The Staff Canteen talks to Simon Numphud about The AA Restaurant Guide 2012 Part 2

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th May 2011

>>> Part 1 of the interview with Simon Numphud from the AA Restaurant Guide 2012

I guess one of the biggest gripes, for want of a better word, is what our members would call, and as I said to you earlier we're here today representing our members, we're not here representing every chef in the UK so I want to make that quite clear that we are representing our members, would be inconsistency and there's a number of forms that recur in terms of inconsistency and that would be through the rosette scheme and they are taught simplicity, they're taught three or four components on a plate, they're taught local, they're taught seasonal and I can think of four or five off the top of my head where I've eaten in high profile restaurants that would totally, totally buck that trend.

There will be raspberries in February, they'll get Spanish asparagus in February, there will be hotels now that will be using white asparagus from France, how do you counter that argument then when you're challenging someone to come into a rosette academy to get two or three or whatever the number of rosettes be and there appears in the industry, who by nature these guys all look up to, are not doing what they're taught in the rosette academy. How do you?"

The rosette academy is a training module to help broaden the knowledge of chefs, but it's not actually aimed that by attending our rosette academy you will achieve a better rosette rating". It's a training vehicle where we promote best practice, it gives chefs a better understanding of how the rosette scheme works and general guidelines and I think that comes back to the second point. The AA is probably the only food scheme that tries to be transparent in terms of trying to give parameters and structure to what we look for and I think we can be applauded for that and sometimes we can be criticised for that, but that's what chefs have always asked for.

"We're happy to do that, but I would stress they are guidelines and common sense always prevails. Yes we promote local food but only if it's good enough and local I would say is relative nowadays because I would rather have a squab pigeon coming from Paris if it was fantastic quality than a local wood pigeon which might be tough.

"So it's got to be put into context. The same with seasonality. Of course we all know things taste best in their local season but it doesn't mean to say you might have a product which might be out of local season but still in its in another region, which tastes great because it's about flavour and quality. So there will always be exceptions to the rule, these are not cast iron things. Yes you might go, as you've quoted before, go somewhere and have white asparagus and if you said, "Well the AA's saying this," well it is a guideline and there'll always be exceptions to that.

You can see though where it causes a debate?

Well I suppose that's the downside of actually trying to be transparent, trying to give some structure and some guidelines to a rosette scheme to help the industry and those to be taken almost verbatim. I think you have to stand back and look at the overall meal experience, look at the technical execution, the flavours etc. but we do have some general guidelines but there will always be exceptions.

Of course and I guess to touch on the exceptions one of the threads I read Steve Love at Loves in Birmingham, a number of guys pushing hard for three rosettes, I think there's always this thing with chefs isn't there that the three rosette seems to be the Holy Grail, the moment you've gone beyond." 

Well for us it's the top 10% of the rosette scheme, I mean one and two provide 90% of the scheme so three rosettes and above is a very special place. We only have 168 restaurants with three rosettes. We only have circa 24, four rosettes and then only seven with five rosettes.

Yeah it's something to aspire to. But where you have guys on the record who've been inspected and have been told that they are worthy of three rosettes but you as an organisation want to understand that they can be consistent and deliver that over a period of time and therefore they've got to wait X before they can get three rosettes, why again do we see instances, like Steve Love, or Aiden Byrne, who, phenomenal cooks and I'm in no way criticising what they do but they open new operations and get three rosettes in under a year would again you not accept that that again is sending out the wrong message if you are saying to other guys, "You need to be consistent, and you need to do it over X period of time?

"Those establishments have still shown us a consistency over the period of time but as you know any restaurant guide needs to."

But Loves was new, Loves was brand new and it got in, in four months.

Any restaurant guide needs to recognise new restaurants that open of substantial note that might come with a certain track record of delivering food but that's not to say that we still show the same process of doing multiple visits and making sure they're guaranteed. Now on some instances where you've got an establishment that might have had a positive three rosette recommendation we do go back and sometimes it might not be a positive recommendation so therefore it goes back in terms of the visit cycle. So that's where some of the disappointment might come but I think we always try to recognise up and coming and new restaurants as well as existing establishments which are gradually improving.

