Interview with the AA's Simon Numphud ahead of the AA Restaurant Guide 2015 release

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th September 2014

The AA Restaurant Guide 2015 will be released on Monday 22nd September but is it still a top contender among food guides?

The Staff Canteen spoke to Head of AA Hotel Services, Simon Numphud, about why he believes the guide’s rosettes continue to be a benchmark for those working in the hospitality industry.

Simon NumphudIn a world which revolves around digital media it’s hard to imagine consumers picking up a printed copy of anything let alone a food guide. But the AA Restaurant Guide which is now in its 22nd year continues to stand the test of time alongside its competitors such as the Michelin Guide and The Good Food Guide.

Head of AA Hotel Services, Simon Numphud, admits book sales have diminished slightly but believes there are still those who like to hold a book in their hands.

“We’ve been producing guide books for over 50 years and we still see a niche market for those,” said Simon. “Also you can’t beat opening a new guidebook every year and that still resonates with some consumers and chefs.”

He added: “We are in very good times from a restaurant industry point of view. The strength and depth we have culinary wise is fantastic. There are some very clever chefs around the country people like Sat Bains, Tom Kerridge, Daniel Clifford – they are everywhere now which is really exciting.”

Standing out as a guide in this saturated market, Simon believes is down to the AA’s history and heritage. He said: “We stand alone on our own merit as a distinct scheme. Lots of competition is healthy and it’s good that here in the UK we have a variety if different schemes and guides all with a slightly different view point on food. It can only benefit both the consumer and the industry.

“The AA doesn’t pretend to be an all-inclusive guide to the whole of the UK. The reality is that there are only a certain number of restaurants we can get round and visit on a regular basis. There are 2200 in our guide book and obviously it’s important to have new restaurants coming in but also each year there are places changing, closing – perhaps standards not being maintained and those places falling out of the guide. So it never stays the same.”

Trends                              

*The importance and understanding of quality ingredients, provenance, seasonality, traceability. These have taken a big leap and they are something the AA scheme has always preached.

*The AA is active on social media and always have an eye on what consumers are saying and other forms of media are saying but it does form its own view in the end.

*Kitchen gardens are a huge trend. Good examples are The Pig Group, La Manoir, South Lodge, Pennyhill Park and Fallowfields.

*Restaurants have become smarter in terms of environment and setting. There’s been a lot of investment in the restaurants themselves which makes a big difference from a consumer point of view – you want to go somewhere with a nice atmosphere which is well decorated.

*Eating out has become part of our culture, compared to 20 years ago where a takeaway would be the norm.

There are 30 full time inspectors who have all previously worked in the industry as head chefs, general managers, housekeepers – a huge variety of different positions. It’s essential they’ve been in the industry for at least four years and have the relevant qualifications.

All inspectors are put through a stringent training programme by the AA which continues throughout their career. Simon explained that all inspectors can award one or two rosettes on the day but higher awards are a little more complicated.

He said: “The higher levels or the top ten percent (three, four and five rosettes), would have to have a positive recommendation internally to put them up for consideration. That then leads onto additional visits for a wider team.

“What we are looking for is consistency. At the higher levels we don’t make those decisions lightly so we need to ensure that the consistency is there. All the visits are unannounced but we will leave our card afterwards and offer feedback when it’s welcomed – we pride ourselves on that.”

The AA Restaurant Guide also offer consultancy opportunities which has sparked some debate with some in the industry questioning if this paid for scheme is a way of getting rosettes.

“Absolutely not,” said Simon. “There’s no training towards rosettes, we do have a consultancy offering but that is completely separate to the restaurant guide and all the rosettes.”

Food quality is paramount to the guide and Simon explained that ‘rosettes have always been and always will be about the quality of food.’

He said: “Essentially it’s the AA’s view on really good places to eat but most importantly it’s about the food on the plate.

“Also you can’t have good cooking without good produce. A lot more chefs are understanding that more and more now and consumers are far more knowledgeable about food than they were ten years ago. A combination of both of those things has really pushed standards up I feel.”

He added: “It’s a broad and diverse guide and it’s not just about fine dining and conversely it’s not just about pubs, it’s the whole spectrum of different hospitality businesses both large and small.”

So how do you get on the AA’s radar if you are looking to achieve recognition for your cuisine?

“Cook for your customers not for guide books,” said Simon. “I’ve seen too many businesses cook the food they think would win an accolade but they don’t have a full restaurant. That’s a very dangerous thing to do, so I think you need to cook for whoever your local market is. First and foremost make sure they are happy.

AA “In my experience of both working in the industry and with the AA, if you’re cooking really good food and focusing on your customers – accolades normally follow.”

The AA Hospitality Awards take place on Monday night at Grosvenor House, London and are amongst the most prestigious national awards of their kind. Winners are selected in recognition of excellence and success within their award category, having shown a significant improvement within the preceding 12 to 18 months and proving their dedication to raising industry standards and enhancing both their guest and diner experiences.

Simon said: “It’s a great honour for me to look after the business and host the award event. There will be 1100 guests from the hospitality industry there on the night and we’re delighted with the amount of support the awards event gets from chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers – it’s a really special atmosphere.”

Without doubt the AA Hospitality Awards evening is popular but do winners of these awards and those with rosettes still use them as a career benchmark? Simon believes they do and explained that the rosette scheme was never created with that in mind.

He said: “Credit to the schemes credibility, recruitment agencies and the industry in general do refer to them as a benchmark which is a lovely and fantastic endorsement of the scheme.

"Tom Kerridge, who is designing a menu for us this year after winning four rosettes last year and the Chefs' Chef award, when reflecting back said ‘he felt rosettes are really important to the industry because he feels it allows him to benchmark against his peer set and it helps him to both recruit and retain staff. Tom also mentioned it was of ‘great benefit for younger chefs to get a good grounding at a certain rosette level as they build their career up and then move on to other places'."

Simon added: “We’ve got another exciting guide this year and we’re looking forward to celebrating this on Monday.”

We'll be bringing you the latest AA Restaurant Guide on Monday. Look out for it on our site.

By Cara Pilkington @canteencara

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th September 2014

Interview with the AA's Simon Numphud ahead of the AA Restaurant Guide 2015 release