'Everybody knows that it's a nonsense to say that there have been no changes this year'

The  Staff Canteen


Whatever the guides decide to do, 2020 will be an exceptional year when it comes to accolades. 

Should they decide to let all restaurants keep hold of their stars, rosettes, scores and rankings, they run the risk of being seen as less valuable. But on the other hand, taking a hardline approach and stripping establishments of their distinctions because they were forced to close or adapt their offering as a result of the pandemic might be seen as harsh and unfair.

Another route the guides might choose to go down is to reward restaurants specifically for the ways in which they have adapted amid the current crisis - upending years of consistent progress towards a particular goal and changing direction in order to keep money flowing, or to stay busy whilst doing their part to support key workers and those affected by Covid-19. 

We spoke to owner and co-founder of Harden's  Peter Harden and Paul Hackett, head of inspections and assessments for the AA Restaurant Guide, to elucidate a few of these questions - because let's face it, Covid or no Covid, chefs are always going to get excited about the guides.

Panic and confusion

For everyone in the industry, from hotels to pubs and restaurants, Paul said, the past months have "been an incredibly worrying, unsettling, uncertain time," and the impact on the guides has been marked. 

Peter agreed that for Harden's, "It's been pretty disastrous." 

"There's no two ways about it - if folks aren't going to restaurants, they're not buying restaurant guides, they're not looking at restaurant apps and they're not using restaurant websites." 

"We're a symbiotic business to the trade, and if the trade is not happening, to a certain extent we're not happening." 

What will they do? 

With lockdown imposed days prior to the launch of the Hardens diners poll, Peter said, "we made the decision very quickly that we were going to postpone."

With a deadline set at the end of September and despite not holding its annual event in London, Paul said, "we can still have some announcements and celebrate some of the great food that we had just before lockdown." 

In one respect, Paul, said, the AA team is "quite lucky," as inspectors worked right up until lockdown - and are set to resume inspections "imminently." 

"Because we're looking at so many places ahead of when the actual guide comes out, we've got quite a nice stock of places that are in the market for awards - so we have plenty of achievements to celebrate." 

"There's quite a lot of excitement and energy out there," remarking that old restaurants are as busy as can be and new businesses opening up and down the country. 

However, for Peter, the question of how to award badges of quality given the environment is a tough one. 

"We give awards based on our survey - and one of the reasons I haven't wanted to go ahead is because I  couldn't see any point in surveying about an industry which is changing fundamentally." 

"Many of the restaurants which might have been expected way back when, they will have changed their offering quite significantly." 

While restaurants have reopened post-lockdown, he said: "the menu will be different, the level of staffing - in the kitchen and in the dining room will be different." 

"It's very hard to take pre-lockdown quality as an indication of post-lockdown quality." 

As for what they might do with regards to businesses like Nathan Outlaw's, who closed and reopened his restaurant under a new name and brand, Peter said: "Nothing, I suspect, because it would invite too much inspection of the process." 

Even when cooking the simplest of foods, talent shines through, Paul said. 

"There's a difference between ordinary fish and chips and sensational fish and chips." 

While he agreed to some extent that simplicity can be great, at the same time, Peter said, "we have to acknowledge honestly that that's a different product and some people are going to do this better than other people. 

"Some people are going to make a better fist of dealing with this than others, and to say that it's all the same is really not to give kudos to the people who have made an incredible job of pivoting and adapting their offering to do something completely different because they need to respond to market demands."

What will Michelin do?

Michelin has (perhaps understandably) been extremely tight-lipped about how it will present its 2021 guide, other than announcing that it would be going ahead digitally, and that its evaluation process would remain as reliable as ever.

Peter takes issue with the latter point, and said: "For Michelin to say 'this year, a Michelin star will be just the same as ever' rather invites people like me to poke holes at this whole edifice of credentialism, whereby everybody knows that it's a nonsense to say that there have been no changes this year. 

"Everybody who's interested in the trade knows the turmoil which is going on behind the scenes, and that the duck's feet are paddling extremely hard under the water.

"So for Michelin to come along and say 'oh yeah, we're just the same as ever,' that just begs the slightly sarky response that I've just given." 

What about the 2022 guides - will they be back to normal?

Having not gathered the usual data to create the Harden's guide, Peter said, "I very much look forward to next year," when, "assuming that happy state of affairs has come about," "we can run our survey again and do market research on a landscape which I'm sure will be very exciting," venturing that it might be "better in some ways, for some people." 

But other than what he called a "microsurvey" to assess restaurants which have done particularly well in the crisis - feeding the NHS, for instance, or successfully pivoting their businesses - Peter said he doesnt "see much point" in running a full survey at the moment.

"It's the only thing that anyone could do with any validity this year."

"Next spring is probably the earliest time that makes sense and that would fit with our annual cycle," hoping that the situation is "as close to normal" as possible, "that that exercise has more validity than it would have done this year."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th August 2020

'Everybody knows that it's a nonsense to say that there have been no changes this year'