Raise your glasses to the UK Michelin guide! One hundred years old this year and still going strong - much to the chagrin of its rivals and many a disgruntled chef.
While the special occasion will undoubtedly be marked by a rash of articles declaring the French tyre manufacturer's ‘red book' an irrelevance - an anachronism in the new media world of bloggers, apps and search engines - you can rest assured the industry will be talking about Michelin as much as ever when the results come out on 18 January (leaks notwithstanding). The reason is simple: no other accolade will turn your business around quite like a Michelin star. In spite of competition from the net, in spite of the leaks, the scandals and don't even get us started on the iPhone app, Michelin remains a byword for brilliance with both the industry and the public at large.
We sounded out some of the country's one, two and three-star operators to find out what their stars say about their business.
Love Your Ingredients
One star is all about good cooking. The cooking doesn't actually have to be earth-shatteringly original - though it helps - but the operators we canvassed all cited produce as the single most important thing. Know your produce and your suppliers and be very, very demanding. In his quest to achieve three stars at London's Pied à Terre, owner David Moore admits to giving a longstanding cheese supplier "a bollocking" when quality slipped.
"There were old friendships involved and we kept buying from them. But we addressed the problem and now use more than one supplier," he explains.
Rajesh Suri, whose restaurant Tamarind, also in London, reclaimed its star in 2010, agrees. "Negotiate on price but never, ever on quality," he advises. "If securing the right price means buying in greater volume, then come up with a brilliant dish around it and train staff to sell it."
A Michelin-starred kitchen, according to Mayfair-based chef-patron, Benares' Atul Kochhar, is an à la minute operation, irrespective of numbers. "Nothing is clingfilmed, nothing is pre-prepared," he says. "Fine ingredients are precious and a motivation in themselves. Look at how they are received, stored, packaged, prepared and cooked. Respect the produce at every stage."
To reach two stars and above, the single-minded obsession with produce is coupled with artistry and a clear culinary identity. You should be able to identify immediately the creator of a two or three-star plate, believes Moore, in the same way you'd immediately know one artist from another.
As tempting as it may be to blame the inspectors, it pays to question whether your own house is in order first. When Tamarind lost its star, Rajesh Suri says he revisited the whole year, trying to find the weak link. "You always know when something's not quite right - it's whether you're admitting it or not," he adds.
Even after receiving two stars for Cambridge's Midsummer House, Daniel Clifford felt his food only improved another notch once he'd asked himself some tough questions. "I'm cooking better food now I'm happier outside work," he admits. "I looked at the happiness of my family and at the happiness of myself as a person. When you're emotionally messed up, you take it out on your staff and that's no good for staff retention!"
The talent and commitment it takes to win a first, second and third star can't be faked. It's vital to learn from eating and cooking in other restaurants but not at the expense of your own identity. Jocelyn Herland, executive chef at Alain Ducasse at London's Dorchester, warns against going to three-star restaurants, taking everything you see and putting it into your restaurant. "It won't work. It's not your spirit," he says. You can't buy that kind of success and it doesn't come overnight.
"Chefs often swear blind they've changed nothing and that it was the new gold taps that clinched their second star," chuckles David Moore. "But they don't realise how much they've honed their style over the years."
It's all about "gently improving, step by step, day by day," confirms Andre Garrett who won a star last year for Galvin at Windows after toiling for two years as a ‘rising star'. Kochhar adds: "It's something you look after hour after hour - not something to leave on the mantelpiece. Winning a star comes with massive responsibility."
Chefs can sound like teary Oscar winners when they reel off the list of all the people they want to thank but, in their case, they really mean it. Respect for one's colleagues should be woven into the daily life of your restaurant. This is something that is instilled in everyone at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester from the top down.
Executive chef Jocelyn Herland says: "Monsieur Ducasse] may ask us to work more, better, faster but above all he wants us to work together."
The pooled knowledge of the team there is its most precious resource and was what it took to get to three stars within two years of opening. Sharing that knowledge - ie, training - is everyone's responsibility.
Herland says he'll happily demonstrate a skill or technique again and again until his colleague truly understands not only how to do it but also why to do it. He also makes a point of tasting dishes with the front-of-house team.
"Taking the time to sit down with others on the team to taste a dish isn't a luxury; it's an obligation. If they understand the dish, they can sell it. If a chef says ‘we don't have time for that', I say ‘you're not organised'. If you don't take a step back sometimes, you stay the same while the world all around you is moving."
David Moore admits staffing gets easier with two stars. "All the good people want to work in a two-star restaurant. Suddenly you're not paying agency fees or wasting time looking for good staff. They're coming to you. With two stars, you get people happy to pick parsley in a corner."
Cook For Your Customers
It's said so often it's lost its force, but as Tamarind's Rajesh Suri says: "You can't keep a Michelin star in the bank." Or, as two-star chef Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House puts it: "Michelin isn't going to award a quiet restaurant with two booked on a Tuesday night. It's not a good reflection on its guide book."
Customers come first; Michelin stars - and a chef's ego - comes second. Value should come into it too: in straitened times, a good deal matters to the guide's readers and, by extension, to the guide.
"You wouldn't get a star in a shack," ventures David Moore. "Michelin is keen on good housekeeping, something I'm not sure everyone picks up on. You don't need marble toilets but you do need clean ones." That's not to say that Pied à Terre holds two stars because of its half-hourly loo checks (certainly not!) but its 360e_SDgr approach helps. "Little things show the calibre of the operation," adds Moore.
