The Michelin Guide UK 2014: what does it really mean to gain or lose a Michelin star?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th September 2013

If you put your ear to the ground you can hear a faint but ever-increasing rumble. It is the sound of the industry’s largest rumour mill lumbering into life for another year. The release of the Michelin Guide UK 2014 is fast approaching and all over the country chefs, food writers and just about anyone with an opinion will be spreading pre-guide rumours.

But in an industry which professes that ‘bums on seats’ is far more important than any accolade, should the Michelin system be taken so seriously? Is it all just hype or is there longer-lasting substance to gaining a star? And what about the dreaded loss of a star: what effect does that have on business and staff morale? The Staff Canteen decided to find out

Alyn Williams
Alyn Williams

Last year’s new arrivals to the Michelin galaxy might be a good place to start. Alyn William’s first solo venture, Alyn Williams at The Westbury, had only been open for ten months when it was awarded its first star in 2012 and Alyn is unequivocal about the effects.

“It transformed the business completely,” he said. “Overnight we doubled our bookings for October and that carried on for the rest of the year. Every week got busier and busier.”

Tim Allen’s Kensington restaurant, Launceston Place, was a similar new project to gain a quick first star. Tim agrees that the star isn’t just about an initial flash in the pan but also
has a longer-term beneficial effect.

“We had the initial flurry of bookings,” he said. “But we’ve had a 16% increase in terms of bottom line revenue since the end of last year. There’s an initial flash in the pan but the long-term increase comes from customers who return knowing that they’ll get a consistent product because that’s what a star is according to Michelin’s own definition – the same consistency time after time.”

Joe Mercer Nairne’s Chelsea restaurant, Medlar, was another relative newcomer that gained its first star. Joe is also confident that it has an effect on business but he’s
more circumspect about just how much you can separate the Michelin effect from other factors. 

“We were a very new restaurant,” said Joe. “So we weren’t sure how much of that increase was the star or just becoming better known. It’s harder to quantify than other short-term peaks such as those based on reviews. When we get a good review in The Times or The Telegraph, we get a one-month bounce in numbers. I think Michelin is more of a slow-burner but it’s more consistent, which is probably a better thing.”

Joe Mercer Nairne

According to popular wisdom the step up from one to two stars causes an even great
er clamour for bookings. Last year Michael Wignall was in the fortunate position to find out, when his restaurant, Michael Wignall at The latymer, was awarded the coveted second star. For Michael the effects were more targeted than just a swarm of extra bookings.

“The average spend went up more or less straight away and the spend on wines went up on average,” he said. “People taking the gourmand menu went from 60-90% and there was also a noticeable increase in lunchtime bookings. I think it's because you get more chefs and people like that coming to the restaurant.”

So much for gaining a star; what about those unfortunate enough to drop a star or, even worse, lose them completely? Just the rumour of being demoted from three to two stars was enough to cause French chef, Bernard Loiseau, to commit suicide in 2003. But again does the hype match up to the business reality? Phil Thompson’s Auberge du Lac at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire was unlucky enough to lose its star last year but according to the Essex chef the business hasn’t seen any adverse effect.

Michael Wignall
Michael Wignall

“Obviously we didn’t go shouting it out that we’d lost a star,” said Phil. “But the place is booming still. We’re doing 60’s and 70’s for lunch and dinner every day and we’ve still got a three-month waiting list for Saturday lunch and Saturday night.”

Phil puts the continued business down to a loyal clientele base who return consistently, but just as he is relatively unaffected business-wise by the loss of the star, he makes no bones about the personal effect on himself as a chef. “It felt like someone had ripped my heart out,” he said. “I felt sick to the pit of my stomach and the worst thing of all was having to tell my chefs.”

Phil admits that breaking the news and the subsequent effort to pick up morale was the hardest test of his career so far: “There were boys in the kitchen in tears,” he said. “But I had to pick them up. After we got through service I took every single chef out and I told them one by one and asked them what they wanted to do: did they want me to set them up in a one star, two star or three star kitchen? One or two chefs said they wanted to go but 80% said they wanted to stay with me.”

Did he believe the loss of the star was fair? “I don’t know what went wrong,” he says. “But I’m a big believer in sod’s law and sometimes you need a bit of luck. Someone has come in a couple of times during the year and caught us on an off day and maybe that piece of fish or meat that you thought was okay midway through a 90-cover humping on a Saturday night has gone to the wrong person.”

Phil Thompson
Phil Thompson

Phil also warns that not every restaurant that loses a star might be as fortunate as Auberge du Lac: “I think if you’re a small independent restaurant it could kill you. We’ve got the comfort blanket of being well-known and being set in Brocket Hall.”

It seems that gaining a star has a more pronounced effect than losing one, perhaps for the simple reason that if you win one you shout about it and if you lose one, you keep your mouth sensibly shut. One thing is for sure in the gossip-fuelled run up to this year’s guide: few mouths will be sensibly shut, but hey, that’s half the reason we love it, right?  

See the full list of Michelin star winners and their reactions here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th September 2013

The Michelin Guide UK 2014: what does it really mean to gain or lose a Michelin star?