted accolades – there was no jumping on the bandwagon of transient dining trends – the only concession to the no-bookings trend, for example, was the inclusion of a few more ‘sceney’ restaurants, such as José, Polpo and the Canton Arms, on the Bib Gourmand list.

However, restraint was not the buzzword when Michelin accidentally leaked its results last week. Eagle-eyed food fans picked up the new additions to the Michelin list early on Thursday morning and began Tweeting the news – a few hours later, the additions were mysteriously removed, leaving chefs in limbo, unsure of whether to believe the rumours. Eventually, Michelin made an official announcement.

‘It was a genuine mistake on the IT side of things,’ insists Rebecca Burr, editor of the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland. ‘It wasn’t a PR exercise in any form. But once the leak happened, we didn’t want to hold back the information, so we published it earlier than planned.’

The early news certainly caught the chefs involved off-guard.

uk24 - Michael_Wignall_at_Pen_opt.jpg‘It was a really weird, surreal day,’ said Michael Wignall, head chef at his eponymous restaurant at Pennyhill Park hotel (pictured, left). ‘The news last Thursday was a total surprise – somebody texted me at 6am to tell me about it, but I didn’t know what to think. Later, as I was driving to work, my restaurant manager rang me and asked me to look at the Michelin website, but by the time I could the results had been removed.

‘I’m happy about the news but it still hasn’t quite hit me. The way the stars were announced took some of the pleasure away from the day because we had to get straight back to business without having time to take it all in.’

Still, for better or for worse, Michelin is still the ultimate accolade for the chefs receiving – or losing – their stars. For Ollie Dabbous, the Michelin star was an unexpected culmination to a very successful first year for his self-named restaurant.

'It was a surprise, given the short period of time we have been open, as well as the informality of the restaurant and austerity of the interior,' he told Square Meal.

Simon Rogan, chef-patron at L’Enclume (winner of the BMW Square Meal Award for Best UK Restaurant 2010), is another happy recipient (of two stars) who prefers not to question the inner workings of the Michelin machine.

‘It’s a nice feeling to be called a two-star restaurant, there’s no doubt about that,’ he admitted. ‘Before the results came out, I was feeling quite pessimistic about achieving a second star. We’d been tipped for it in the past and had always come out empty-handed.

‘I don’t think I’ve done anything different, food wise, in the past year, but all of a sudden we’ve raised the bar. I’ve no idea why. However, the extra Michelin star will make a difference for us in terms of international customers and the coverage we will receive – we will get more a slice of the cake from the people visiting the country.’

simon rogan roganic 2011 - roganic3.jpgRogan (pictured right) is also executive chef of Roganic, in Marylebone, which was widely tipped for its first star but missed out.

‘I was a little disappointed because I think it’s a nailed-on one-star – it’s an amazing restaurant,’ he said. ‘But because of the terms of its lease, the restaurant is only going to be in that location until the end of July, so I suppose I understand. I hope that was the only reason it didn’t get a star.’

Perhaps the most surprising changes to Michelin dining as we know it was the deletion of Zafferano and Gauthier Soho from the one-star list.

‘We don’t like taking stars away, but restaurants lose stars for a reason,’ Burr told Square Meal. ‘If we feel that the level hasn’t been maintained, then chefs tend to respect our judgement.’

Guardian Weekend restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin, who has criticised the values and processes behind Michelin in the past, was particularly surprised by the loss of Gauthier Soho’s star.

‘Alexis Gauthier didn't deserve to lose his star,’ she said. ‘I've eaten in many a provincial French one-star restaurant that wasn't a patch on what he's doing.’

However, Michael Wignall reasoned that a restaurant losing a star does not have as negative an impact on business as the postitive impact of gaining a star. ‘Losing a star is not great for business, but places like Zafferano and Gauthier Soho are really busy anyway,’ he said. ‘It must be horrible to lose a star, but if they’re busy already, they can just carry on with what they’re doing.’

Dabbous agreed. 'I feel bad for them and hope they can take it on the chin. Ultimately, if the staff are happy with what they are serving and the customers enjoy themselves and come back, that is all that matters.'

In general, however, the changes to the 2013 Michelin guide were not controversial.

‘The results weren’t surprising because Michelin doesn’t make controversial decisions,’ said Square Meal editor Ben McCormack. ‘This is part of its usefulness: it’s consistent and reliable. But the flip-side to that is that it lacks vibrancy. It doesn’t factor in the excitement of pop-up restaurants or the no-bookings scene – instead, it’s very much skewed towards Mayfair and Knightsbridge.’

The Sunday Times’ restaurant critic AA Gill, seems to agree. In a critical article in Vanity Fair about what Michelin stands for nowadays, published this month, he wrote:

‘The guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people actually eat, still being most comfortable rewarding fat, conservative, fussy rooms that use expensive ingredients with ingratiating pomp to serve glossy plutocrats and their speechless rental dates.’

Alyn_Williams_at_the_Westbury_Hotel_Restaurant_2012_10.jpgHowever, Burr insisted the popular association of Michelin with fine dining is unfair.

‘This image of Michelin, it’s such a dated view. Michelin is about the food from start to finish, and in fact, the sorts of restaurants we’re seeing on the London dining scene now didn’t exist before. This year, Alyn Williams at The Westbury (pictured left) stands out as being the most formal restaurant of the new one-stars. The others – Hedone, Dabbous, Medlar, even Tom Aikens – have a more casual environment. We never go out to eat with preconceived ideas.’

Whatever the media make of Michelin, its hold over the world’s kitchens is undeniable.

‘A lot of people say Michelin is insignificant, but within the industry and the upper echelons of fine dining it’s still the one that everybody wants,’ said Rogan. ‘It can be bloody frustrating at times but Michelin has its reasons – you just have to keep going.’

Burr acknowledges the continuing clout and influence the Michelin guide has on the restaurant scene.

‘I think Michelin is still the most respected chefs’ accolade,’ she said. ‘We know it has an impact on their business – a star ensures quiet gaps such as Tuesday lunchtime will be filled when before, the restaurant would struggle.’

So how does a restaurant go about bagging a coveted star? Burr insists there is no magic formula.

‘There isn’t a rule book chefs need to follow. Focus on the food. We never use the term fine dining – I think it’s awful. And we’ve stopped using our rising stars because chefs were complicating things unnecessarily to try to secure the star.

‘My tips would be to cook for your customers. Don’t give an amuse-bouche for the sake of it, or because you think Michelin expects it. Give customers something extra – an amuse-bouche or petit four – because it’s brilliant.’

This feature was published on 4 October 2012.

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