A week may be a long time in politics, but a year in hospitality is nothing. Ask Mike North and Imogen Young, owners of the Nut Tree Inn in the Oxfordshire village of Murcott. After being named a rising one-star by the Michelin guide - tipped to get a full star in the near future - they aim to oversee every service at the pub for the next 12 months. Only this, they say, will put their minds at rest as to whether they truly deserve the accolade.
The couple gained a Michelin star at their last pub, the Goose in Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire, awarded in 2005, days before North turned a tender 26. When they bought the Nut Tree in November 2006, the couple wanted to change the menu to North's style of well sourced, technically astute British food gradually rather than in one go and risk scaring off the locals, which meant the food was not wholly consistent over the course of last year, a factor taken into consideration by the Michelin inspectors.
As a result, the couple weren't expecting recognition from the guide. "I'd completely forgotten about the rising star category," says North. "If we'd got a full star I'd have been completely over the moon. Really, we were just hoping for a mention, because we knew the guide had been to see us."
Last year the pub was only about 80% of the concept they wanted it to be, says North. But they've now stamped their mark on it, and he believes standards on the plate are now as good, if not better, than when the couple ran the Goose. "I was never expecting a star but if we'd got one then I'd have felt it was justified because I reckon what we're doing here is as good as before," he says.
For the next year the couple want to oversee, if not get actively involved in, every service. "If we don't get a star then it's fine," says Young. "But it'd be Sod's law that the one day we weren't in, the inspectors would turn up and we'd be left thinking ‘what if?' This way we'll know we left no margin for error."
How does it feel knowing that, more than most, they'll be under scrutiny from the inspectors? "All you can do is your best," she replies. "You can't get it right 100% of the time - well, apart from Mike because he's amazing - so as long as we're doing it the best we can, how we want to do it and it's working well, then we can't try any harder."
This way, if the star they've been tipped for never arrives then the couple won't be heartbroken. But they're adamant that if they do receive the accolade, it won't change them as a business. "Us being a local pub wouldn't change if we got a star because we wouldn't want it to," says Young. "We purposely bought somewhere that was big enough to be at the heart of the village for locals and still do the food we wanted to."
The wet:dry split in the pub is about 40:60, with as much as half the alcohol sales coming from the bar. In view of this it would be foolish, the couple say, to alienate their drinkers by cashing in on the attention they'd receive from a star.
"It would obviously be nice if we had bigger margins and upped the cover numbers because we were more popular," says North. "But at the same time it's a pub we want to run. We wouldn't squeeze in extra covers just to get more money so we could all be driving Porsches next year. If we could average 50 covers a day as opposed to 30 or 40 it'd be ideal."
The desire to keep the business firmly as a pub is in the forefront of the couple's plans, and treading the tightrope between the attractively high profit margins of food and the desire not to overcommit is all part and parcel of this. "It's the food side that pays the bills," says North. "Without the food margins the place would struggle to work. It's the food that keeps the money coming in and the beer sales, bar and locals that keep the atmosphere."
In fact, says North, it's about time more pubs were rewarded on the starred Michelin pages. "We opened a pub because I love them. I like being in pubs, I like the fact you can have a sandwich, a ploughman's, steak and chips or a three-course dinner. The point about a good pub isn't that it's cheaper or less accomplished than a restaurant, but that it's informal. I think there are so many pubs out there which deserve stars but haven't got them. But saying that, I'm glad to see more joining the list. The guide has always said it's just about the food on the plate, and this proves it."
With recognition now in three of the last four Michelin guides (the couple retained their star at the Goose in January 2006, months before leaving when the pub was sold to new owners), what does North think it is about his cooking that the inspectors so admire?
"That's a hard question to answer," he says. "There are no real criteria. But if you cook what you enjoy eating and use the best ingredients, then if you believe in it, other people will too."
Ask an expert
Tom Kerridge, chef-patron at the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, on the effect of gaining a Michelin star on a publican, and on Mike North's cooking
Getting a star does put you on the map and we did notice more destination diners at the pub after the award. We've made sure we remain as a pub but maybe a few expectations have changed from customers.
There were some complaints in the months after the star and I'm sure people still write to the Michelin guide and complain that we don't have a sommelier or don't have tablecloths but it's not our fault and it's not the guide's. There's a pint symbol by our entry to let people know we're a pub and that's what we enjoy being.
We still have grannies turning up for a bowl of soup and half a Guinness at lunch and we won't do fancy for the sake of it. The locals are all very supportive and proud that they have a starred pub near them. We won't do amuse-bouches or let our main courses top the £20 mark. If people want to turn up in summer in flip-flops and a vest or in a three-piece suit they can.
Mike (North) has proved in the past that he's worthy of a Michelin star and I'm sure he'll get one again. He understands and respects food and the product. He won't put on fancy ingredients for the sake of it, like lobster and truffle. He'd much rather treat things well, like braise a pig's head and turn it into an excellent dish or stuff a trotter with excellent ingredients.
On the menu
Terrine of ham hock, chicken, wild mushrooms, with braised cabbage hearts and celeriac rémoulade, £8.50
Smoked salmon with home-made horseradish and a salmon skin biscuit, £8
Puff pastry with wild mushrooms and a soft poached egg, £7.50
Olive oil-poached fillet of halibut with herb risotto, £18
Roast breast of Gressingham duck with fondant potato and creamed spinach, £17
Grilled fillet of sea bream with roasted fennel and sauce vierge, £16
Hot raspberry soufflé with raspberry sorbet, £7
Fresh fruits set in a light white wine jelly with Chantilly cream, £7
Rising stars: Michelin definition
Introduced in 2005, the Rising Stars are restaurants in line for a first, second or third star.
Listed in red in the selection, these restaurants are the best in their category and could move up to the next category once they have demonstrated greater consistency over time and across the entire menu.