Tuesday, 23 November 2010

My Michelin

The Michelin Guide:

Michelin's red guide is the definitive culinary ratings book for Western Europe and, more recently, several other major cities around the world.  Michelin operates on the principle that only anonymous, professionally trained experts can be trusted to make accurate, impartial assessments of a restaurant's food and service, as opposed to some guides that rely on customer reviews.

One star: 'A very good restaurant in its category'.
Two stars: 'Excellent cooking and worth a detour'.
Three stars: 'Exceptional cuisine and worth the journey.'


     Thoughts regarding Michelin have bounced around in my head since not long after I first started cooking professionally sixteen years ago.  Although; really, it was a good few years before there was anything professional about my technique or approach to cooking.  Mine is not a typical rise through the ranks with first stop in the dish pit.  But enough about me.
     Let’s be frank.  It really has always been us and them.  You either have a star or you don’t.  There are those that care and those that don't.  God knows the most profitable restaurants certainly don't have Michelin stars, although I would say the stars elevate and secure the chef more than the establishment.  Of course, there is much truth in the adage- ‘If you are a chef that dismisses stars; you don’t have one, and you may secretly covet them.’  It is easy to hide in your kitchen and spout bravado to the effect of, ‘What we do is real cooking, rustic cooking.  Proper portions.  We don’t play to the elite.  I would rather have a full restaurant of happy, buzzing people than a few well-heeled morons sucking up the latest trend.  Why would you want to sing to another man’s tune?’  I am guilty of bolstering my junior chefs with these snarled comments; and, for the most part, meant every word.  But would I cast a Johnny Rotten shadow and refuse a star if tossed one?  Would I fuck.  The Michelin Guide, in my mind, for better and worse is all we've got.  Well, that...and word of mouth.  For all Michelin's faults, they are a league unto themselves.  What you will read here is a very subjective accumulation of my thoughts and, (primarily UK/Ireland based) experiences on this mystical and hallowed book and some of the starred restaurants in which I have eaten.  One chef's musings on the sidelines of Michelin. 

 A footnote on AA Rosettes:

     The Automobile Association of Great Britain awards rosettes to recommended restaurants.  There seems to be very much a divide between London and the rest of the country regarding rosettes.  In London no one seems to notice; whereas, beyond the pale, they are often highly regarded. Through my own experiences of their awarded establishments and their judging process, I fall very much into the Capital's mindset.  I was a year into working at Daphne’s in South Ken when I stumbled across a stack of dusty rosette plates in a cupboard stating our two rosette status through the years.  The restaurant manager glanced over and told me to bin them. 

Stars in my eyes

     My first taste of stardom occurred January 5, 1999.  My twenty-fifth birthday celebrated with great aplomb at one-starred Patrick Guilbaud’s in Dublin.  An epiphany of perfect service and plates composed of clean lines with a technical skill I was not aware existed.  I instantly knew that the food I was producing at a very busy and respected restaurant elsewhere in the city was not in the same ballpark.  Of course, the fact that Bono and Gavin Friday were having a lively time two tables away, and the raised mains cloche revealed tickets to Paris from my then girlfriend...well, the meal would have had to be pretty bad indeed for me to have had an off day. 
     At some point most young chefs make an important decision.  Work like a dog for nary a penny and be brought up in the Michelin manner; or, continue on the fast track to higher wages and promotion a click below the perceived standards of these establishments.  The day after this lunch; I enquired, got the scoop, and stayed on my path.  Regrets?  Well, I am not really one to dwell.  Regrets and guilt don’t generally factor into my life; but, once in awhile, in those quiet moments...would it really have hurt me to take a year out, partied less and grafted for peanuts for the experience of working in a Patrick Guilbaud's?  C’est la vie.  But I will never forget the first time I gazed down at my reflection in a perfect jus.  So pure...it set me on a path to make it myself, so all was not lost.