This word comes up time and time again. To win a star, you have to be consistent - consistently brilliant. In practice, this means putting systems in place to have everything running like a well-oiled machine, whether that's ensuring staff get regular breaks or upgrading your kit.
David Moore wanted L'Autre Pied to get one star in its first year. He banned petits fours, canapés and so on, bought in bread and chocolates (though they now make their own) and put a limit on the number of garnishes on a plate to avoid unnecessary risk. It worked.
"If you give an amuse on one day but not on another, it doesn't actually matter," opines Moore. "Use your judgement. A stale anchovy stick or two-day-old pumpkin soup could screw up your chances."
how does a star affect your business?
Nothing, says Tyddyn Llan's chef-patron Brian Webb, first-time winner of a star in 2010, compares with Michelin for impact. Webb was on holiday when the results were announced but came back to 300 letters of congratulation and a ringing phone. "For the first time ever, I couldn't wait to get back from my holiday," he says.
Webb had prepared for a 10-15% drop in business in recession-struck 2010 but his year finished up star-struck and 10% up on 2009. Local regulars have had to watch their wallets but new customers from further afield have made up the difference - and more. Tyddyn Llan's new customers won't just drive over from Chester for Sunday lunch; they'll now make the effort for dinner. "Having beds helps." Some diners will even now take an 8.30pm or 9pm table - "that's really late in North Wales."
Since getting its Michelin nod, the Georgian greystone country house has become a ‘destination place'. "Someone from London isn't going to come because we have a star but if they're in Wales and looking for somewhere to eat, we'll be top of the list," says Webb. So even though some guests are downtrading from weekend to one-night breaks, the rooms and restaurant are now full every weekend.
With different guests come different expectations. Some expect "foams, hot jellies, trendy stuff and pretty food on a plate". What they get is "tasty food on a plate in Taffy portions".
On the upside, these more adventurous new diners go for tasting menus (at £67.50 to the carte's £47.50) and choose turbot and grouse over fillet steak.
Wine spend is up too. A year ago, house wine and wines under £20 sold best; now bottles at £80-£90 (bargains by London standards) fly out.
Winning the star hasn't turned this husband-and-wife operation into a cash cow. "It's hard to cut costs at this level." Furthermore, the property requires constant reinvestment. "Once it's finished, it's time to start again," Webb says. "You need that impact when you walk through the door every time you come."
Tyddyn Llan, Llandrillo, Denbighshire, North Wales, LL21 0ST[
The Harwood Arms
As London's first pub recipient of a Michelin star last year, the Harwood Arms has been on a unique journey. A collaboration between Brett Graham, Mike Robinson and Edwin Vaux, with chef Stephen Williams heading up the kitchen, it was a low-budget project with no starry ambitions.
Williams and the team were surprised and delighted to be honoured although the award brought some criticism their way initially, particularly online. "Some people just saw the star," says Williams. "They came expecting white tablecloths and petits fours and just didn't get what we were about. We still get the Chelsea fans in. We still have a quiz night.
"It was hard for us as a team of young guys, who were just doing our best, to get criticism. We didn't want to be on the periphery of the one-star league or viewed as symbolic of Michelin changing with the times. We set out to be one of the best pubs around."
Being a great pub and offering ‘good cooking in its category' (in Michelin-speak) remains the focus; after all, it's what won the star in the first place. The only downside is that punters don't always respect it as they would a restaurant.
"Large groups will turn up late to a pub with no idea of how that affects service and our ability to make money. If they had a table at Royal Hospital Road, you can guarantee they'd turn up on time," Williams adds.
Busy before, thanks to a slew of great reviews on opening, the Harwood is now busier than ever. Inclusion in the guide has brought it to the attention of diners overseas and has enabled it to fill earlier and later slots.
Williams still works with a brigade of just five as there's no space for more. The only changes in the kitchen have been the purchase of a walk-in fridge and new cooking range. Without the shot in the arm from Michelin, they may well have had to make do without.
"Like any business, we had our moments where we scratched our heads and wondered if it was going to work," he admits.
The Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove, London SW6 1QR[
derek bulmer: 10 ways to reach for the stars
If there's anyone who knows exactly what Michelin is after it's the Great Britain and Ireland Guide's former editor, Derek Bulmer. Having retired from Michelin on completion of the 2011 guide, Bulmer started a new career as consultant with MyJam Communications, the PR and marketing group co-founded by his son. He shares his tips on winning a star:
â- You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Sourcing quality produce is very, very important.
â- Think about the combination of ingredients that you're putting together. If they don't bring out the best in each other, they won't make a great dish.
â- Less is more. The biggest mistake is overcomplication. Every ingredient you add to a dish is a risk. If you put it on the plate, it will be judged.
â- For somewhere to get in the guide - let alone be considered for a star - there will be a minimum level of upkeep, service and welcome. The level of service should be commensurate with what's being served.
â- The star is for food on the plate, but wine and food can't be divorced. Someone in the operation should give the same care to the wine list - particularly the house wines - that the chef has given to the menu. Give a choice by the glass, the carafe, the half-bottle.
â- Riedel glasses, sommeliers, amuse-bouches and so on aren't necessary for a star. Luxury is represented by the number of ‘couverts' (knives and forks symbols).
â- The star is awarded for good cooking ‘in its category'. People often don't read those last three words. You can't compare a pub with a Mayfair restaurant.
â- Chefs should eat their own food - not just taste it in the kitchen but sit at the table and eat the whole dish. They might learn something.
â- One star is a massive achievement. There's no automatic assumption that those with one will progress further. It's not within everybody's scope to be one of the top 20. That talent is rare.