Life Food & Drink

Monday 21 October 2019

Stars and gripes: Does the Michelin Guide still matter?

As the Michelin Guide prepares to hand out its coveted stars, Aoife Carrigy asks leading Irish chefs if the 'food bible' still matters to modern diners

Michelin stars will be announced on Monday
Michelin stars will be announced on Monday
Barry Fitzgerald of Bastible Restaurant
Kevin Thorton, Ireland's first chef to oversee a two-star restaurant
Declan Maxwell

Next Monday, top chefs and restaurateurs from across Ireland and Great Britain will gather at The Hurlingham private members' club in Fulham, hopeful of being awarded one, two or - for the blessed few - three Michelin stars. Others will be glued to social media, waiting to hear their fate as details of the Michelin Guide to Ireland and Great Britain 2020 are announced.

It's widely expected that Ireland's 16 Michelin-starred restaurants will retain their 2019 status, and that Liath in Blackrock will regain the star it enjoyed as Heron & Grey. Kildare's newcomer Aimsir is tipped to secure two stars, joining Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and possibly The Greenhouse. In the UK, Antrim-born chef Clare Smyth's Core restaurant is hotly tipped for three-star status.

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There's no doubting that it's a big day for the hospitality industry. What's less clear is the extent to which the rest of us care.

It's not that we Irish don't love dining out. According to one recent Behaviour & Attitudes survey into how we socialise on a regular basis, we are becoming as much a nation of diners as we are of drinkers. In recent years, an influx of talented young chefs who have honed their skills abroad are getting inspired by the natural larder that our green isle has to offer.

Barry Fitzgerald of Bastible Restaurant
Barry Fitzgerald of Bastible Restaurant

Our resulting dining scene is full of excellent casual restaurants that deliver skilfully presented, meticulously sourced ingredients in increasingly relaxed environments and at keenly competitive prices, giving formal fine-dining restaurants a serious run for their money. With that kind of choice available, do Michelin stars matter anymore? Is Monday's publication relevant to the modern Irish diner?

"I'd ask was it ever relevant," questions Oliver Dunne, who in 2008 became the youngest Irish chef to win a Michelin star. "I don't think it's less or more relevant today than it was 20 years ago. I think the world of Michelin is created in the ego of the chef chasing it."

Dunne retained his star until 2014 before making the business decision to subsume the fine-dining element of Bon Appetit into his brasserie downstairs.

"The following year was our best financial year ever, by a country mile." Today Dunne owns six busy restaurants, including Cleaver East, The Donnybrook Gastropub and three Beef & Lobsters outlets.

"I look back now and I can't believe how blind I was to how sterile we were," he says, before quickly absolving Michelin of blame. "No Michelin inspector came in and asked me to create a boring, stuffy restaurant devoid of atmosphere - that's what you do because you're young and naive when you're chasing these things. I thought 'Gordon Ramsay has a restaurant like that so I'm going to make mine like that'. And then you never change it because of the fear of losing it, of becoming a has-been."

Dunne argues that of the "minute population of the world who actually seek out Michelin-starred restaurants", the majority are chefs and other industry folk, or corporate diners purchasing the reflected kudos of Michelin-starred dining. "But the normal punter on the street? I don't think they give a sh*t."

Kevin Thorton, Ireland's first chef to oversee a two-star restaurant
Kevin Thorton, Ireland's first chef to oversee a two-star restaurant

Donegal-based chef Tony Richardson of Fisk seafood cafe largely agrees. Richardson and his front-of-house partner Lina Reppert worked in top Belfast restaurants before making the move to Downings. "If we were to be listed in the Michelin Guide, it would be unbelievable for us," says Richardson, who has happily worked for free in international Michelin-starred 'stages' just to up his culinary game. "But to our diners, would it matter? Probably not."

What Michelin can do, he believes, is put a restaurant on the map for international tourism. "You could see that in Belfast with the international tourists travelling around, visiting each of the Michelin-rated restaurants."

Likewise, when Kevin Thornton became the first Irish-born chef to head up a two-star Michelin restaurant in Ireland, he gained more overseas customers - though he lost some Irish ones, "who now saw the place as a bit too 'exclusive'".

In 2016 - two decades after winning their first Michelin star - Kevin and Muriel Thornton's eponymous restaurant was not awarded one. Their career trajectory since supports Dunne's argument that "the winning of a Michelin star is a very positive thing - if you use it in a positive way".

