The perks of hold­ing star power

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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