Is there a time period then that, as an inspector, you set yourself for someone to be consistent?

Yeah we don't have any specific timeframe involved but obviously we have to schedule the visits in accordance to everything else that's going on in our business. So sometimes we can look at somewhere fairly quickly because we might have someone in the area, otherwise if it's more remote it might take us longer to get back.

If we use Steve and Aiden as examples because of their background, you know, they've got three rosette, Michelin star backgrounds, are they more likely to be on your radar than John Smith who, no disrespect I'm being totally hypothetical here, who's in the middle of nowhere but is working his nuts off basically." 

I think if you look at the AA Restaurant Guide it's got a very good cross-representation across the whole of the country, unlike many other guides. We're not just London-centric, we cover every single county, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, we work hard in making sure that we've got good representation, our inspectors are eating all the time, we're constantly talking to the industry and it's really interesting to note some of your blogs that I've been reading in terms of perhaps some of the frustration of actually an establishment not being inspected. We'd love to know about that, because  communication's a two way thing, and we get a lot by talking to the industry and talking to a chef in the local area and one of the first things the inspector will ask is, "Where do you eat locally? Where's impressed you because we'd like to know what the industry locally is thinking about as well."

I'm not for one minute suggesting we post you're email address but what I'm saying is a communication channel that chefs know that if they go to that part of the AA website that's where they can go.

Obviously you represent a number of members and you have to take these things case by case otherwise it can be too generic about the whole thing and there are always reasons about it.

And there's always emotion comes into it as well.

Absolutely.

"I'm worth three rosettes."

Absolutely well tell me"

"I'm worth three rosettes because I ate in a three rosette place and my food's as good as theirs."

Of course absolutely.

We see it in recruitment all the time...

But if someone is truly passionate about an establishment or somewhere they've been to lots of times which they feel is two rosettes but should be three rosettes because they've always had a fantastic meal, then the AA are happy to hear about that perhaps The Staff Canteen, can feed us a general trend of particular comments about particular establishments which we could respond to via you. I would say we are a guide like any other guide and we make decisions which I think are through proper process, through proper benchmarking using the huge experience of our team that do it professionally and our decisions don't always please everyone so that's the nature of the guide and that's why there is always so much debate.

The AA is a massive operation. Your restaurant guide is, as you said, a commercial one, which to produce it costs an awful lot of money

It does yes.

Like anyone else we have customers, you have customers, so how important is it to maintain and manage your customer relationships and how much of a gun can they hold over your head commercially? There seems to be quite a strong presence with a lot of the groups, many of them advertise with you, so is there a tendency and a need to look after them in terms of their accreditations because of the money they spend with you?

Obviously groups, when we're talking about hotels the guide, does have a proportion of UK groups in our scheme. I think that endorses the credibility of the scheme. I think if you flick through the hotel pages not many of them do actually advertise ((laughingly)). I would like more of them to advertise. We have a dedicated team that manages groups, we work with them proactively as we do with our individual establishments. It's all about a relationship.

The relationship is, one, there to enforce the standards, but to answer your question if a hotel wants to pull out because they haven't got a certain rating we will provide all the information where at all possible and they will only be guidelines if we're talking about food, if it's a star rating we can obviously give them black and white standards that they might need to achieve, and if they want to pull out then that's their prerogative and we allow them to do that. We do not give our awards just because someone is looking to pull out of the scheme.

We're not in the business, how, do you gain credibility if we do. Chefs, proprietors, hotels, restaurants, have to earn the award...

Sure, sure...

And we're very clear on that. They're not to be bought at all. So it's down to the hard work they put in day to day for their business and whether we see results in the inspection.

But as a restaurant

guide you are selling a product and like all products you need a shop window item, you need profile, you need Gordon Ramsey in there, you need Marcus et all. So is there a, "Oh my God, we can't lose this client because of the potential commercial value of it?"

I think you have to have credibility within the classification scheme. So obviously one of the biggest decisions we made last year was to reduce Gordon Ramsey's flagship restaurant from five to four. Now obviously it was a very serious decision which we didn't take lightly, after numerous visits but we felt the time was that it wasn't delivering the very pinnacle of cuisine, still a first class restaurant and first class food but we didn't feel it was the same level. I think if we were just worried about people pulling restaurants out we wouldn't make those decisions to be honest.

