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The Caterer Interview – Rebecca Burr, editor Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland

11 October 2013 by
The Caterer Interview – Rebecca Burr, editor Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland

Now in her second yeear at the helm of the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland, Rebecca Burr - who cannot be photographed, in order to keep her identity secret - talks to Neil Gerrard about the release last week of the Guide's hotly anticipated list of new winners of its coveted stars as well as her view of the state of the dining scene in the UK and Ireland

I think they say it is getting better and better. The wealth of variety in both the Bib Gourmands and the stars has never been greater. It is in a good state. The awards are the pinnacle of the Guide, but I don't want to forget about the regular entries as well because getting in the Guide is an accolade - there are a lot of restaurants that we don't select.

There is quite a strong focus on London this year, at least in terms of the new stars, with comparatively few outside London and none at all in Wales and Scotland. Is that a recognition of the state of the restaurant market at the moment?
It is all happening in London; we have seen it in the past couple of years. The focus is the variety for London. But we must not ignore all those places that have maintained their stars - there have been very few deletions, and those that have been taken off have been because they have closed. So there have been natural closures - James Sommerin in Wales is opening up another property.
It has been a quiet year for Wales and Scotland and we have seen a couple of stars in Ireland. But you never know. We don't work to quotas and numbers, it just naturally happens. That is just the way it has worked out this year.

With the increasing cost of food, do you find it challenging to award as many Bib Gourmands as you might like?
No, quite the opposite. We often wonder whether we should raise the level from £28 for three courses - well, we say three courses but who goes out and eats three courses these days? So can you go to a small plates restaurant and have a decent amount of food for £28 or below? We don't feel we need to change the limit. The Bib Gourmand came into play in 1997. We made a small change to the price in the intervening years and since then haven't changed it.

Compared with some other countries, the UK still lags a bit when it comes to two-star and particularly three-star establishments, and there were no new awards of three stars this year. What are UK restaurants doing wrong 
not to be attaining the sort of numbers that restaurants in other countries are?
Sometimes I find those sorts of remarks, not just from you but from other media outlets, a little bit deflating. Why can't we reverse it and recognise how much hard work it takes to maintain three stars and to get two stars? There are 21 restaurants in the country with two stars; when you compare the size of the UK to Germany, we do compare. We are on a par with New York as far as two- and one-star restaurants are concerned.
Three stars is the ultimate, world-class platform. There are about 105 three-star restaurants across the world, so I think it is unfair to ask why aren't there more in the UK. We have to remember the places that have maintained those three stars - the Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck, Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay - didn't appear overnight. They are mature businesses, they are constantly looking at what they are offering and making sure they are constantly on their top form all the time. They are consistent.
So to introduce somebody else, it has got to be right. I would say there is more chance of that as the two stars grow and develop.

Do you think there is a realistic prospect that in the next couple of years we might see someone else attaining that sort of level?
I hope so, but we never know what is around the corner from the industry's point of view. Someone could go off and be tempted to do something else that takes them away from what they were perhaps looking at achieving. We never know.
It is a bit like some of the new names that have appeared in recent years - they have come from within fantastic kitchens. They are in the background and then they set up on their own and we think we have never heard of this person, where did they come from? So I can't predict but we are always working towards that.

Quite a few restaurants that won stars this year have only recently opened, such as Ametsa With Arzak Instruction and Brasserie Chavot, which both opened in March, and Thomas Sellers at Story and Shaun Rankin's Ormer, which were even later. Have you consciously taken a decision to recognise such places faster?
We still work to the guidelines of an annual publication. We are pretty well versed at this now: we have been publishing for over 100 years, so our proofreading stage happens pretty late on.
The Guide is published at the end of September and we can make changes very late into August. We ought to be seen to react when we feel it is right. All of those names that you mentioned have had enough of a cross-section of visits for us to feel that they are going to be consistent.
Every place is treated individually, but if the place feels right and we feel that they can be consistent, then we are confident with the decisions we have made. It is an annual publication so it would be wrong to sit on things for too long.
To be able to make those changes in the Guide and publish a month later is pretty good. I am not aware of any guides that have that flexibility. Certainly last year we were the only guide to have Brasserie Zédel. I am not here to be negative about any other guides but I feel that sometimes they play a bit of catch-up with us because we have got a large team on the road full-time, visiting a lot.
We have got enough in our guide to keep our readers busy. At the moment we are not updating the website in advance of the paper guide because we don't feel we need to, but who knows in the future?

The number of openings in London alone over the past month has been huge. How much of a challenge is it for you and your inspectors to go out and see all the establishments that you would like to see within a year?
It is not tricky, it is easy. We don't specify the number of inspectors we have got, but certainly worldwide there are more than 120 and we work across Guides. I was over in Hakkasan in San Francisco because I know it in London, and I think that is important to say. It becomes easier and easier. We invest in inspectors, they have got great experience. We feel we cover it pretty well. It is not a directory guide, it is a selection, so it is easy to manage.

How much dialogue do you like to have with a new restaurant about their potential inclusion in the Guide?
There is an announced visit every 18 months roughly to every place that is in the Guide. It is very important that we find out whether they want to be in the Guide. They don't have to be. We don't get many places that say "go away, we don't want to be in the Guide"; it is free of charge.
But we want to speak to the chef and find out their philosophy and plans for the business, who is in the kitchen, what they are offering and where they want to go, to get the basic details to put in the Guide. And we send them a form to complete to update those details.
That is about as far as it goes. There is no relationship as such, but we are very approachable. They can contact us and we would rather know if they have great plans for their business or if they are opening another restaurant.
We follow your magazine and various websites, but people can communicate with us and let us know. Naturally we will have two areas of communication with the establishment every year by means of the form and the regular announced visits. We will eat in some of them and that is done anonymously.

After the results were released, some people expressed the view that a number of the restaurants rewarded with a star were not as deserving as others that were not recognised. What do you make of this sort of criticism?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion - but this is Michelin's opinion and we stand by the decisions that have been made. They are carefully considered and we are really happy with them. We don't get into that sort of to-ing and fro-ing about comments. We make our Guide for our readers. We couldn't make it without the industry's interest and without the chefs' hard work.
We have got different opinions on different restaurants. We are a guide and the stars in particular can encompass many different styles. Not everybody likes one thing or another.

What excites you about the restaurant industry for the future?
Last year we felt that a trend would be affordability and the eclectic scene at the moment - the ramen noodle bars and that type of thing - and that has certainly come through. What is next I think is that there is going to be more of that - small plates, vegetarian options - and that consideration is good to see.
Who knows what is around the corner? We didn't really know much about Tom Sellers' Story, and before that we didn't see Ollie Dabbous starting to appear. People write to us and make recommendations but I am not sure what is around next. It is exciting. We work in other countries around the world, and it is at a world-class level - that is how we differ from the other guides.
You talk about two and three stars; take the two new three-stars in Spain [Quique Dacasta in Dénia, Alicante, and Azurmendi (Eneko Atxa) in Larrabetzu, Vizcaya]: have the people who are commenting been to them? Would they then say what they are saying about the top end of the market? You can't be too contained.
We are very fortunate to be exposed to that sort of thing. There are 105 three-star restaurants around the world, 403 two stars and 2,100 one stars. Dinner by Heston is a wonderful achievement and we should be so proud that there are these iconic, glorious British recipes that have been taken to a whole new level - that is a celebration of this country. Let's not be unfair to those people who have worked pretty hard for a star.
For all the details on this year's Michelin results, see page 12

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