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Are the Michelin stars losing their lustre?

PUBLISHED: 06:38 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 17:48 12 October 2017

Marco Pierre White: The chef famously handed back his Michelin stars in 1999.

Marco Pierre White: The chef famously handed back his Michelin stars in 1999.

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Opinion: Are the days of a Michelin star being the be-all and end-all for ambitious chefs coming to an end, asks Andy Newman.

All smiles: But there are growing tensions within Theresa May's Cabinet. Picture: Zoe Norfolk All smiles: But there are growing tensions within Theresa May's Cabinet. Picture: Zoe Norfolk

The beginning of October is a time when you will find many chefs nervously checking their Twitter accounts every few minutes: for this is the time when the Michelin Guide announces which restaurants will receive one or more stars.

Congratulations to Morston Hall and The Neptune at Hunstanton, both of which deservedly retained their stars again – but many people looking at the 2018 list will be scratching their heads about how the decision to award new stars are made.

The list was slightly less London-centric this year, with eight out of the 14 new stars going to establishments outside the capital. But if you drew a vertical line through the centre of the UK, all eight are well to the west of that line. It’s as if the Michelin inspectors have forgotten that the East of England exists. One Norfolk chef who you might expect to be on the cusp of such an honour tells me that he has not been inspected for three years.

Interestingly, the AA, whose Rosette awards were announced just days before the Michelin stars, had taken the time to visit Norfolk. As a result, three Norfolk restaurants were awarded three Rosettes (generally regarded as being equivalent to a Michelin Star), with Roger Hickman’s in Norwich and Titchwell Manor included alongside The Neptune. Galton Blackiston at Morston Hall was awarded four Rosettes.

Chefs will always tell you that they are not that bothered about gaining a Michelin star – right up to the moment they get one, when suddenly the accolade is the height of culinary achievement.

But once the excitement of being awarded that coveted star has faded, and the media have turned their attention to the next big thing, some restaurants find that having a star is a bit of a poisoned chalice.

For many, they find that everything becomes about the star: retaining it at all costs becomes the be-all and end-all, often at the expense of customer satisfaction, staying true to the chef’s own principles, or even making the business sustainable and profitable.

Famously, kitchen bad-boy Marco Pierre White – the youngest-ever chef to attain three-star status – handed his stars back in 1999, saying, “I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself. I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week, I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove or I could give my stars back, spend time with my children and re-invent myself.”

Until recently White was unique in rejecting the Michelin way, but this year has seen a small but steady trickle of chefs deciding to emulate him and turn their backs on the tyre-maker’s judgements.

First French chef Sebastian Bras, who had held three stars for 18 years, decided to send them back; then in September, just one week before the 2018 UK stars were announced, the owners of the Boath House Hotel in Scotland returned their star after ten years, saying that they had consistently made a loss over that decade, and that customers wanted a ‘more informal and relaxed’ experience.

This is a telling phrase, and one reason that the shine is starting to come off the Michelin star lustre. Rooted in a traditional, formal, French way of dining, the guide has failed top keep up with what diners want when they eat out – great food, certainly, but increasingly in a less starchy, intimidating setting. Formality is out; relaxed friendliness is the dish of the day.

I suspect it will be a long time before chefs get out of the habit of bowing down before the French tyre-maker, but we are at least starting to see questions being asked about whether winning a star is a guarantee of success, or simply an impossibly high and increasingly irrelevant bar to set oneself.

For many, the concept of ‘fine dining’ is entirely alien. I’m never quite sure whether that is because it’s a style of food which doesn’t appeal, or whether the majority feel uncomfortable in the temple-like atmosphere that Monsieur Michelin seems to encourage. I suspect it is more the latter, and if Michelin’s waning star means more people feel able to enjoy top-quality food, then that is worth celebrating.

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