Star qualities

02 January 2003 by
Star qualities

Michelin-starred chefs are listed for all to see in the famous annual guidebook. But Janet Harmer gets a bit more up close and personal to find out what makes them tick - such as their nationalities, pastimes, birth signs, what they enjoy eating, what inspired them to take up the profession, and which other chefs they most admire

THAT time of the year is drawing near again, when the nation's chefs wonder who will be in and who will be out of this year's little red book. Yes, the publication of the 2003 Michelin Red Guide Great Britain and Ireland is looming.

While the Michelin guide might not be the biggest-selling food guide, it continues to be the one most eagerly awaited and highly rated by the top end of the industry.

With just 112 chefs in Great Britain and Ireland holding Michelin stars - including two with the highest rating of three stars, 13 with two stars and 97 with one star - achieving the accolade is a major accomplishment that many young chefs ultimately strive to achieve.

The Michelin guide itself gives few clues as to who makes up the select band of star-holders. A major criticism of the guide is that it is boring and not informative enough, lacking any details on the chefs themselves or the style of food that they cook.

To provide an insight into the exclusive "Michelin club", Caterer has conducted a survey of the guidebook's starred members. Their responses provide a few answers about what makes these people tick, what inspired them to strive for one of the catering industry's greatest honours, and, ultimately, do they really care whether their restaurants hold a Michelin star?

The results of the survey have been collated from the 55 replies received from the 112 questionnaires sent out to all the Michelin star-holders in Britain - a response rate of almost 50%.

Who are the Michelin chefs?

  • 77% of those surveyed were born in Great Britain and Ireland, 9% are French and fewer than 2% come from each of the following countries: Austria, Switzerland, Germany, India, South Africa, Singapore, and Aden (now part of Yemen).
  • Average age is 39; however, the average age of chefs on first achieving a Michelin star is 34.
  • Aries and Taurus are the most popular birth signs, each accounting for 15% of chefs. Typical Arians love challenge, and are charismatic to the point of annoyance. Taureans may be known as control freaks, but they are also practical and methodical, and without all that stubbornness all those important goals might not be achieved.
  • 63% are married, 28% single, 7% divorced, 2% widowed.
  • 60% are parents.
  • Not surprisingly, eating out and cooking are the most popular pastimes of Michelin chefs, enjoyed by 29% of respondents. Wine and golf, each mentioned by 16% of chefs, were the next favourite hobbies, while travel (12%), scuba diving (12%), reading (9%), skiing (9%) and fishing (9%) were all mentioned several times.
  • 25% followed their parents or other family members into the industry.
  • The Galvin brothers - Chris at Orrery and Jeff at L'Escargot, both in London - are the first British siblings to hold Michelin stars simultaneously. The only other brothers to hold stars simultaneously in Britain are the Roux brothers - Albert at Le Gavroche, London, and Michel at the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire.
  • 16.6 years is the average age at which the chefs entered the industry, although Andreas Antona, chef-proprietor of Simpson's in Kenilworth, says he was working in his father's restaurant in west London from the age of four or five. Tessa Bramley, chef-proprietor of the Old Vicarage in Ridgeway, Derbyshire, didn't enter the industry until she was 41, having been driven to do so because her husband was out of work.
  • Accountancy, building, teaching, sales and marketing, nursing, engineering, fishing and three-day eventing are some of the jobs undertaken before entering the catering industry.
    \* 11% have degrees in subjects as diverse as accountancy, microbiology, economics and chemistry, as well as international culinary arts.
  • 8% have no qualifications of any kind.
  • 71% received formal training as a chef.
  • Westminster College (now Westminster Kingsway) is the most frequently mentioned place of study, attended by 15% of respondents.
  • Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons is the most significant establishment (cited by 11% of respondents) worked in by chefs before their current location, closely followed by London's Dorchester hotel (9%).

