Daniel Clifford, Michael Smith: Why does it cost so much to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant? 

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Why does it cost so much to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant? 

This question has irritated chefs and restaurant operators for longer than anyone cares to remember, yet one that is still routinely asked by customers, along with complaints about still feeling hungry after their meal. 

Cara ventured the question on the latest episode of The Staff Canteen's Grilled podcast, with returning co-host and chef owner of two Michelin-starred Midsummer House Daniel Clifford and his guest, fellow Great British Menu contestant and chef owner of Michelin-starred Lochbay Restaurant on the Isle of Skye, Michael Smith.

While it might be a question that is older than time, the answer has changed somewhat, reflecting the current realities of the hospitality industry.

Staff costs money, happy staff costs more

Firstly, there's the cost of staff, which Daniel said tallies to £100,000 a month at Midsummer House - or £1.2 million a year. 

"I've got 35 staff for 42 customers - you do the ratio there, it's a lot," he said. 

The cost of staff always represented a serious chunk of a business' outgoings, and the proportion has only grown in time, and for good reason.

"Chefs aren't paid peanuts anymore. They're paid good salaries, because they're not the run of the mill people anymore, they're experts in their own fields. So for me, the wages that have been increased into the business to make people actually attracted to work here - but also, people need to buy houses, they need a life." 

Under no illusions as to his role in leading the next generation to be the best that they can be, he said: "I'm building the superstars of the future. I'm a relic, I've done my bit."

"They don't need the hardship that I went through, this is a springboard to help them future their careers."

Produce isn't getting any cheaper

Then, there's the price of produce, of which, at Midsummer House, Daniel said, "we use the best of the best."

What's more, while we may have left the EU, our reliance on EU produce hasn't vanished overnight. 

"A scallop now costs me £4, we serve a fillet of beef for the main, that's £6.50, cost to the business, caviar, truffles, everything, you look at the produce that we're using, langoustine is like, £4.50 now. Beautiful prawns, they're not cheap. Nothing's cheap that comes in the door and the labour cost is absolutely astronomical."

It may also be that we in the UK are spoiled by the low price of food, as elsewhere meals in fine dining restaurants can be much, much dearer.

"If you go to Paris, a main course will cost you £180 in a two-three star restaurant in Paris. Just a main course." 

"I went for a meal in Paris with Tom and Sat and Claude and our bill was £900 each. We didn't have any fancy wine, we had four courses in a three-star restaurant and we all walked away from there and said, 'it's full.'"

Alluding to Salt Bae's £630 steak which has stirred up as much outrage online as it has attracted visitors in their thousands, Daniel said: "Do you want a [£630] steak cooked by Mickey Mouse or do you want to come to a two star restaurant where you've got 15 chefs that care about everything that they do? There's a big difference isn't there." 

Michelin-starred meals aren't just dinner, they're an experience 

The problem of equating Midsummer House to any other meal out is that that isn't what it's trying to be. 

In fact, when a guest told him they were saving up to come back shortly after having eaten there, Daniel advised them to wait. 

"There's lots of other two stars out there, go to them and experience what they do," he said.

"If I go to somewhere like Claude [Bosi]'s, I get properly dressed up and I know how much I'm going to spend and I've already accepted that I'm going to spend that money because I'm going out to treat myself. It's a proper treat." 

Nothing has an inherent value

Concurring with the sentiment, Michael pointed out that customers should gage what they think is expensive based on their own criteria - and if they don't think it's worth it, they should spend their money elsewhere.

"Nothing has an inherent value," he said. "But value is the key word. If you value an excellent dining experience, if that's something you want to use your money, it's not a question of being expensive or not."

"The key words for me are profitability and value. People think restaurants, because they charge a certain price point make a huge amount of profit. They don't. If restaurants do make profit, it's great. If they break even most of the time, a lot of restaurants will exist at that level." 

When it comes down to it, restaurants need to make profit so they can employ people, so they can pay suppliers, they can support suppliers, and margins are still tight when they do.

Michael added: "I think it's wrong for people to say 'why are you so expensive.' Well, 'this is the price, if you want to spend the money doing it, then that's up to you." 

"We're not making a huge amount of profit by doing this, and we're working long hours, we're working in a tough environment and we're not getting paid a huge amount of money because we're not making a huge amount of profit. So please come and support restaurants if that's what you want to do. If that's how you want to spend your money, we're here for you." 

Restaurants aren't raking it in 

Plus, Daniel remarked, there should be no shame in wanting to turn a profit as a business in which you've invested so much of your time, money, blood sweat and tears.

"I'm not a greedy person, I want to be here next year and I need to make profit. Profit is not a dirty word, when your plates are costing you £120 a plate, my cutlery cost me £100,000. This has been a lifetime investment for me, it's a business that I've constantly ploughed everything back into." 

"I don't live in a massive house, we don't pay ourselves silly money, we make money but we also reinvest it back into the business and Midsummer has grown and grown and grown, but it has grown because we keep ourselves at a level."

"I'm not ashamed that I want to make some money myself. I want my kids to understand why I've done this. I don't feel selfish, I feel positive, because profit means that I can push the restaurant forward." 

"I'm very happy and confident with my prices - I'm full everyday, so people are enjoying it." 

 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 7th October 2021

Daniel Clifford, Michael Smith: Why does it cost so much to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant?