Better Michelin Than Michel Out, I Suppose
Sorry. Take that title as a daft hint at the subject of this post - the Michelin Guide, Great Britain & Ireland announcements today. That is, the award of stars to restaurant teams. Along with the news that some stars have (allegedly) ceased to shine and are no longer recognised.
I have already said publicly on social media that I remain shaken but not stirred by this annual process. The announcement below from Michelin yesterday failed to produce anything in me other than a reminder of the ambivalence I expect to still feel when the dust has settled on 2020’s list.
As well as the promise of increased Michelin recognition the inspection team decided to reveal one new star ahead of the ceremony. Alchemilla’s new star produced all you might expect from the industry - plenty of ‘I told you so’, ‘good luck to the rest tomorrow’ and the generous and supportive congratulations of high profile Twitter chefs towards Alex Bond and his team. I completely understand the importance of recognition for incredibly hard work by people who have produced such excellence. It is a great idea to encourage the industry and to promote it to the general public.
The much-publicised downside has to be the pressures which such scrutiny places on businesses and individuals. The terrible news of a suicide attached to worries over Michelin’s verdicts has occurred more than once. I refuse to apportion blame here but it is obvious that, no matter how powerfully talented in other areas, there are many who will lack the mental strength to cope with such pressures.
The vast majority who persist in the face of Michelin success or disappointment have my utmost respect. Along with my card details for booking whenever our pension fund is in the black! Those bookings are not made on the back of a Michelin accolade. We take note of other input and decide for ourselves. The worst example of ‘other input’ has to be the dreaded TripAdvisor. That is a dangerous minefield scattered with reviews from uncharitable and often bullying people who have a very blunt axe to grind or those who refuse to see that profit margins require a commercially reasonable asking price on menus.
Michelin is nowhere down in that league but their awards will always be the subject of debate as loyal critics and customers react largely subjectively to Michelin’s largely subjective verdicts. There remains an infuriating and stubborn failure on Michelin’s part to explain and justify those verdicts.
With my own subjective hat on I am free to state that outlets of Elite Bistros in the North West and Benedicts Restaurant in Norwich merit a Bib Gourmand for consistent delivery of flavours alone. It’s obviously much more complicated for the anonymous inspectors.
Safe to discard that subjective hat in the case of one decision last year - the ‘degrading’ of ‘Le Champignon Sauvage’ by removing one of its stars. You should know my fondness for that place and its people. Michelin could not possibly dent the affection, appreciation and sheer magic created by each visit. It was no surprise to see the reaction of a generally disbelieving culinary world to last year’s pronouncement for Cheltenham’s finest. When Harden’s published their guide for 2019 we were treated to what Richard Vines (Chief Food Critic, Bloomberg) describes as “… what diners actually like, as opposed to mere restaurant critics.”
It is evident that customers fall in readily with the consternation and disbelief of a lot of experienced chefs and members of hospitality. Let’s use Google Translate here to clear away any sort of ambiguity - at the table, most diners easily discard Michelin as an almost complete irrelevance.
I am always going to be cautious, veering towards suspicious, about anyone who tells me it is not worth my while travelling 200 miles (only two stars are worth a detour!) to relish the efforts of David Everitt-Matthias or Marcus Wareing and their teams.
My huge much less subjective reservation about Michelin’s credentials were cemented by last year’s ceremony. New International Director of the Michelin Guide, Gwendal Poullenec, announced the ‘ambassador’ they had asked to welcome the newly-starred chefs. Cue Gordon Ramsay. Oh dear.
Later that month Cara Houchen, editor of The Staff Canteen, made the strange decision to describe Ramsay’s responsibility for bringing the industry into disrepute as “… a small part of who he is”. Made even more strange by immediately sharing with us that his abusive example was experienced by 275 million TV viewers every summer. Sheesh.
Michelin appear happy to join in with such defence of the indefensible. Anyone promoting a vicious threat to the image and attractive nature of the professional kitchen environment has my contempt.
I can’t see the perceived prestige Michelin have created being replaced very soon. There is much to create conflict over the way they go about their business but, however flawed, they do provide excitement and interest in a world which has my awed appreciation. Maybe Michelin do more good than damage. They certainly remain far from my thoughts when dining out. I am much more interested in letting chefs and their teams directly communicate what they are about rather than a second-hand ‘visit’ through Michelin.
Time to post this. There’s a certain live feed already started in the UK and I need to leave you. Oh, yes, in spite of anything said here I’m signing off to watch proceedings from Fulham. New stars are being announced (hopefully that link will become available again if you miss it first time around)*
For various reasons stated here - and as a keen home cook, anxious to achieve the right balance - I will of course be taking the whole thing with a generous amount of a well-known seasoning.
*Edit - "My heart goes out to all the people sitting in the audience at the Hurlingham Club for the car crash of a Michelin UK 'Revelation'. You must be seeing your life flash before your eyes. In slow motion", Jay Rayner.
You have been warned.