Why cook?
There is no doubt that being a chef is generally regarded as more of a vocation than just a job. It is something that the majority of those surveyed felt drawn towards from an early age, and their enthusiasm for their chosen career in the beginning is generally as strong as ever today.

Philip Howard, chef-proprietor of the Square, London, summed up the views of many. "Destiny! Love it!" he enthuses. Daniel Galmiche, head chef of Harveys in Bristol, is more verbose: "I wanted to be a chef from the age of five. I like the food, the produce, the smells, the cooking process. I am just passionate about all of it."

The opportunity to show creativity through cooking and to be able to shine at a subject - often for the first time - was an important motive for becoming a chef for many. "Theory was not my strong point at school, but practical creativity was," says Ramon Farthing, chef-proprietor of 36 On The Quay, Emsworth, Hampshire. "I found cooking an easy, natural topic for me as a person. The frantic buzz of the kitchen suited me perfectly."

Toby Hill, head chef of Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, says: "I love the freedom to create - what you achieve is totally up to you;" while Kevin Thornton, chef-proprietor of Thornton's restaurant, Dublin, concurs: "I was, and still am, fascinated by the transformation from raw material to finished product."

David Pitchford, chef-proprietor of Read's in Faversham, Kent, discovered his vocation in life after his forward-looking headmaster (in the mid-1960s) encouraged the girls at his school to do metalwork and woodwork and the boys to do domestic science. "For the first time in my life I was best in the class," he says.

Some chefs, including Shaun Hill, chef-proprietor of the Merchant House, Ludlow, Shropshire, and Christophe Vincent, chef-proprietor of Café du Moulin, Guernsey, admit to having stumbled into the profession.

All three female chefs who took part in the survey - Mary Ann Gilchrist of Carlton House, Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys; Tessa Bramley; and Wendy Vaughan of the Old Rectory Country House, Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, Conwy - began cooking professionally "by accident" or as the result of "financial necessity".

GORDON RAMSAY: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is frequently mentioned as location for memorable meals DAVID PITCHFORD: Headmaster encouraged the girls to do metalwork and woodwork and the boys to do domestic science PAUL BOCUSE: Top spot in the "greatest living chef" poll, ahead of Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse RAYMOND BLANC: Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons is the most significant establishment (cited by 11%) worked in by chefs before their current location MARCO PIERRE WHITE: His White Heat most inspires Michelin chefs. It was cited by 15% of respondents as the most influential cookery book they have read