Falling Flat

     Time rolls on and skills strengthen, the repertoire grows, a palate refines.  If I went back to Guilbaud’s now, would it still wow me?  Could it possibly live up to that fine day?  Doubtful Bono would be sitting at the next table.  A lifetime of enhanced techniques have been downloaded into my brain across those eleven years.  Do I encase that memory or try to relive it?  I hear they have two stars now...might be worth a trip.  But, if the website pics are anything to go by, not my cup of tea.  Now, I may not be able to speak with the same authority as Marco about the state of Michelin these days, but his words ring true.  ‘They are giving away one stars like candy’.  Of this I am in no doubt.  If you play their game, dance to their tune, you will get results.  As I am not a ‘civilian’, the decorum would state that this will not become a chef/restaurant slagging piece, (Lord knows I am not speaking from a plateau of perfection, more reflection and observance.) but rest assured that the five one-star establishments I have eaten in around the South West in the last couple years were a huge disappointment for all at table.  Bear in mind I don’t dine exclusively with chefs before you blame our fine-tuned and uber picky sensibilities.  My wife is an excellent barometer of the typical diner and I have altered menus and recipes immediately due to snide comments dripping from her ample and disappointed lips. 
     The restaurants in question were either dated in presentation and service or were boringly typical in their slate serving, foam fuming, pureed drag-in presented, fairy-liquid-foreign-microcress redundancies.  The worst of them served up vile trifle, dried and cracked cheeses, shell laden white crab and three profiteroles for a tenner.  The best of the lot was technically perfect but exactly like a better known grand house near Chagford.  All of the food was tepid to cold, (a major problem with fussy food; so many fingers, so little time) and virtually none of it was value for money.  Listen carefully here, value for money does not mean a bag of burgers from Lidl for three quid.  It does not mean two for a fiver Sunday lunch at a Wetherspoon’s.  It means- myself and my diners received a valuable and memorable experience of excellent food and sublime service for the money spent.  We didn't. 
     Don’t believe the hype.  Don’t be tricked by the multitude of rosette plates and framed awards bombarding you when you walk into these places.  Ever since that manager bid me ‘toss them in the bin’, I grind my teeth when I am faced with twee plates/awards hanging tacky above the reception area.  You win awards, you are held in high esteem?  Carry on with style and class, I don’t need to be smacked in the face by your pride.  There is a one-starred restaurant not far from where I live that actually has a massive oil painting of the chef; in whites, arms crossed, standing in a field, assessing your suitability before entering his dining room.

Fergus Henderson of St. John, inspiring chef and true gent.
     And then there is St. John.  One of my all time favourite restaurants.  It was a shock to many when they received a star a year or two ago.  Not because they didn’t deserve whatever accolades came their way, but because they certainly don’t fit the Mickey mold.  On one hand it makes you delighted; the other annoyed, because you feel that anyone can do ‘Half Guinea Fowl & Mushy Peas.’  I can only hope that this award was due to the vast influence this restaurant has had on a generation of chefs.  Literally, a shift in Western cooking has emanated from this Spartan room.  Now it is all marrow bones and pig’s heads, and rightly so.  But here is the rub, you never know with Michelin.  They are like the bloody Illuminati, did they give the award for politics and trend setting or, as they always say, ‘First star for the food.’  Well, if this is the case, then I hope they own the Milky Way...to even the balance they would have to dole out countless stars.

Up a notch

     Now, if you want to talk about two and three Michelin starred joints, the game changes.  This is where I believe Michelin still holds onto much of its integrity and authority.  Gidleigh Park is a setting unsurpassed.  Michael is of a generous spirit and made myself and my colleagues feel like kings with his special treatment pre-dining and tailored tasting menu.  The amuse bouche and the petit fours were the best I have ever encountered.  True, it was slightly stuffy dining and we did have a bit of a laugh at the waiter’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Hugo Weaving from The Matix. ‘I see your water has rapidly depleted Mr. Anderson...allow me to refill your glass.’  Snigger.  This aside, Gidleigh Park is a very special place that I hope to eat at once every few years.
     Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road.  Three stars, the pinnacle.  As his personal and business life begins to crumble all around him, I have no doubt that all the big bastard really cares about is hanging onto those three stars.  Life may once again become that narrowly focused for the Wrinkled One.  Again, a birthday.  My wife treated me to a thirtieth to remember.  Subdued, hallowed dining with flawless food.  I feel privileged to have partaken in what I am sure was Marco’s perfect lobster ravioli replicated down the years by the protege...and how does he make those apple crisps so perfect?  The highlight had to be Gordon’s old Maitre d’; his name escapes me, a perfect gent, softly singing happy birthday.  I mean, how could he have resisted my wife’s private request?
   The Fat Duck.  I am lucky enough to have eaten there years ago when it had one star, and then to see the exquisite editing process that achieved three stars.  The Fat Duck hands down has the best and most knowledgeable service of any restaurant I have ever experienced.  Finally, a Michelin star restaurant with relaxed and supremely confident service.  It seems one star means you are shitting yourself about losing it, two stars is the purgatory before three...and what of three?  You've made it.  Big sigh of relief. The Fat Duck buzzes with certainty, filled with a mixed clientele of bored rich and chefs in awe.  The kitchen, (thank-you Jocky on both counts, hope you like the knives) is amazingly accommodating for you to hang about and have a gander and a chat.  Notice I haven’t even mentioned the food.  Heston beats to his own drum and is a national treasure.  Not everything works, but the package as a whole is out of this world.       
      And don't knock it when things do go wrong at one of these multi-starred restaurants.  They seem adept at the art of mopping up.  Sending back some underdone halibut at, (Marcus Wareing's first on St. James' Street) Petrus suited my brother and I just fine when we got free desserts and digestifs.  Best damn port I ever drank.  When mistakes happen they usually bend well forward to make up for the momentary lapse.


