The much-anticipated Michelin restaurant guide for 2011 has been released – but which stars have been lost, gained and retained?
Michelin guide 2011 Great Britain and Ireland edition
It's fair to say that chefs, particularly those who work in well-respected restaurants, are a tough bunch. They need to be, in order to survive the rigours of life in a professional kitchen. The lack of sleep, long hours and cut-throat atmosphere means that steely determination and tough skin are as essential to their job description as the ability to flawlessly fillet a sea bass. By the time they reach head chef and executive chef status, their arms should be free of burns, their sarcasm honed and they will no longer frequent the walk-in fridge for a quick cry before service.
But a few of them might have felt like doing that on Tuesday when Michelin released its latest guide, the 2011 Great Britain and Ireland edition. Michelin, which was originally founded more than 100 years ago, remains the most influential guide in the industry. The fabled red book might appear innocuous enough, but for many in the catering world a spot in its pages is regarded as the pinnacle of culinary achievement. A chef's pursuit of the Michelin star(s) can quickly become all-consuming and once this goal is attained, the pressure only increases, lest it be taken away the following year.
Conceived in France by two brothers, Edouard and Andre Michelin, the first guide was a practical one, designed to aid motorists when exploring the French countryside. It was free and included an alphabetical list of towns throughout France, instructions on how to change a flat tire and locations of hotels and fuel stations. It wasn't until the late 1920s that the now famous star-rating system was first introduced. According to the guide, an establishment that was awarded a star was: "a very good restaurant in its class", while two stars suggested "excellent cooking, worth a detour", and a much-coveted three meant "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey". Although they have been embellished, this means of ranking restaurants remains in place today.
As travel became more common, the influence and reach of the guide grew, and it expanded its reach all over Europe. It now provides ratings for restaurants in more than 20 countries; in 2005 Michelin debuted in New York and in 2007 they expanded to Asia. In total, they profile some 45,000 establishments worldwide.
Michelin has always regarded anonymity as a major weapon. The company works on the premise that only a review conducted by an impartial expert, who uses stipulated criteria to assess, can be trusted. Inspectors undergo special training and their identities are fiercely guarded; it is rumoured that they are advised not to divulge their profession to anyone, including family members. The research they conduct is detailed and precise - if an inspector is impressed with a restaurant they will visit again on a number of occasions, as will their colleagues.
Despite the level of secrecy that surrounds Michelin, in the past results have been leaked ahead of the official release date. In 2009, details of the UK edition could be found on the internet some five days before they were supposed to be available, and in 2010 a guide that had been ordered online by the chef Paul Kitching arrived early, causing embarrassment for the company.
There was no such controversy this year, though, and the results remained a secret until the last minute. While this brought heightened expectation, in truth there weren't any major upsets. Michelin handed out an impressive total of 143 stars but only a couple of restaurants were elevated to two-star status (Helene Darroze at The Connaught and Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in Rock, Cornwall). Despite many members of the industry tipping his London restaurant for three stars, Marcus Wareing remains on two. This is no small feat, but the chef has made it clear in the past that he is gunning for three stars, so disappointment is likely to be felt. There may have been whispers to the contrary, but Gordon Ramsay's restaurant on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea retained all three of its stars. This means that they have now held this coveted status for a full 10 years (there are only four restaurants in the UK that are part of this elite group). Ramsay also gained a star at the recently reopened Petrus, but the jubilance of his mood must have been slightly quashed by the news that his restaurant at the Claridges hotel failed to claw back the star it lost last year.
Whether chefs across the UK spent Tuesday evening celebrating or commiserating, one thing is for sure: the hard work continues today, for all they know a Michelin inspector could be in for lunch.
Next up, it is the turn of Gallic chefs to bite their nails. The 2011 French edition of the guide is published in March.