'I don't think it works in anyone's favour just to cancel 2020'

The  Staff Canteen

in a world of shuttered restaurants due to coronavirus, what are Michelin stars, AA rosettes, a ranking in the The Good Food Guide, the national restaurant awards, Harden's, or The World's 50 Best worth?

We spoke to award-winning chefs Mark Birchall and Claude Bosi for their insight on the matter.

Where the guides stand 

Whether out of a sense of respect for flailing businesses or because it doesn't necessarily financial sense to run awards for closed restaurants, some, like the World's 50 Best, have decided to postpone until next year. 

We reached out to the AA for an interview, but have yet to receive a response (but given its rather unfortunately timed decision to start charging a fee to individual restaurants for eligibility to figure in the Restaurant Guide, it may be seeking alternative means of funding before falling either side of the fence).

In response to our request, The Good Food Guide said the following:  "The Good Food Guide by Waitrose & Partners (GFG) has been championing the country’s best restaurants since 1951. As it approaches its 70th year, the Guide would wish to do so more than ever.

"Each edition is written and compiled from scratch, based on reviews submitted by readers coupled with anonymous reports from a team of trusted inspectors. With restaurants currently closed to diners in line with the Government’s advice on social distancing, it would be impossible to produce a Guide this year. In light of this, The Good Food Guide has taken the difficult decision not to publish its 2021 print edition this September.

"Until a new publication date is confirmed, the GFG will continue to support and promote the hospitality industry through its website, social media channels and other Waitrose & Partners publications."

Michelin, however, will plough on. 

In a speech published last week, the Michelin Guide's international director, Gwendal Poullennec, said that Michelin would be taking a 'digital first' strategy, handing out accolades online instead of in a crowded events venue in Camden Town

He committed to doing what the guide has always done - that is, "to find restaurants serving great food, to unearth new talent and to bring these restaurants to those who love eating out" - whilst accounting for the exceptional circumstances the industry faces.

He promised that "a Michelin Star, and all our award distinctions, will mean the same in 2021 as they always have." 

Mark Birchall receiving two Michelin stars 

Where the industry stands

Mark Birchall, chef patron of two Michelin-starred Moor Hall, which closed its doors days after celebrating its third birthday, having been named best restaurant in the country in the National Restaurant Awards and Squaremeal's top 100 list for 2019, said Michelin's approach seemed "the sensible thing to do," because of the much-needed support to the industry it will bring. 

He said: "All the guides, all awards, they can have a real impact and a real positive impact on what happens at the back end of the restaurants."

"I'm sure they've all visited lots restaurants which they think are worthy of accolades and maybe more and maybe they will  give them the benefit of the doubt." 

Two Michelin-starred chef Claude Bosi, whose work at Bibendum has seen many predict it earning a third star in the guide, agreed, adding that he has faith in the inspectors' ability to see past the changes caused by the virus outbreak.

He said: "There's going to be a point where they know where we are, they know the situation that we're in at the moment. I think they're clever enough to understand that restaurants aren't going to drop their standards, but we need to survive with what we do, and that could mean change." 

"We need to reopen our business and we need to get our people in."

"Maybe some places will realise - you know what - people don't want to spend three hours at a table. I think we have to review the way we approach the customer, definitely. With social distancing, how can you provide a 16 or 17 dish menu?" 

While the World's 50 Best took the decision not to publish this year - deciding instead to "design and develop impactful initiatives" to support the industry, which so far has involved the promotion of positive endeavours, signposting and a survey to help it decide where to allocate resources - one might ask what the place is for awards and accolades in a world without restaurants. 

However Mark hopes that the others - AA, the Good Food Guide, Harden's will decide to run.

"Even if it's later on in the year, it'll just offer a massive boost. They're all different, but fundamentally, the one thing they have in common is that they want good hospitality and quality food." 

"It will offer a major boost to restaurants just at the right time." 

'We're all in this together'

Naturally, the guides need to get income from somewhere, too, and both chefs empathise with this. 

"They're running a business, we're all in the same boat," Claude said.

Mark agreed, and said: "They need to sell guides, they need to stay alive too. The guides are nothing without restaurants. We're all in the same boat, we just need to just get back to it as quickly as possible in the most sensible way." 

Both chefs, as many in the industry, are unequivocal in that everyone has their part to play; that interdependence is the industry's strength. 

Claude said: "The guides will realise this, everybody is in the same boat. I'm sure they trust us enough to know that we're not going to drop our standards, or do anything silly to damage our standard for our own restaurant, for our customers. We're not going to damage that.

Shuffled down the priority list

Though he stressed that it is far from his biggest concern, Mark said the awards had crossed his mind since Moor Hall was forced to close.

"We did really well in the National Restaurant Awards, which was fantastic, it really boosted business. It was fantastic all round, it was an amazing party as well - so you think about that and how it's a shame." 

"But I've not overthought it- my focus is us, our business. We've got responsibility for all our staff making sure that we are where we want to be when we reopen.

"When we reopen we will be in a fortunate in a situation, our teams are being very well looked after and I can't ask for more." 

Claude agreed, stating that "this year, for me, is about saving my business. I'm confident in what we do, I don't think they will take a star away but my main focus at the moment is to reopen, get our staff back in and look after our customers." 

"That's the focus. Forget the guide for once, save your business and look after your customers. We're not here to drop our standards, we've been doing this for so long, but whether there's a guide or not, it's not them that make us do what we want to do." 

"They recognise what we do but we're not doing it for them, we do it for our customers."  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th May 2020

'I don't think it works in anyone's favour just to cancel 2020'