The beginning of September always marks a special time in the lives of British chefs. Not because partridge, grouse and other game birds come into season, but because it marks the start of weeks of speculation about who will be rewarded in that little red book.
On 17th September 2015, the 41st annual edition of the Michelin Guide UK and Ireland is due for release; and it’s never been surrounded by as much controversy as it is today.
Every time the guide pops up in editorial pieces, journalists make the same arguments against Michelin-starred establishment. “The atmosphere is too formal.” “It’s all ridiculously expensive.” “There is a strong French bias.”
Eventually chefs joined the choir, extolling the importance of accessible fine dining and maintaining the integrity of the ingredient. The hottest young chefs of the moment, such as Ollie Dabbous of the eponymous Dabbous, James Knappet of Kitchen Table, and Isaac McHale at The Clove Club have all jumped on the anti-Michelin bandwagon.
Don’t believe the hype – when you see where these thirty-something chefs have previously worked, it features the world’s greatest restaurants. Per Se, Mugaritz, Noma, L’Astrance, El Celler de Can Roca, The Ledbury, The Fat Duck. The common thread? All of these establishments hold at least two Michelin stars. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that these counter-culture chefs are also starting to be recognised in the guide too.
Whatever the PR tagline may be, chefs and restaurateurs still fret about the release of the guide to see if their establishments have moved up or down in the guide. How seriously? My last contract with an aspirational restaurant group had a significant pay rise written in for every additional star we won (across the three ‘fine-dining’ restaurants). Even my interview for that role was centred on what I would do to win a third star at their flagship restaurant.
Hospitality professionals, especially those behind the stove, are generally pretty strange creatures. They take on what to many would be a vocation, but they see as a calling. They start young – multi-starred Nathan Outlaw began aged eight – for 16 hour working days, meagre pay and back breaking work.
They rarely have friends outside the industry, and no one ever invites a chef over for dinner. But the guide gives their hard work a tangible reward, not just for the extra business it inevitably brings in, but because it defines them as something more than a labourer. The truth remains that a Michelin star is still coveted by any honest, ambitious chef.
Is it perfect? Probably not. The guide had started to become disconnected with the financial climate and the dining zeitgeist in London. But that’s changing. Rebecca Burr, Editor for Michelin UK, recognised that and from 2014 the list had to evolve to feature popular restaurants in a more varied list. Small-plate, informal restaurants are starting to be recognised in the guide. Barrafina and Little Social are examples of restaurants that would seem to fall far outside the ordinary realm of Michelin, but all have been awarded stars in recent years. That’s not a slight on either establishment – Barrafina is my favourite Spanish restaurant in London and nobody knows how to build a genuinely fun restaurant with high standards better than Jason Atherton – if anything it’s praise for the evolution of Michelin.
Finally, the part I was least looking forward to. While it’s almost impossible to predict where the stars will land this year, here are my Michelin star predictions for the 2016 guide:
- The Typing Room – Lee Westcott, under the tutelage of Michelin-favourite Jason Atherton, has carved out a cult following for his establishment out in fashionable Bethnal Green. If any of my predictions are likely to be right, I’d bet on it being this one.
- The French – following in the footsteps of Simon Rogan’s double-starred Cumbrian restaurant L’Enclume, and one star Fera at Claridge’s, The French should be a shoe-in for Manchester’s first Michelin star for over 20 years.
- The Dairy – Robin Gill has been busy building a culinary empire, with two new sites this year. While his flagship ‘The Dairy’ is far removed from the rarefied environment normally associated with Michelin, the food here is some of the most interesting and innovative in the capital.
- Pollen Street Social – having been recognised as the UK’s third best restaurant in the Good Food Guide, Michelin really shouldn’t overlook this Jason Atherton’s stellar flagship for it’s second star.
- Restaurant Story – while the setting may not scream classic luxury, there is no doubt that Tom Sellers’s food is up there with the very best.
- An honourable mention to The Clove Club, who seem to be getting better every year – with a unique cooking style and the most passionate and knowledgeable staff around – but a second star is unlikely to follow a year on from their first.
- The Ledbury – a multi-starred contact has told me that the four most influential Michelin inspectors have dined at Brett Graham’s Notting Hill restaurant this year. Could we be about to see a third three-star restaurant in the capital this year?
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