White male chefs and no-choice tasting menus in Michelin’s favour for stars this year
Unsurprisingly, last night’s unveiling of the Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland 2023 was full of surprises. Every year, rumours are rife within the hospitality industry and on social media about potential winners and losers; every year those rumours are mostly proved wrong.
The Ritz in London was seen as a shoe-in for a second star. Wrong. Moor Hall in Aughton, Lancashire, was bound to get its third star. Wrong. The Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck, both in Bray on Thames, would be demoted. Wrong. Both retained their full set of stars, as did the other six three-star establishments in the UK. The only restaurants to lose a star this year for reasons other than closure were Seven Park Place in London and the Woodspeen in Newbury.
Many of the winners and losers announced at a live ceremony at Silverstone racetrack came out of left field. No-one I spoke to or that is on my Twitter radar predicted that Sō-lō in Aughton, run by former Michelin-star holder Tim Allen, would win its first star a little over a year after its opening. No-one had mentioned the three new awards in Cumbria (the Samling, Heft and the Pentonbridge Inn, all new one-star restaurants) as possibilities. Alex Dilling was the exception, with many commentators predicting he would jump straight in with two after just six months at Hotel Café Royal in London.
Well-known celebrity chefs were nowhere to be found on the list, with Gordon Ramsay’s 1890 at the Savoy going unacknowledged, Tom Kerridge missing out on a star for Kerridge’s Bar and Grill in London, and Marcus Waring and Jason Atherton again failing to be promoted to two-star level.
One top London restaurant PR, who preferred not to be named, lauded the guide for the geographical spread of the new stars, but was otherwise unimpressed. “Their fingers aren’t on the pulse enough. There are missed gems, especially in London, such as Chet Sharma at BiBi, Ben Murphy at Launceston Place and André Garret at Northall. The three-star level needs a shake-up. They’re resting on old laurels. It’s one thing to be classic perfection like the Ritz, and it’s another to be old hat and tired.”
The new stars established that, if you want to dine Michelin-style, you will be paying a lot of money (£140 a head on average before wine and service) and your dinner will be cooked by a man. Of the 22 new starred restaurants, 20 are run by white male chefs, the only exceptions being Turkish-born Ahmet Dede at Dede in Baltimore, Ireland (two stars) and Takuya Watanabe at Taku, London (one star) who is originally from Sapporo.
You’ll also have to leave the choice of what you eat up to the chef. All but five of the restaurants offered tasting menus only, which ranged in price from a relatively reasonable £85 at both Sō-lō and Store in Norwich to a whopping £280 at Taku, or £380 for the “Prestige omakase” which features premium ingredients such as caviar and truffle.
If you want a choice, head to Devon where Gidleigh Park offers three courses for £135 and Àclèaf serves four for £120. In Edinburgh, Timberyard offers both à la carte (£85 for four courses) and tasting (£105 for eight courses), as does Heron just down the road in Leith (£65 for three courses plus extras, or £95 for 12 courses). The only à la carte option in London from the new crop of stars is high-end Italian Luca (from about £70 for three courses, or £85 for the no-choice four-course Chef’s Menu).
Michelin dining in 2023 might also mean eating a meal of the restaurant’s own produce, with eight of the new starred places making a selling point of growing or farming at least some of their own ingredients. At the Ledbury in London, Brett Graham cultivates mushrooms in his kitchen and serves venison he farms himself for his eight-course £195 menu. At Grace and Savour in Solihull, fruit, vegetables and herbs are cultivated in the restaurant’s own walled kitchen garden for chef David Taylor’s 15-course, £135 tasting menu.
Despite these recurring tropes, the exact reasons why certain restaurants are deemed worthy of a star by Michelin and others, who appear – based on other guides ratings, newspaper reviews and general foodie word of mouth – to be achieving a very similar standard, are clouded in mystery.
When I asked the anonymous Michelin Guide for the UK and Ireland head of selection why the guide’s specific inspection process has not been made public, he simply pointed me to the five criteria published on the Michelin website: “quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits”.
The criteria are vague enough to give Michelin plenty of wriggle room to defend its decisions, but the lack of transparency can be detrimental when it comes to maintaining reader’s loyalty. “Michelin seems to be getting more irrelevant as each year goes by, despite their attempts to keep up-to-date,” says Steven Honey, who, along with his wife Sharon, is well-known on the UK restaurant scene as enthusiastic and knowledgeable diners with an Instagram feed filled with food shots from top-end restaurants. “We have been to many non- starred restaurants that knock starred ones into a cocked hat. We quite often use the World’s 50 Best and the National Restaurant Awards lists to plan our meals out instead.”
It’s understandable that Michelin Guide users are confused about what it takes to win a Michelin star, when even chefs who have held the accolade can’t explain how they’ve achieved it. “There’s definitely no blueprint to winning a star that you just follow,” says Paul Welburn of the Cygnet in Islip, who has held Michelin stars on two previous occasions. “They never give anything away. They don’t tell you what you should be doing, ever. You just cook your food and hope they come through the door.”
Even if trying to win a Michelin star is something of a guessing game, there’s no lack of chefs who are willing to put their own time and money into the pursuit of Michelin glory. Tom Stephens, who has worked for Tom Kerridge, will open Dilsk in Brighton this April where he’ll be serving an 11-course £95-a-head tasting menu that includes the likes of wagyu with Maitake mushrooms, yeast and truffle. “To get a star would be very high up on the wishlist. All eyes are on the Michelin guide and to be awarded that star would help the business massively. It guarantees bums on seats.”