'They always say that they don't take them away lightly, that they know it can be damaging to business. Absolute bullshit'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th October 2020

Exceptional, unprecedented, unforeseen circumstances such as those witnessed this year aside, October is traditionally when Michelin stars are announced for the following year. 

But last year, Graham Garrett, renowned chef and owner of The West House in Biddenden, was among those who saw their restaurants struck from the prestigious list.

 

"I knew it was coming," he said in an interview with The Staff Canteen. 

"Not officially, obviously, but I had an inkling. Everybody around me was saying: 'No, you'll be alright,' but I didn't think so because of the inspections that we'd had. You get a feeling." 

"Let's face it, I'd had one consecutively for sixteen years. You get a bit of a feel for what it is and what you're doing." 

Though he didn't speak to inspectors on this occasion, he was told before that 'anybody that had one for any length of time, if there was anything slightly worrying or untoward, they wouldn't tell them but they would give them a nudge and let them know that there was something wrong to address'.

"They always say that they don't take them away lightly, that they know it can be damaging to businesses - that they wouldn't just take one off you kind of thing. Absolute bullshit, because that's exactly what happened. No conversation, no contact before or since." 

"Chef friends have said, 'have you rang them, have you spoken to them', but why would I? They haven't contacted me." 

"What am I going to ring them and say, 'why did you take my star?'. Fuck off, I'm not doing that."

The chef may have expected the news, but it was still hard to come to terms with it. 

"I'll be honest, it didn't feel great," he said.

"It's very depressing. It's a bit of a blow because it's not exactly a great indictment of what you're doing is it. I worried for the business, I thought: 'Is that going to affect me,' because if it affects the business then you've got problems." 

"I'd just got a new team in as well at that point," he continued. "They'd just started and I thought, 'they've come here because they want to work in a starred place and all of that' so now you start thinking 'is it going to affect that? Are they going to leave? How are they going to feel?'. It's quite a difficult one." 

Asked if he felt any anger or resentment, he said: "Yeah, at first. But then I get angry at everything very easily - my initial reactions to most things are anger," he laughed. "And then I think about it and calm down. 

"When I was younger, I might've reacted instantly, nowadays, I actually count to 100 or whatever it takes. 

"It used to be 10 and then I thought, 'fuck it, I'll be angry', but now I try and be a little bit sensible about stuff." 

"I was angry, disappointed, all of the obvious feelings that you would expect." 

"I didn't answer my phone for a day, I didn't speak to anyone and when I did - the Chris Galvins of the world, the David Everitt-Matthias' of the world making a real effort to get hold of me and to talk to me and to say, 'I know how you feel'.

"The most reassuring thing that they said was that 'we all know you, we know what you do, you don't become shit overnight, so don't worry about it'. That actually changed my thinking a little bit and it did help." 

As for his team, he said: "One of them put his arm around me and said 'we just have to get it back then, make us work harder'. 

"I was thinking he was going to say he was going to leave and they were saying they were going to work harder.

"That's an amazing attitude." 

But in his case, his attitude is more one of: "I can't be fucking arsed". 

"I had one for sixteen years, I never asked for it, I never did anything to get it, it was never an ambition. 

"Here's the truth - I'd left London working for absolute headcases as it always was in those days - that doesn't include Richard [Corrigan] by the way. Basically, you come away from all of that madness and people chasing stars into a little place in the country where I was completely on my own, I cooked on my own, I didn't know anyone around here."

To his wife, who had no experience in fine dining restaurants, he handed a service guide from Nico Ladenis and said: "All you've got to do is smile and be really nice to people when they come in, anything in between that just come and ask me, it won't be a problem.

"And that's how we muddled through and we got a star straight away.

"How? Why? No idea, and that wasn't the plan." 

And say what you will about the guide, he said: "It made a massive difference. It tripled our business." 

Back when a star was just a concept

Funnily, a far cry from the singing and dancing event that Michelin now hosts annually, he said: "We weren't even allowed to put it on the website. 

"You weren't allowed to use it in advertising. 

"I know it sounds mad - it was only 2004, so not that long ago really - but it's a different world. 

"You didn't get a plaque or a jacket, you got nothing. 

"It was almost like, what's the point. But it had an impact." 

The following year, unsure whether he'd maintained his star and after falling out with a salesman at his local WHSmith, the chef caught a train to London to pick up a copy of the guide to be sure. 

"That's how I found out on that second year that we still had one. So when you compare that to now," he continued, "it's ridiculous. 

"I also get it - it's called promoting their brand." 

Does losing a star make a difference to business?

A year after losing the star, fearful that the loss would have a detrimental effect on his business, he said: "It didn't. It made absolutely no difference whatsoever. We had the best year we'd ever had - up until March, when everything went tits up for everybody. 

"Customer feedback's amazing, everything's been good, we've been busy and I'm thinking: 'well actually, am I bothered then, do I want to get it back'." 

Thinking of his team however, he added: "Of course that's what they want. 

"If they got it back now, they could say 'we were actually involved, we won that back'.

"Not so much for me. Had it, been there, done it, sixteen years, long time, now business is great."

Which, he said, is all that matters.

"Richard Corrigan always used to say that as you get older you want your food simpler and your wine better - and I think actually he's got a point." 

Asked whether he believes Michelin measures the pressure and the consequences of stripping away a restaurant's stars away, he said: "They say they do. They indicate that they're aware of all of those things, which is why they say they wouldn't take them away lightly but that doesn't seem to be the case."

"If Michelin do know about how it affects people, we could go back to Bernard Loiseau blowing his brains out because he thought he was going to lose a star, it does make you wonder." 

Will the 2021 guide count?

This year is different, of course, and taking any stars away might seem like the guide was being unfair. 

When event after event was cancelled from March onwards, the chef said: "I couldn't help noticing that the Michelin Roundhouse thing they were going to do in October hadn't been cancelled." 

Finally, they announced that they were moving the date, and Graham said: "I thought 'it's a bit sad really' because how the fuck can you put a guide out for inspecting restaurants when they've been shut for half the year - some of them ain't open yet. It's ridiculous. 

"I find it difficult - unless they are absolutely brilliant - I don't know how they can put a fair assessment of places out at the moment, I think it's mad." 

At the end of the day, he said: "Putting all of this importance on a fucking guide book is ridiculous. 

"It's only food. You know that. We're cooking a bit of grub. We're cooking a bit of dinner. Get real."  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th October 2020

'They always say that they don't take them away lightly, that they know it can be damaging to business. Absolute bullshit'