The gossip around the latest Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland always reaches fever pitch as the official release date approaches, but this year the phones were off the hook as the results were leaked on the internet on Saturday - five days ahead of schedule.
According to Derek Bulmer, editor of Michelin's Great Britain & Ireland and London guides, the results had been posted on an internal test website but somehow leaked into the public domain.
"I'm not sure exactly what happened, but we had no choice but to immediately publish the full results on our own website," he told Caterer. "We could have done without this happening, but it's not the end of the world. It just meant we had to bring our schedule forward."
Technical glitches aside, the results were, in many ways, what the industry had hoped for. After last year's relatively poor crop of awards, the anticipation was high that 2009 would be the year Michelin would give generously.
While the UK has no new three-starred restaurants, in terms of numbers Michelin did not disappoint. The guide handed out more stars than ever before, with 26 restaurants celebrating their first Michelin star and four rising to the coveted two-star status. This brings the total of Michelin-starred restaurants in Great Britain and Ireland to 137, the highest number in the guide's 35-year history.
"It's a really positive sign of the state of the UK dining market," Bulmer said. "There were a lot of high-profile new openings, and things really came together at many of the restaurants that missed out on a star last year, meaning overall standards have improved tremendously."
What's more, 2009 sees more women recognised by Michelin than ever before, with the number of starred restaurants with female head chefs up to 10 from only six a year ago.
"Some of the UK's most high-profile restaurants have female head chefs, including Le Gavroche Rachel Humphrey], Restaurant Gordon Ramsay [Clare Smyth], Hélène Darroze at the Connaught and Angela Hartnett at Murano," Bulmer said. "If you went back 10 years, there wouldn't have been any."
However, the results also give some credence to the suspicion that Michelin is biased towards French chefs and French cuisine. Of the four new two-starred restaurants only one, Martin Burge at the Dining Room at Whatley Manor, has a British head chef, while the other three, Claude Bosi's Hibiscus, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, all in London, are run by French chefs.
One leading London chef, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Caterer that Michelin's message to young British chefs was that to succeed "you have to cook French food".
"In Spain there are loads of rising-star Spanish chefs cooking modern Spanish food, and Michelin isn't afraid to recognise them," the chef said. "But when you turn to Britain, the Michelin guide is so conservative."
Another Michelin-starred chef said that many British chefs have been left feeling "very flat" by the results. "I'm disappointed not to see more British chefs recognised," he said.
But Bulmer defended the inclusion of the French big hitters. "These are multi-starred chefs in their own country and we cannot ignore them," he said. "They have chosen to open restaurants in London, and it's great for the capital."
While this is hardly a convincing riposte to those who claim that Michelin is seduced by big-name chefs, the feverish response to the early release shows that the guide remains the key barometer for restaurants across the UK.
By Kerstin Kühn
E-mail your comments to Kerstin Kühn here.
Looking for a new job? Find your next restaurant job here with Caterersearch.com jobs