The restaurants

  • 57% of Michelin-starred restaurants surveyed are owned by chef-proprietors. The head chefs of 15% of the restaurants have a shareholding in the business where they work.
  • 35% of chefs work with their wives, husbands or partners in the restaurant
  • "French" (both modern and classic) is the most frequent term used by the chefs to describe their style of food (38%), followed by modern British (22%) and European (14.5%). Some chefs did not want to be categorised by a specific national style. Tony Borthwick, chef-proprietor of the Plumed Horse, Crossmichael, Dumfries & Galloway, prefers to describe his food as "simple, original, seasonal and full-flavoured", Vincent of Café du Moulin ambiguously labels his food as "classical modern, sometimes weird". David Everitt-Matthias describes his food at his Cheltenham restaurant, Le Champignon Sauvage, simply as "mine".
  • 48 seats is the average size of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
  • The two largest restaurants surveyed have 120 seats - Chapter One in Farnborough, Kent, and the Mirabelle in London.
  • By contrast, the smallest restaurant is the Old Rectory in Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, Conwy, with just 12 seats.
  • While 22% of restaurants offer just one menu (some of which are no-choice), Paul Kitching, chef-proprietor of Juniper in Altrincham, Cheshire, offers six.
  • 25 is the average number of dishes being offered by Michelin-starred establishments at any one time. At one end of the scale, Herbert Berger may offer between 80 and 120 dishes on his menu at 1 Lombard Street, London, while at the other end, Galton Blackiston cooks just four dishes for his set dinner menu at Morston Hall, Morston, Norfolk.
  • The average number of chefs working in a British Michelin-starred restaurant is seven, whereas the number of front of house staff is 10 (usually made up of a mix of full- and part-time waiters). The largest brigade among the respondents is found at 1 Lombard Street, where up to 28 chefs are employed at any one time (responsible for a 160-seat brasserie, as well as the 40-seat fine-dining restaurant). Single-chef brigades are found at four restaurants, all chef-proprietor-owned establishments: Café du Moulin (Christophe Vincent), Merchant House (Shaun Hill), Carlton House (Mary Ann Gilchrist), and the Old Rectory Country House (Wendy Vaughan).
  • The average price of a Michelin-starred meal, including wine, per head, is £62. The most expensive meal, according to the respondents, is found at Waldo's restaurant in Cliveden, Taplow, Berkshire, where dinner, with wine, is about £110 per head. The cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the country can be enjoyed at the Olive Branch pub in Clipsham, Rutland, where average spend at dinner is £22 per head, including wine.
    What and whom inspires Michelin-starred chefs?
  • Marco Pierre White's White Heat is the book that most inspires Michelin chefs. It was cited by 15% of respondents as the most influential cookery book they had read, followed by the 1903 publication of Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire (11%) and then Larousse Gastronomique (7%).
  • The majority of chefs (53%) who answered the survey say they are not inspired by food articles in newspapers and magazines, while 37% say they are. The rest (10%) say they occasionally receive inspiration from an article or they just don't have time to read newspapers and magazines.
  • The most frequently read publication is Caterer, and best-read newspapers are The Times and the Sunday Times.
  • 36% of respondents named Albert and Michel Roux as the chefs who have most inspired them, either from working with them or by viewing them from afar. Raymond Blanc is the second most inspiring chef, voted for by 20%, with Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White in joint third place (both on 18%).
  • The Roux brothers are also named as the UK's greatest living chefs by 33% of respondents, with Marco Pierre White in second place (18%) and Gordon Ramsay third (9%).
  • Respondents found it more difficult to answer the question "Who is the world's greatest living chef?", with 22% saying that it was impossible to give a name. Those who did reply put Paul Bocuse in first place, followed by Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse in second and third positions respectively.
  • Germain Schwab, chef-proprietor of Winteringham Fields, Winteringham, Lincolnshire, is not so impressed by well-known chefs. "No one inspires me more than young people who are now entering our profession full of enthusiasm, passion and energy," he says. "They drive us all on to fulfil their hopes and dreams."

Favourite food

Every year arguments ensue over whether Michelin has been right to award this star or that, or, in some cases, too many or not enough. There will never be agreement among everyone, as reviewing food is such a subjective issue. Enjoying a meal can be determined as much by the mood the diner is in and the company he or she is with as by the quality of the ingredients and the depth of skills involved in putting together each dish.

Such subjectivity is highlighted by the wide variety of responses to the two questions: "What is the most memorable meal you have eaten?" and "What is the best single dish you have ever tasted?"

The importance of mood, company and location is emphasised by David Adlard of Adlard's in Norwich, who says that his most memorable meal was "sitting with my partner in beautiful sunshine in Rhodes, eating simple food and drinking simple, quaffable wine".

The significance of being with a loved one when eating is also echoed by Mary Ann Gilchrist when she names her most memorable meal as "dinner at the Restaurant Elizabeth in Oxford on my 26th birthday when my husband proposed".

Michel Roux Jnr says that "pastrami on rye bread with mustard at a New York deli one hour after running the marathon" is the best dish he has tasted. His choice says as much about the occasion as the food, as in the case of the "barbecue trout with friends last year, washed down with old Puligny Montrachet" enjoyed by Christophe Vincent.

