The perks of holding star power
Meeting Rebecca Burr is like being introduced to the Wizard of Oz. The editor of the Michelin Guide to the UK and Ireland guards her identity just as closely and she holds similarly mythical powers, although hers are to make or break a restaurant.
To win a Michelin star is an accolade chefs dream of; to win three is a restaurant holy grail. Losing them is disaster. Eleven years ago French chef Bernard Loiseau killed himself when he feared his restaurant was about to be demoted to two stars; hard man Gordon Ramsay wept when his New York restaurant The London lost both its stars. Michelin is, opines revered French chef Paul Bocuse, the only guide that matters – perhaps because of its reputation for rewarding consistency and its refusal to take payment for listings. Its beginnings were distinctly workmanlike. At the turn of the last century, brothers André and Edouard Michelin produced a free guide to promote their tyre company and, they hoped, encourage the small band of French motorists to burn a little more rubber shooting around the country in their Renaults and De DionBoutons. It was a sensible sort of volume for the glove compartment, including handy hints on car maintenance, lists of petrol stations and garages and suggestions for agreeable places to break the journey. Further editions followed, until in 1926 the brothers moved up a gear, focused on hotels and restaurants, and started sending out inspectors, initiating a star system. In 1956 the guide to Italy was introduced, and in 1974, Britain. Michelin now produces 27 guides in 23 countries, with about 50,000 hotels and restaurants making the grade.
But like the Wizard, Burr is a shadowy figure. Like all Michelin inspectors, she is anonymous. Restaurateurs would love to pin a picture of her up next to the other restaurant critics’ mugshots on the kitchen wall, to better prepare the waiting staff, but there are no photographs of her face on the website or even on Google. Burr’s appearance is so secret that at a recent conference to launch the new restaurant app, run in conjunction with the online bookings facility Bookatable and launched to coincide with the new guide, she spoke by relay from another room, unseen. All very Wizard of Oz; all that was missing were puffs of magical smoke.
But when I am ushered “behind the curtain” – actually into a bland meeting room – to meet the Michelin Woman herself, I find her to be a very different prospect from the weaselly Wiz. Nor does she bear any resemblance to the Michelin Man, being dark haired, very feminine and without a spare tyre. She laughs ruefully when I congratulate her. “I started at Michelin in 1999 and I have got a bit bigger. Hazard of the job.”
And what a job. Inspectors, of whom there are 120 worldwide, eat around 250 meals out a year, and spend 160 nights in hotels. Not really conducive to family life, or indeed a social life. Burr, who lives near the Guide offices in Watford (“not a great spot for restaurants”), has no children, “just a very understanding partner”, she tells me. Inspectors can sometimes take their spouses with them – but Michelin won’t pick up the tab for both. Maybe that’s why some chefs have hinted to me that a Michelin inspector can be spotted – by a booking for two at which only one diner turns up. Burr bristles at the suggestion: “We never do that.” But on the rare occasions that the inspector is identified, schmoozing up to him or her will do the chef no favours, she warns. “If we get an extra piece of foie gras and the table next to us doesn’t, we know what is going on.”
Still, even though inspectors often dine in pairs, it must mean lots of tables for one. That’s not a problem, Burr insists. “Twenty years ago that would have stood out. But now lots of people dine on their own.” It’s not the only thing that has changed. “When the UK and Ireland guide started in 1974 there were only 26 stars in total. It’s unbelievable that we are now approaching 150 stars.” The food and the atmosphere have been transformed, with the move towards small plates, more reasonable prices and a notablecloths informality. Service is often from groovily dressed staff rather than the penguin suits of yore.
“People think, they aren’t in uniform – but they know the menu inside out. That’s what it’s about now,” Burr says.
The awarding of two stars to a pub, Tom Kerridge’s Hand and Flowers in Marlow, is emblematic of the change. “We never thought we’d see the day when we’d have a two-starred pub, and very good it is too.” Reports of the death of fine dining (she hates the term) are exaggerated, though, she reckons: “What we hear from our readers is that people are going out less often, but they are saving up to go to better places.”
But she admits that those marathon menus with multiple mini courses, beloved of showoff chefs, aren’t always a good idea. “We do sometimes ask chefs, ‘Have you sat at the table and eaten your own meal?’ because menus that are 20 courses, up to 30 sometimes – that’s an awful long time…” She is similarly cool about the vogue for local produce. “It doesn’t matter where you get the ingredients from, as long as they are in their prime and really good. Don’t say local for the sake of it.”
But Burr’s real frustration is that the public perception is still that “stars mean pomp and ceremony and starched waiters – and they don’t. It is all about the food. Absolutely. To go from one to two stars we are looking for that technical strength, signature dishes, refinement, something that sets them apart. To go from two stars to three, we are talking about the ultimate experience.” So are we talking about more than the food, then? “No, we’re not. But chefs who are serving that sort of food would never pair it up with a shabby place. The staff that are serving are going to be gracious and polite. But it’s still the food.”
Also a consideration in awarding stars, explains Burr, is the cost. “It’s got to be worth it. It’s another myth that all starred restaurants are expensive – some are, but there are some fantastic deals to be had, particularly at lunchtime.” Here we Britons excel. “When I compare London to Paris or Tokyo it is wonderful value.”
There’s never been a better time for British cooking, according to Burr. “Chefs don’t need to escape to France. That used to be de rigueur – but now French chefs want to come over here.” And there’s a new breed who are “self-taught, and just have a natural talent”. She is especially enthusiastic about the “focused” chef at Raby Hunt Restaurant in Co Durham, James Close, who gave up plans to be a professional golfer to be a “fantastic” cook.
Sipping at a glass of mineral water, she adds, “I’ve just been in Spain, but all my colleagues want to come here – they all want to go to the Hand and Flowers, or spend time in London – they feel the London diners are very cosmopolitan and open-minded. I think that is why a lot of the chefs have opened up here – I remember Hélène Darroze saying exactly the same, and Alain Ducasse – but [Londoners] are very savvy, unforgiving, so if they have a bad experience they will move on.”
After posting a vitriolic review online, presumably. And in these days of websites such as TripAdvisor, does anyone use a printed guide? Burr is stern. “There is more of a need for a guide because people want an instant recommendation, they don’t want to trawl through various sites, and while we have had loyal readers for many years, we are attracting a younger audience now.” Mind you, she admits, the Bookatable app is the first step to a more digital world for Michelin UK and Ireland, with a move to an online guide, regularly updated, inevitable in the foreseeable future. The UK edition will join Twitter too, on September 25, the day the new guide comes out.
All of which means that Burr doesn’t get much kitchen time at home. “I’ve got the largest but emptiest fridge at the moment. I eat a lot of fruit.” And she admits to loving the less formal inspections. “The other day I sat at the bar with everyone else eating chicken wings, getting it down my top and having a bourbon milkshake, and thinking: ‘This is great.’” That’s job satisfaction.
I’ve got my eye on you: like all Michelin inspectors, guide editor Rebecca Burr conceals her identity when working. This is not her