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Derek Bulmer – the Michelin man steps out of the shadows

30 September 2010 by
Derek Bulmer – the Michelin man steps out of the shadows

After more than three decades of anonymity, Michelin's outgoing editor, Derek Bulmer, is giving his first exclusive interview, revealing his identity and announcing his successor. He speaks to Amanda Afiya and Kerstin Kühn about the highs and lows of his career at Michelin, his thoughts on the industry and his plans for the future

After 30 years of anonymous inspections and having to hide your identity you must be excited to finally go public

I am ready to go public now but from every point of view it's better to do this job incognito. You want to get a typical restaurant experience like any other customer, and if operators know who you are you always ask yourself whether you're getting special treatment. Likewise, I've seen them when they recognise me and they are so nervous that they're shaking, and that doesn't help them either.

I accept that I have done this job for a long time and am now recognised in some establishments - that's inevitable - but I can still travel around most of Britain and not be known, which is great.

You became editor in 1997 after 20 years of being an inspector. Who is your successor?

Rebecca Burr, who has worked with Michelin for the past 12 years as an inspector on the team. She is the first female editor of the Michelin Guide to Great Britain & Ireland - we have female editors in France and the USA. Rebecca has worked with me closely for the past year and has been learning the job. But she will not be giving interviews until next year.

What's the difference between being a Michelin inspector and being the editor?

As editor I run a small publishing business and handle all the problems that that entails. We now publish four guides: Great Britain & Ireland, London, Eating Out in Pubs and Main Cities of Europe. We have deadlines all the time and with that there are inevitable problems.

A lot of our services are centralised in Paris, which can also complicate things as we're forever liaising with them and sometimes there are language problems. I also proofread every page and that's the part I'm looking forward to handing back the most. It's a busy job and it can sometimes take me away from what I love most, which is staying in nice hotels and eating at great restaurants. I will have much more time for that now.

How much will you continue to be involved with Michelin?

Although I retire today [30 September] I'll still be involved over the coming months. Next year Michelin will be celebrating a kind of centenary as it will be 100 years since the first guide to Great Britain was published in 1911. [The guide was published from 1911-1930 and then returned in 1974.] There'll be lots of celebrations in January, and I will be part of that and able to do it openly and media-facing.

Tell us about your new role as chairman and consultant at MyJam

James, my son, is a partner in MyJam [media group] so that's why I'm joining them. I wanted to use the experience I have gained from 30 years of working for Michelin and it made sense to set up under the umbrella of MyJam as they are already involved in the hospitality industry.

So I'm setting up a new consultancy arm with which I will assess hotels and restaurants and give them advice on how to improve their offer. Immediately it will be for MyJam clients only but eventually this will expand and hopefully bring in new business. At Michelin we don't give advice as that's not our job. Our results come out with the guide in January and the only time we do give feedback is when we take a star away. Now for the first time operators will be able to know what I'm thinking.

How will you manage expectations from operators enlisting your services with the aim of achieving stars?

There is no guarantee for anything. But obviously it helps that I know what Michelin looks for so I can point chefs in the right direction and convey to them the important aspects on which restaurants are judged: quality of the food, produce, skill, compatibility of the ingredients, menu planning, structure, and balance - all the things we look for at Michelin.

Everyone will benefit - it will help the restaurant to get a star, it will help Michelin to have more starred restaurants in the guide and it will help me to improve someone's offer by directing them a bit.

What does it take to get a Michelin star?

First of all you have to ask whether a star is right for a particular restaurant. Chefs have to cook for their customers, not for guide books - ours or anybody else's. They have a business to run and the customers are the most important people.

To gain a star you don't have to have an elaborate style of cooking. One thing I hope I have been able to do in my tenure is broaden the scope of stars a little bit to include places that probably didn't even exist 20 years ago. More simple, informal restaurants now have stars because they are choosing their products well and are cooking with care.

What have been the biggest highlights of your career at Michelin?

Awarding stars is definitely the biggest highlight, and taking them away and explaining to the chefs why is one of the hardest things. It's something we don't like to do but we work for our readers, not the industry, and we have to be fair to them.

Watching people's careers grow is another major highlight, along with meeting so many fantastic people in the industry, which is so full of characters. I remember when Heston Blumenthal first bought the Fat Duck his cooking was a bit all over the place and he was trying to find his way. To have seen him settle down and grow to three stars was a real highlight of the job.

What are you most proud of?

One of the things I'm most proud of is to have been part of the rise of the pubs. Early on I convinced my French counterparts that we needed to create a new symbol for this trend, which eventually ended up in the launch of a separate guide on pubs in 2005. I take a little bit of credit for that.

And what have been the biggest frustrations?

I think the biggest frustration is chefs playing musical chairs and moving around or restaurants closing. And they always seem to do it in the autumn, just when we're making our decisions. During the time between closing the guide and publishing it - which is a few months - we dread reading headlines about a chef having left and moved on or a restaurant closing down. It puts us out of date before we're even published and it's really frustrating. But with publishing an annual paper product you can't get away from it. And yet we know that we have the information and the means to make a guide every week on the internet.

With the increasing online presence of restaurant guides and consumer demand for instant information, what do you think is the future of annual guides such as Michelin?

We put all the guides online now but not until a few months after they have been published. We could make the information available online much sooner but then would that kill the paper product?

