This month Karen Keygnaert made news when she rejected a Michelin star. Her reasons make a lot of sense. As she told The Independent, “The star brings along a whole circus that’s outdated. If there’s even a crease in the menu card or a crease in the tablecloth, people soon end their sentence with: ‘I don’t think that belongs to a star restaurant’” At her new restaurant Cantine Copine, Keygnaert wants her guests to feel comfortable. She’s not alone. Increasingly numbers of chefs are arguing that Michelin stars are outdated.
I’ve had wonderful meals in a couple of Michelin starred restaurants and they were absolutely what I imaged such a place to be like; thick luxurious tablecloths, a quiet and elegant service (is there any greater treat than being allowed to eat your meal without being interrupted with demands for feedback) and of course incredible food. There was a real sense of occasion.
Yet, I would list neither among my favourite restaurants. For me, a favourite restaurant is one where I can relax. When I signed off my cook book to the printers I went to celebrate with friends at The Daffodil in Cheltenham. They had a lounge singer that night and after she sang happy Birthday to another diner, my friends requested that she sing Happy Launch Day to me. I just can’t imagine that happening in a Michelin starred place. The cocktails were delicious, the seats comfortable and the serving staff the right kind of attentive. There was nothing lacking but plenty of fun (and aside from those two brief songs, the rest of the night was fabulously classy).
My own restaurant, Gloucester Studio, was very much inspired by the kinds of places I love to go with friends. Far from starched white tablecloths, the trays around my fire pit have been painted black due to the sheer amount of smuts that came from the fire. That my diners come on an exclusive hire basis means they really make the space their own and I often open the door the raucous laughter of a party in full flow. The ambience is far from that of a Michelin star restaurant and that’s no bad thing.
This isn’t to say I agree that Michelin stars are outdated. When Tom Kerridge visited Gloucestershire University last year I had the opportunity to ask him how he established the standards which led to his Michelin star. His answer completely changed the way I looked at food. Kerridge used the example of a shepherds pie and suggested that rather than look at the finished flavour, one could look at making each component the best it could possibly be. I now roast mince when making mine and it has absolutely transformed the dish.
For me, this kind of thinking is what lies at the heart of cooking. Perhaps the ambience component of Michelin stars will change in coming years but at the heart the guide is about highlighting those restaurants where really incredible food is being created. While my favourite places to eat may not have Michelin stars, the dishes they are serving are often inspired by those at starred restaurants. When it comes to my restaurant, I run it the way that makes me happy. But while my cooking style is different, I compulsively read Heston’s Perfection and one of the best experiences of my life was meeting Michel Roux Jr last year and spending a day talking about cooking methods.
Michelin stars establish a standard. I completely respect that Keygnaert doesn’t wish to be measured against that standard but I’m glad we still have the standard.
If you enjoyed this article, why not read the latest issue of my magazine, Flame.