"Muriel had been trying to move us in a different direction, mainly because she was afraid the only way out for me would be in a box," admits Thornton, for whom 70-hour weeks were the norm. "Once we worked through the shock and the grieving, we were in the magical position of being able to re-appraise what we wanted for our future."

They have since closed the restaurant and opened a new business, KOOKS, which offers monthly masterclasses and an intimate Chef's Table experience at their home and private dinner parties in the homes of their customers. "We have achieved a work-life balance that is really welcome, so we would definitely not return to the long hours we did before."

Work-life balance was a crucial factor for chef Barry Fitzgerald and his partner Claire-Marie Thomas, co-owners of Bastible and Clanbrassil House. "When we opened Bastible, it wasn't our ambition to get a star," says Fitzgerald, who headed up Fulham's Michelin-starred Harwood Arms before returning to Dublin to open Etto.

"We thought that with a young family, it would be too stressful and too much pressure." He doesn't rule out working towards a star in the future, though he believes that focus would necessitate higher prices to cover a higher staff-to-customer ratio. For now, he's happy with the Bib Gourmand status (Michelin shorthand for quality cooking at a modest price) that both restaurants enjoy.

Fitzgerald followed in the footsteps of John Wyer, who ran the Michelin-starred kitchen at l'Ecrivain before opening Forest Avenue and transforming Dublin's casual dining scene. Wyer believes that "what matters to the Irish diner is the overall restaurant experience, irrespective of accolades", and that the rise of food bloggers and social media have fostered a whole new perspective on dining. "Instagram particularly has become a massive platform for chefs and restaurateurs," Wyer says, "and one that is fundamentally competing with the traditional food guides."

Michelin Guide have abandoned their historically aloof relationship with the industry. Fitzgerald sees Monday's live ceremony as a response to the razzmatazz that surrounds the glitzy 50 Best Restaurants awards, while their decision to embrace social media and to bestow stars on pubs like Lisdoonvarna's Wild Honey Inn are attempts to stay relevant in a changing food world.

That evolution has allowed a new style of Michelin-star restaurant to emerge, as evidenced by the three intimate Cork-based restaurants awarded a star last year, none of which could be described as sterile or stuffy. For Rob Krawczyk, the star came "six months to the day after opening" Chestnut restaurant in a former Ballydehob pub.

"The phones did not stop, people were knocking on windows and doors, shoving letters through the letterbox!" That star has kept them fully booked for a 10-month season, despite their extremely rural location. Likewise, after a great first summer for Ichigo Ichie in Cork city, Takashi Miyazaki says "September came and suddenly we had an empty restaurant," but "since we got the star, we were booked out straight away for the next few months".

Granted, these are small restaurants - seating just 18 and 25 respectively - but that Michelin effect has trickle-down benefits for the wider community, whether by attracting monied tourists or by encouraging ambitious chefs to raise the bar further. Even Oliver Dunne believes he would have neither the culinary skills nor the thriving business that he has today without the influence of Michelin.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, that's the real relevance of Michelin to the average Irish diner. Whether or not chasing stars is your bag, as Dunne says, "the fact that Michelin stars are there means the world gets better chefs". And if you like eating out, as we Irish increasingly do, better chefs matter.


Michelin  Myths

Declan Maxwell

Michelin's editors regularly assert that they judge the food alone, and that consistency is king. Oliver Dunne tells a story about meeting Rebecca Burr, the current editor of the Michelin Guide to Ireland and Great Britain, about 15 years ago when she was inspecting Mint restaurant in Ranelagh. "I was talking to her about amuse bouches and all of this sort of stuff, and she stopped me in my tracks and said 'What are you talking about? You could win a Michelin star in a phone box as long as you serve three consistent courses'."

Another myth is that a Michelin star equates formality. Declan Maxwell (pictured above) of Dublin 8's ambitious new Spitalfields pub and restaurant was restaurant manager in Chapter One when they won their Michelin star in 2007. "Suddenly customers were coming with much higher expectations," he says, "but the premises is recognised for what they do and how they do it."

Maxwell cites the example of Osteria Francescana, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Milan which reached number one in The World's 50 Best Restaurants list. "People's perception is that it would be really stuffy, but it was so friendly and relaxing. They just make you feel amazing."

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