The magic of Michelin

The new Michelin Guide 2017 awards were announced with a big fanfare in London, delighting some restaurants and chefs, sending others into misery. You could, if you wanted, watch the ceremony streamed live on the internet.

How things have changed. When I started reviewing, back in the 1980s, Michelin didn’t even bother to inform restaurants first but sent out the results via an embargoed Press release to journalists – giving them enough time to interview and photograph the starry chefs.

So it was in 1994 that I opened my Press release to find that Max Fischer had won a star for the first time at Baslow Hall. I rang to congratulate him and get a quote and was surprised this was the first he’d heard of it. And his reaction wasn’t quite what I imagined. “I suppose we shall get all these people coming wanting steak and strawberries,” he sighed.

I popped over for an interview after patiently explaining that the Sheffield Star, regional newspaper that it might be, certainly wouldn’t give people the idea that Baslow Hall was a steak and strawberries type of place.

Max then might have been the exception then because most chefs would die to get into the famed guide. Sometimes literally. I have eaten, wonderfully, at Bernard Loiseau’s restaurant in Saulieu, Burgundy. Sadly he shot himself in 2003 when he thought he might lose one of his three stars. He didn’t. His widow Dominique continues the business.

There is Michelin magic as far as the hospitality business is concerned. It is an accurate guide as to where to find good food. But it is good food of a certain type. And as some restaurants have found, the pressures of keeping up the standards don’t necessarily lead to success. Some have gone bust.

In Sheffield a few years ago Marcus Lane, then owner of Rafters and the holder of a Bib Gourmand, the award just below a star, asked not to be considered in following years because he thought it added undue pressure.

There will be plenty of headlines over the next few days about Michelin winners and losers but not that many people will buy a copy of the guide itself. Have you got one? The amount of detail it gives about any one place is small. Its value is the publicity and cachet it bestows. Much more user-friendly are publications like the Good Food Guide and Harden’s.

I long ago lost patience with the AA guide when I realised it was handing out rosettes to places not worthy of mention. One leading chef confided it had rung up to get details of the menu over the past year because one of its very few inspectors would not be visiting. Needless to say, this particular restaurant was included. I am sure things are very different now.

At one time this was entitled Egon Ronay’s AA Guide (the Hungarian food critic had previously had run his own guide) but when I pointed out in an article that his main involvement had been to provide his name and write the foreword this provoked a furious letter from the great man himself. I was carpeted for my impudence by a stupid Star executive but stood my ground.

But back to Michelin. Not much luck for places around here but congratulations  to Max and head chef Rupert Rowley for retaining the star once again this year. I don’t think there will be any need to let them know.


A star has fallen

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

So the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway is one of the unlucky 13 in Britain which has lost the Michelin star, held since 1998 and the only one in Sheffield. It made front page news in the Sheffield Telegraph. But how much does it really matter?

True, it must be a bitter disappointment to chef-patron Tessa Bramley and her long-term chef Nathan Smith, who has been there for every starry year. They are most probably the victim of changing fashions rather than falling standards because reviews of the food have been mostly good or excellent although service is reportedly wobbly.

Chefs at the top of their profession crave stars but they probably mean more in terms of kudos with their fellow chefs than to the average diner. Relatively few people read the Michelin Guide, certainly not in comparison to the Good Food Guide and Hardens, compiled from public reports rather than food inspectors.

It may be difficult to the public to appreciate how much stars mean to chefs and how they feel when they lose them. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 when he thought, wrongly, he had lost one of his three stars at the Cote d’Or in Saulieu. I have eaten there, sat next to his widow Dominique, and enjoyed the signature dish of frogs legs, garlic and parsley. Gordon Ramsay is said to have wept when he lost two stars at his New York restaurant, The London.

On the other hand, Skye Gyngell handed back her star at her café in a garden centre, Petersham Nurseries, because diners drawn there by the publicity expected glitzier surroundings. And in Sheffield Marcus Lane, who then owned Rafters, felt his Bib Gourmand (just below a star) put undue pressure on the kitchen and asked not to be considered the following year.

There is no doubt that winning a star brings customers. But that can mean more staff and more costs in keeping up the standards – and pricier food to match. Conversely, losing can cost. Forbes magazine quotes studies showing that dropping a star can halve sales. More than one restaurant has won a star and gone bust. There’s another factor. Michelin stars tend to turn restaurants into pricy, over-formal, reverential temples of food where people speak in hushed voices when eating should be a lively, gregarious, convivial and sensuous experience.

It is some years since I have eaten at the Old Vic, and then we had the night to ourselves, for my editor at the Sheffield Star felt few readers would be tempted by £40 a head lunches and £75 dinners. But it has been consistently good since I first went there (just six meals into my reviewing career!) shortly after it entered the Good Food Guide 27 years ago.

I have even cooked there. Once, for a story, I was a commis chef for the night (the lowest of the low) cooking samphire and vegetables to go with an amuse of cods cheeks. Tessa, on the pass, sent one of my plates back three times before judging it good enough. She was a kind but strict taskmistress. I was terrified there might be a food critic in that night!

Like any good restaurant, stories about the Old Vic abound. In the early days Tessa’s son Andrew, nicknamed ‘Lurch,’ would open the restaurant door (you rang the bell) and look you up and down as if to judge your worth. There is the story, probably apocryphal, of the loud pub landlord out dining who asked for a bitter to which the reply was: “Would that be bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?”

My favourite is of the late Michael Winner, reviewing for the Sunday Times, who on visiting the gents noticed a bowl of strawberries. He reached to pick one then wondered about the personal hygiene of previous visitors and desisted. Winner wickedly made much of this in his report, taking the wee-wee so to speak, but gave a favourable review.

For the Old Vic, losing that star may be the end of an era but it is not the end of the world.

The Old Vicarage

The Old Vicarage