Simplicity features often as an important factor in enjoying a meal, whether it is Richard Guest's choice of "pork pie, Wensleydale, Branston pickle, spring onions, a nice tomato and a pack of Walkers crisps", or Tessa Bramley's memories of the more sophisticated meal she ate in the summer of 1988 at Paul Bocuse's restaurant near Lyons. "It was a revelation in making simple things taste sublime," she says.

Given the endless numbers of scenarios facing chefs when they eat out, together with the enormous choice available to them both here and overseas, it is perhaps surprising that there are a few restaurants - and even a specific dish - that receive several mentions.

Meals eaten at Jamin, Joël Robuchon's restaurant in Paris; Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons; Marco Pierre White's long-gone restaurants, Harvey's in Wandsworth and the Restaurant at the Hyde Park hotel, London; and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, as well as Aubergine (when Ramsay was still cooking there) are frequently mentioned as being the location for memorable meals.

However, White's tagliatelle of oysters with caviar is the only dish to receive more than one mention. Tony Borthwick enjoyed his starter of oysters at Harvey's in 1990, followed by sea bass, roast pears and honey ice-cream, while Philip Howard followed his oyster with braised trotter and tarte tatin. Daniel Clifford, head chef of Midsummer House, Cambridge, also cites a White oyster dish, but his was served with scrambled eggs.

What chefs really think about Michelin

Respondents to the survey rate the Michelin guide highly, giving it an average rating of almost eight out of 10.

Enthusiasm regarding the importance of the guide as expounded by Chris Galvin, head chef at Orrery, London - "If the question pertains to the quality of the restaurant, I would say that Michelin is the best" - was tempered by views dismissing the guide's significance. Stephen Terry, chef-proprietor of the Walnut Tree, Llandewi Skirrid, Monmouthshire, giving the guide a rating of only one out of 10, asserts: "Consistency, discipline and dedication breed success - not stars."

A majority of chefs (63%) say they have always aspired to a Michelin star. Some say that while they never had the ambition to gain a star, once they got it, it made them strive for more. Alex Aitken, chef-proprietor of Le Poussin at Parkhill in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, says he "didn't care [about a Michelin star] and just cooked for myself. That's when I got my star, and now I want two."

The format of the guide receives a mixed response. Those in favour of the guide's layout, which eschews descriptive text in favour of symbols, variously describe it as a "winning formula" (Tessa Bramley), "excellently presented, extremely informative" (Kevin Thornton), and "an easy guide to use. There is no sarcastic bitching about food, decor or editors' fancies. All in all a professional guide, internationally renowned" (David Everitt-Matthias).

However, there is also a lot of criticism of the guide for being "uninspiring and bland" (Philip Howard), "stuffy" (David Adlard) and "not the easiest to read" (Mark Dodson). Andrew McLeish, head chef of Chapter One in Farnborough, Kent, spoke for many in calling for the guide to be updated. "It isn't user-friendly, especially to the younger generation, who aren't such foodies but nevertheless want good food," he says. More details about the food and style of cooking were requested by several respondents.

An overwhelming 90% of chefs who took part in the survey say that business has improved since gaining a Michelin star. In some cases, a Michelin star has been credited for keeping restaurants in business. "So far, it has saved us from bankruptcy," says Tony Borthwick, with Alexis Gauthier of Roussillon, London, concurring: "Yes, it helped us survive."

Business seems to have improved by varying amounts, with the Star Inn in Harome, North Yorkshire, reporting a 10% increase in turnover upon receiving its star earlier this year, while Braidwoods in Dalry, North Aryshire, added an extra 40% to its trading figures in 1999 when husband-and-wife team Keith and Nicola Braidwood, both chefs, won their star.

While Alex Aitken has experienced some increase in business, he cautioned that having a Michelin star can actually de detrimental. "It can scare some people into thinking you're expensive," he says.

The restaurants which appear not to benefit business-wise tend to be well-established establishments such as Le Gavroche, London; the Walnut Tree, Llandewi Skirrid, Monmouthshire; and the Old Vicarage, Ridgeway, Derbyshire.

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