     So where are we going with all this?  I truly hope that Michelin can hold onto its integrity past the one star stage.  I  can only speak of my own experiences which are much less than some.  I have made a point of eating at as many Michelin starred restaurants as I could afford; as I wasn’t working in them, I felt duty bound to keep my finger to the pulse of perceived perfection.  Yet I will be hard pressed to be persuaded to try another one star establishment. 
     My own personal view?  You don’t need stars, you don’t need to need stars.  It all smacks a bit of grade school- ‘Here is your gold star, what a good boy!’  But you dismiss them at your peril.  Much original thought is born and fantastic methods drip feed down the ranks from these gilded emporiums.  Just because I am a Blood doesn’t mean I don’t like the Crips.  South Central has changed a lot since I first picked up a chef’s knife.  I refuse to set myself exclusively in the camp of illustrious mentors ++++ & ++++ who seemingly shun anything not in their remit.  I feel it is unnecessary to be so cut and dry.  I am comfortable having Caprese on the menu next to Foie Gras Torchon with all the trimmings.  And as for dessert there can be more to life than the perfect Sticky Toffee Pudding or Eton Mess.  I love how the French always finish a meal with a bang.  Just ice cream, monsieur?  Not without an umbrella and a sparkler.  Afters should wow.  It is fun to play at times as long as everything on the plate has a reason and the hero is always the flavour rather than the look.  People do expect more these days and if you are going to keep it rustic and simple, classic and real, little flourishes and signatures are needed to not leave the diner feeling they could have just stayed home and made it themselves.  As long as these gold-starred boys and their pacojet circulator syringes use their tongues first, their eyes second and they don’t empty my entire wallet...they won’t get a drive-by.  And, please...if you keep taking that slate off your roof, the diners are gonna get wet.


     The best food I have had this year was in a private box at Lord’s Cricket Ground, a Thai gem called Phansit’s Kitchen in Bideford and a little hotel in Dartmouth called Brown's. Granted, we did have our first child this year so eating out has been pretty low down the list of priorities, but I have been out and about a bit and these three places killed on a couple big London names.  So, what do we want from a  restaurant experience?  Certainly the answer will vary slightly, but surely it is to feel at home and comfortable in a great setting be it opulent or rustic, to be cared for like honored guests and to partake in memorable food.  So often starred joints are stuffy chapels where you don't want to swallow too loud for fear of disrupting the library atmosphere. 
     I will always remember the sirloin steak I ate at Brown’s, melt in the mouth, perfectly rested and full of flavour.  The compound butter just melted and cherry vine tomatoes roasted to perfection.  The respect I instantly had for the clean and efficient chef on show at Phansit’s assured me beforehand that the hot n’ sour soup was going to be spot on.  The royal spread at Lord’s proved to me that chaffing-dish banqueting can be on par with the very best fare and I filed this one away for when my own place of work re-opens.  Do I remember the details of individual Michelin-starred dishes?  Rarely.  Bits and pieces.  As stated, the one stars a disappointment, the two and threes very good to outstanding experiences.  But how much can be placed on the fact that I generally do not remember what I ate?  At those prices?  What do you remember when asked what was the best food, the best dish, the best morsels ever to cross your expectant lips?  Do I remember the epic 'fruit de mer' at Scott’s, the oysters in that little place near Perpignon, the gnocchi from Osteria alle Testiere in Venice or the Poulet des Landes for two at The Ivy?  All moments of near sexual indulgence and perfect culinary consummation without a star in sight.  I will wish for them all again; repeated in succession, under gold cloches and served up to my death bed by sylph-like wood nymphs.  All else will fade away like forgettable fancies, passing trends and falling stars.

Bon appetit and a toast to hard working chefs everywhere...whatever their goals.

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