House of the rising star
The Cliff House Hotel has just received its first Michelin award, but what does this accolade really mean, asks Pól Ó Conghaile
Many chefs dream of winning a Michelin star. Only a fraction succeed. So how did a small hotel in west Waterford hit the culinary jackpot just 18 months after opening?
The Cliff House, a 39-bedroom hotel in Ardmore, this week joined Dublin restaurants Chapter One, L'Ecrivain, Bon Appétit, Patrick Guilbaud and Thornton's -- along with Deane's in Belfast -- as one of only seven Michelin-starred establishments in Ireland.
The €20m hotel, a luxury bolthole built into the banks of Ardmore Bay, has won plaudits since it opened in May 2008 -- including a five-star rating and membership of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux collection. But the Michelin star is a big surprise.
"The feeling is amazing and indescribable," said a genuinely stunned Martijn Kajuiter, head chef at the Cliff House. "Just like when my first son was born. . . I never thought the star would be within reach after only being open for such a short time."
Kajuiter's cooking, a creative take on Irish cuisine married with elements of molecular gastronomy, has been widely admired. One of his best-known dishes, featuring Clare Island salmon, is served under a dome filled with smoke that the diner releases before eating.
"The Cliff House absolutely deserves this," said Ross Golden Bannon of Food & Wine magazine. "It is excellent food that really concentrates on the local produce and seasonality, without a whiff of Birkenstock. It seems to have a really smart, couture-cook style about it."
But the star also highlights "glaring omissions" in the Michelin Guide, Golden Bannon said. "I just think they make very patchy decisions in Ireland. For Chapter One to wait 13 years to get its first star, and for the Cliff House to get it in 18 months, it's sort of odd."
So how exactly are Michelin stars awarded? And why was Kajuiter recognised while others were not, like chefs Neven Maguire, of MacNean's Restaurant in Blacklion, Co Cavan -- also reported to have been visited by Michelin last year -- and Sunil Ghai of Ananda in Dundrum?
Truthfully, we are unlikely to find out. Michelin prides itself on secrecy and independence. Professionally trained inspectors pay their way, book under aliases and visit several times before submitting detailed reports based on food, service and ambience.
"They are trained to notice every detail and to go unnoticed doing it," Michelin says. A single star indicates a "very good restaurant in its cate- gory". Two stars denote "excellent cooking, worth a detour". Three stars signal "exceptional cuisine, worth a journey".
While Michelin's elitism (it favours French haute cuisine) may not appeal to Joe Public in a recession, its stars still matter hugely to chefs.
Simply put, these are the culinary Oscars. Winning a star is a triumph, losing one a humiliation. Famously, in 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide when his restaurant, Le Côte d'Or, looked in danger of losing its three-star rating.
"There are a lot of people that come and inspect you for various awards," says Cliff House general manager, Adriaan Bartels. "But (Michelin) are the ones we take most seriously because a) you don't pay any fee to be in their guide, and b) they ask you not to broadcast or advertise the fact that you have a Michelin star. . . in our world, they mean business."
While a star brings publicity, it cannot guarantee success. Fine dining is costly to produce, consumers view Michelin establishments as expensive, and these are hellish times for an industry the Irish Hotels Federation itself describes as "insolvent".
Mint in Ranelagh closed shortly after winning Dylan McGrath his first Michelin star. On the hotels front, the Park in Kenmare, Co Kerry, was stripped of its star in 2000, and Sheen Falls Lodge in Kerry -- which Bartels previously managed -- won and lost a Michelin star in the 1990s.
"I know exactly what (losing a star) is like," Bartels said. "It's awful. Look, every January 20 we're going to have a nervous time finding out whether we kept it or lost it, but if we believe in ourselves. . . we shouldn't have anything to worry about."
Currently, the table d'hôte menu at the House Restaurant costs €65. A tasting menu is available for €85. Prices are similar across Ireland's other one-star restaurants (with the exception of Bon Appétit in Malahide, which does a table d'hôte menu for €55, and Deane's in Belfast, where the sterling exchange benefits euro customers).
A market remains for high-end hospitality, Bartels insists. Taken in its totality, he says, the Cliff House represents good value.
"We're trying to stand out a bit, and the star helps that, particularly because we're the only hotel in Ireland to have one, and the only establishment outside Dublin."
The star also comes as a boost for the hotel's owner, Barry O'Callaghan, who last week said he lost "hundreds of millions" after financial restructuring at his Education and Media Publishing Group (EPMG) reduced his 21pc shareholding to zero.
Asked whether any losses sustained could affect the future of the hotel, a spokesperson for the O'Callaghan family confirmed there was "no connection between the restructuring of EMPG and the Cliff House, which is owned by the family".
As for Kajuiter -- the 35-year-old Dutchman who worked with the likes of Marco Pierre White before bringing the Michelin magic to Waterford -- he is in little doubt as to the mix of opportunities and challenges ahead.
"I always say that there is only one professional measurement which counts and that is Michelin; they have respect for chefs and restaurants in a way that they don't want to push you in a box, nor do they want to dictate the product. They keep it simple -- you either have it or you don't, nothing in-between -- I like that approach."