Last week Briton Derek Brown became the first non-Frenchman to oversee the publication of Michelin’s Red Guide. He spoke to Louise Bozec on the day it hit the bookshelves.
Derek Brown has one word to describe the 2002 Great Britain & Ireland Red Guide – “credible”.
Credible? Certainly. Interesting? In parts. Exciting? Not especially. Unlike last year’s edition, the 2002 guide is relatively low-key.
It does not contain any new three-star restaurants and it has only two new two-star entries. One of these is chef Martin Blunos’s newly opened Blinis in Bath (whose stars were transferred from his former Lettonie restaurant in the city), and the other is Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck at Bray-on-Thames, Berkshire.
At three-star level the results put the British Isles behind Germany and Spain and keep us on level-pegging with Italy.
France, the leading gastronomic nation of the world, publishes its 2002 guide on 1 March and only then will it be known whether it has increased its 21-strong three-star lead.
Brown, leafing through the guide, is quick to dismiss suggestions that some chefs and restaurateurs might be disappointed by its findings. It is the first to be published under his leadership.
He says: “British chefs have nothing to be ashamed of. We simply have not found anyone that we feel has a three-star restaurant, but we recognise there are people in this country who have the talent to get there.”
Brown is also keen to point out that there has been a lot of progress at one-star level, with the UK and Ireland gaining more one-star restaurants than ever before. Wales and the pub sector have performed especially well.
The increase in the number of starred pubs is, according to Brown, particularly significant.
“Britain is an expensive country, and there seems to be a move towards making good cooking more accessible to more people. This is reflected in the pub entries,” he explains.
Across the British Isles there are today 112 starred restaurants – 97 with one, 13 with two and two with three.
It is the highest number ever and it is one that Brown predicts will increase steadily.
But he warns: “Our job is not to hang medals on chef’s chests, nor is it to hang certificates on walls. It is to provide a carefully chosen selection of experiences by professional people.”
Does he think it possible that Britain could ever become a land with more than 500 starred restaurants, like France?
No. But he does think French people’s perceptions of British food are changing. And that, he believes, is important.
He says: “The French are proud of their gastronomic reputation but they recognise that this is not the ‘you cannot eat well’ country that it used to be. They understand we have good food and they are interested to see the diversification in restaurants in the UK.”
If Brown is right, then the French attitude is shifting. But, if the latest guide is anything to go by, Britain is still far from being a serious culinary threat.
Brown believes stars are important in so much as they attract customers to a restaurant. But he denies that the reason France has so many stars is because Michelin-style food is, after all, French.
“That’s nonsense, but the fact that French food is the largest influence in cooking is not Michelin’s problem. It’s a fact,” he argues.
That said, does he think it likely that next year there might be a few chefs on this side of the Channel who notch up a second star? Possibly. And a third star?
Unprepared to name names, he concludes: “If a chef thinks they are capable of gaining two or three stars, then all I can do is urge them to keep going and, if they can do that, we will recognise it.”
He pauses and adds: “Few people have the ability to achieve three-star cooking, but they do exist and they are usually people who invent new dishes.
“Whoever, for example, thought of putting bacon and eggs together? What a wonderful combination. And that, come to think of it, was probably an Englishman.”
Derek Brown: Michelin man
Derek Brown joined Michelin as an inspector in 1971 and rose to become head of the UK team of hotel inspectors and editor of the Red Guide Great Britain & Ireland.
In 1996 he took over as Michelin’s director of communications in Asia, and in January 2001 replaced Bernard Naegellen as director. In doing so, he became the first non-French director in the 101-year history of the guides.
Marital status: married with three children and two grandchildren
Favourite food: does not have one
Favourite restaurant: see above – it depends on the occasion, his mood and even the weather
Cooking skills: likes to “fiddle about” in the kitchen when he has time