In among Michelin's new two-star awards last week was one that didn't go to an established French name with a London outpost. It went to a Brit who has been behind many restaurant successes, though rarely in the spotlight himself. Now that he has that second star, though, life is going be to a little different for Martin Burge, head chef at Wiltshire's Whatley Manor
After Whatley Manor's opening in 2003, his cooking at the luxury country house hotel was awarded a star in 2005. Burge also has a top-notch pedigree, having worked for luminaries such as Raymond Blanc, Richard Neat and John Burton Race, and he has been after two stars in his own name for the best part of a decade.
But this year, Burge admits, he had only been hoping for a rising two-star prediction from Michelin, and had not expected to jump straight from one to two. After the fiasco of the Michelin results' leak, Michelin's UK boss, Derek Bulmer, rang Burge himself to tell him the news.
Burge went "white as a sheet" according to Tim Allen his trusty senior sous chef, who has worked with him since L'Ortolan days. He then went through a succession of emotions, from dumbfounded and not being able to speak properly, to shock, grinning widely and then feeling rather scared.
He says: "It's obviously fantastic news but I really wasn't expecting it and I am nervous now. We know we are now up there to be criticised as well as praised."
So how does it feel to finally have two stars in your own name?
I haven't quite come down from it yet. When you're working for someone, they are their stars and that's something you have to accept. It would have been nice to have a bit more credit previously from chefs, but people do things differently.
What clinched it for you this year?
Consistency is the key. Our format has been well oiled for the past three years - consistent staff and consistent food.
Did you ever have doubts?
To be brutally honest, after year four, our accolades had gone quite flat: we lost a point in the Good Food Guide and were still chasing four rosettes, so I did start to question things. But that's not a bad thing, we question everything we do. So we carried out tastings and remade, redeveloped and strengthened the food. We improved on consistency and structure and have recipes formatted down to the last gram of salt, so new chaps have guidelines to follow and it's all idiot-proof. Then, when John Campbell got his second at the Vineyard that was inspirational and I thought I had a shot at getting it as well."
Was this your original vision?
Initially we were quite ambitious and wanted one star for the brasserie, but after a year we realised we were trying to do too much so we had a regroup and simplified the food in Le Mazot. It's now clearly defined great brasserie food and that has allowed us to put a bit more energy into the Dining Room. We're now happy with the two different levels and guests really like the contrast, especially if they're staying a few days.
How do you manage the two?
Although we have two restaurants, we only have one kitchen, which has a six-metre Bonnet Maestro range down the middle with refrigeration units on either side. To start with, we had a problem with everyone scrapping for stove space. There were chefs each side clattering pans and growling at each other but Tim's idea was to introduce waterbaths, which reduces the demand for the stove and makes the cooking more efficient and consistent. We've got all the times and charts so anyone can follow it.
Your food is classic French with a modern twist - what makes it different?
Without bragging, I just got my head down with the team and did what felt right. I've had the good fortune to work with some top guys and 10 years in a two-star environment means I have certain standards and expectations and I follow those.
When we first opened our goal was to make sure we got one star. We picked things from places we had worked at before and tweaked them a bit. Then once we got that, we could look up, draw breath and see what everyone else was doing. With our extra courses we were able to dabble a bit, be creative and play around that slowly crept into our food and now I feel comfortable doing anything I want. Mainly we're focused on the food being food and we never lose sight of that.
You'll never see me with a test-tube or pipette: there are boundaries and a lot of chefs lose their way and become too concepty - not Heston, but others who don't understand it completely and then the whole thing just doesn't quite work.
How did you get "buy-in" from the team?
My backbone is Tim, he's the general in the kitchen. I've learnt a lot here about man management and learnt to come across as calmer, to motivate staff and look after them. You're only as good as the team you have and I'm conscious here it's not just one restaurant and we're running a business. We need a format to train within, so that you're always training the team below to take over when people leave, because they will - and if you're training, you can keep that circle going and keep your consistency.
How do you feel about the criticism that Michelin has ignored British chefs in favour of the French brigade?
The French guys have a proven track record and Michelin normally get who's a one, two or three right. But I was confused about the rising twos: I thought Nathan Outlaw or Tom Aikens would get two and was quite surprised they didn't. The thing about Michelin is there's a lack of understanding about what they're after as they're so secretive. All you can do is keep it simple, do the best food you can and hope you get it. But I'm over the moon… and I think they got it right with me.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I came from a divorced family and deaf parents, which is enough to challenge anyone. You end up with quite a free role and become pretty gobby, as your parents can't hear you - you can say what you like. It got quite messy - but this geography teacher, Big Bird (as he looked like the Seasame Street character), said I'd fail at everything I did. I'll never forget it, it really turned me. I thought I'd go to catering college and my first two days I was the ‘trolley lady' - pushing the weighed ingredients around the kitchen - but I loved it.
Who has been your biggest influence?
I have every single one to thank. Richard [Neat] was the scariest job I've ever had, he's a tough man, but was good to me and put me on to Le Manoir, which I'd never have got without him. I learnt structure at Le Manoir from Clive Fretwell and creativity from Raymond Blanc and after that John Burton Race gave me the freedom to develop dishes.
Is three stars next?
Three takes you to the point of obsession. I question how you can run a three-star operation as a business because of the structure you have to have in place. At the end of the day Whatley runs as a business. We run a food cost of 32/68, which is realistic but also gives us the luxury to buy top-end ingredients. But crikey, I'm happy with two, so we'll just consolidate what we've got and enjoy it.
Martin Burge was brought up in Bristol and trained at Brunel Technical College. Having graduated with distinction, his first job was under Michael Croft at the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath. When Croft moved to London to run the kitchen at Mirabelle, 21-year-old Burge went with him, before moving on to Pied à Terre under Richard Neat. From there he went with work with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and worked his way up to junior sous chef. After three years he went to Raffles in Singapore to help John Burton Race with a food promotion. On returning to the UK he went to work with Burton Race at L'Ortolan, as senior sous chef. Soon after joining, at the age of 27, he became head chef and moved with Burton Race to the Landmark in London.
So what happens next?
After getting starred for the second time in two years (at separate properties) in his first two stints as a head chef, Matthew Tomkinson's achievement at the Montagu Arms is certainly among the notable stories of this year's Michelin stars.
His first star, in 2008, at the Goose in Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire, had a huge effect on business, he says. "Almost as soon as we got it the place went mental. The Saturday after the Wednesday of the results we had to turn away 50 people. Lunches saw a huge increase as people used it give us a go. We doubled trade, doubled turnover, week on week on week."
It wasn't just the volume that changed, he adds, but diners' eating habits as well. "People became willing to try more challenging food - pig's trotter and sea urchin, say. The balance of what we sold changed immediately."
Deciding he wanted a larger infrastructure behind his cooking, Tomkinson joined the Montagu Arms in Beaulieu, Hampshire, in July 2008 and, in just five months, managed to convince Michelin that his food hadn't dipped despite the move. Does the man with the Midas touch have any advice?
"The important thing is, though it's always said, is to cook for your guests not the guides. Cook what people who come to your restaurant want to eat, not some idea of what Michelin is looking for."
By Emily Manson