What you're saying is there then, that the danger that you lose the credibility holds great value than losing Gordon Ramsey?

It's not in our thinking otherwise we would never be able to make a decision If every award was given on the basis of they might pull out. It can occasionally happen because they don't like the rating that the AA has given them but there's nothing we can do, we have to be credible. We benchmark and not only do we benchmark locally, but we're also benchmarking that with all the similar dishes we've had as an inspector and we're also benchmarking on a national basis. If we're looking to promote somewhere to three rosettes we're benchmarking with every three rosettes in the country, plus Scotland and Wales". Having said that people never always agree with all the ratings. I'm sure when we gave The Fat Duck, many years ago, five rosettes, people were thinking, "˜Why on earth have the AA done that?' As the AA we do not get every decision right. That's the nature of a guide and we'd be transparent to say that.

What criteria do you have, or if I wanted to be an inspector what would I need to be an inspector? What would my skill set need to be?

Well you'd have to have worked in the industry I mean that's a given because I don't believe you could do the role as an inspector.

Doing fine so far ((laughs)).

It sounds a very glamorous role but reality is removed from it because it's insular, travelling a lot, eating a lot, which sounds attractive but does take its toll. But work normally four to five years minimum experience at the management level so we're looking for someone that's got supervisory experience within accommodation, food, restaurants etc. Formal qualification, preferably a degree in a hospitality related discipline, perhaps a HND. A true passion for food, wine and service, you have to like people otherwise you're going to be in the wrong industry. IT literate. Good verbal communication a big part of the role is giving direct feedback in a constructive manner. Above and beyond that, and it's two qualities I've always looked for whenever I've employed anyone, is attitude and personality because it's two things I can't give an individual.

Last but by no means least then how do you think the AA can maybe improve its image with chefs? As I say I agree with you you'll never get everything right, you'll never please everyone all the time but I think that maybe in our opinion as the website and our opinion of the members you maybe have a slightly more difficult PR image than some of the other guides. I don't know if you feel that internally but how do you feel the AA can reach out to chefs and be more warm to them, understand them and interact with them more?

Well first of all I'd say I'm surprised, that's not our view per se, that's not to say that some individuals might have a perception issue with the AA but I would have to say through our transparency, through our ability to speak to chefs on a daily basis and my team are out there eating on a daily basis, we've got over 16,000 customers in our schemes, the one thing they value the most is that contact with the inspector and that goes a long way in terms of building up that relationship and actually being there, one, to enforce standards but, two, to help their business Every year and we do a big award event in September which promotes the launch of the guidebooks and celebrates all our award winners, the amount of chefs that go to that I always find quite humbling to be honest and I think that's the biggest endorsement for me.

I think if we did have a huge perception image or if I didn't think we were approachable I wouldn't see the level of communication I see on a day to day basis that my team engage with that chefs actually speak to me and comments etc. not always positive but that's the nature, we welcome feedback, you know.

Of course yes.

I'm surprised from your members there seems to be a perception issue. Obviously love to change that for the ones impacted because I have to say from our perspective we have lots of communication with chefs and we think in general in the context of being a guide that might not always give a rating that someone actually likes or agrees with that we have a very good relationship with the industry.

I think that's sometimes a danger isn't it, you know, if I think I'm worth three and I only get two I hold the AA accountable for that and maybe not look at myself.

Yeah it's an award at the end of the day. It's our award and we choose who to give it to but we will look at anyone in a fair and consistent manner or we try to anyway but unfortunately some chefs at the two rosette level aspire to three rosettes and unfortunately some will never make that, some others will. That's just the nature of the beast and some might be in a platform like the establishment that they're working at, at the moment, that they don't really have the opportunity or importantly and it comes back down to the customer, the establishment isn't looking to do that kind of food for that kind of level for that marketplace and that's really important as well I think, understanding that because what chef isn't inspired by achieving a better standard? 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th May 2011

The Staff Canteen talks to Simon Numphud about The AA Restaurant Guide 2012 Part 2