It's one of the big challenges that Michelin will have to face in the years to come. People have a need for instant information these days. You can download hotel guides on to your iPhone within an instant. We live in such a fast digital world that I don't know how long the paper product will carry on for. Eventually people will say that it's too slow to wait for. The Oxford Dictionary is no longer publishing a paper product and going online only. Perhaps that's a sign of things to come?

Will Michelin's international expansion continue?

Yes, definitely - it has been a real highlight for me and my team. We were given responsibility for the Main Cities of Europe guide and it opened up a new avenue of restaurants and parts of the world. Travelling to the Nordic countries and central European cities was a great opportunity to broaden my own horizons and those of the team. We all became much more international in our outlook, which stood us in very good stead for what was to come with the global expansion.

It has been great for the Great Britain & Ireland team because the international city guides are always in English so there's always a need for English-speaking inspectors. We have the longest-serving team of any other guide - most people have been with us for 10 to 20 years - and they have eaten at the best restaurants around the world, which has helped them tremendously in their job back home. If you've eaten at top restaurants in Tokyo, you can really judge Japanese restaurants in London.

Compared with other countries, the UK still lags behind when it comes to the number of three-star establishments. Do you see an increase in three-star restaurants in the UK in the future?

There will definitely be more three-star restaurants in the future. It's an inevitable consequence of the base getting bigger. But it takes time and just because someone has held two stars for a long time it doesn't mean that they have missed the boat. The door is always open to everybody at two-star level.

What's the cut-off date for a newly opened establishment to be included in the Michelin guide?

We don't like to rush things. The food critics like to rush into restaurants in the first week of opening but we really like to give people three months to bed in. Then they've reached what we call cruising speed rather than the rocket speed with which they take off.

So if someone opens just before we go to press we'd rather leave them out. If you try to rush to put a place in you don't do it justice and you don't give it the classification it will ultimately deserve. And that's not useful to our readers.

How much contact does Michelin like to have with operators opening a new restaurant?

We're very happy to have as much contact with them as possible and have as much information as possible about their plans and how things are developing. It makes our job easier and the more we know the better.

It has been a bit frustrating to see that Michelin has an image of being unapproachable, as it's just not true. I've been happy to talk to any chef at any time and that will certainly continue with Rebecca, my successor.

What excites you most about the industry right now?

What excites me most is the diversity of the cooking scene. We have more variety than any other European guide, with stars right across the spectrum. We're the benchmark when it comes to ethnic cuisine - in London you can eat top quality food of any cuisine, and the other European cities don't have that. Paris, for instance, has a fantastic array of restaurants but 95% of them are French. Everyone wants to be in London now because it's an exciting place. One of the biggest highlights of my career is to have seen the industry evolve over the past 30 years.

How have things changed over the years?

When I first joined Michelin in 1977 it was all about great big à la carte menus that never changed and it didn't matter because everything came out of the freezer anyway.

I remember seeing the very first handwritten menu at the Hole in the Wall in Bath, and thinking: "Wow - here's someone who is writing their menu every day, based on what they're getting from the market."

At the beginning there was just a handful of pioneers like George Perry-Smith, Joyce Molyneux, Francis Coulson and Kenneth Bell - but since then we've come so far that now this is the norm.

Back in the day Britain had such a poor reputation for cuisine but this is no longer the case and it has been great to be part of that golden age of cooking in Britain.

Who has stood out over the years?

Marco Pierre White was a huge talent, a watershed in the industry. He had talent we hadn't seen the likes of before. In the early days you had to train at the Dorchester, Le Gavroche or the Connaught and then we went through a wave of young British chefs doing their own thing in the 1980s: Alastair Little, Rowley Leigh, Sally Clarke, Simon Hopkinson.

Then Marco came along and it was like: "Wow!" The training kitchens changed and became run by British people, turning out British chefs, and the industry broke away from that slavish following of French and Italian cooking, which has grown and grown over the years. We really have our own identity now and can stand on our own feet.

Finally, while at Michelin you've never been able to go into specifics but now that you're leaving, can you tell us your favourite restaurants?

Dining out is very much related to your mood and the occasion so you can have lots of different favourites depending on what the situation may be.

If I wanted the full-blown fine-dining experience with all the trimmings I'd probably not look beyond the Waterside Inn and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, because with the food, the service and the setting they provide they are hard acts to beat.

When it comes to great quality and value for money my favourites are Arbutus and Wild Honey in London and the Hand & Flowers in Marlow. I'm a great advocate of pubs and love the Sportsman in Kent, the Olive Branch in Rutland, and the Mason's Arms in Knowstone, Devon.

In Scotland my favourite is the Kitchin - Tom Kitchin is cooking great food and he's a talent of the future - and in Wales I'd go to the Walnut Tree, which I love because it's simple but so good. So to sum it up, I think my taste is really quite simple.

DEREK BULMER CV

1969-1972
Westminster Hotel School
HND Hotel & Catering Administration

1972-1974
White Horse Inn, Hertingfordbury

Assistant manager

1974-1975
Randolph Hotel, Oxford
Deputy manager

1975-1977
Brown's Hotel, London
Personnel manager

1977-1984
Michelin

Hotel and restaurant inspector

1984-1997
Michelin

Deputy editor

1997-2010
Michelin

Editor responsible for four Michelin guides: Great Britain & Ireland; London; Main Cities of Europe; Eating Out in Pubs

MICHELIN'S TOP TIPS

â- It welcomes as much communication with operators as possible
â- To gain a Michelin star you don't have to have an elaborate style of cooking - choose products well and cook with care
â- Michelin's biggest frustration is chefs moving around too much

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