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Is there a market for Michelin stars in the North East?

Michelin Guide editor Rebecca Burr tells Jane Hall what the guide's 2015 says about the state of the North East's restaurant offer

The Raby Hunt restaurant
The Raby Hunt restaurant

Rebecca Burr is rushing between interviews.

It’s Michelin Guide publication day, and as editor of the esteemed food ratings Bible, she is much in demand.

The waiting is now over to see which chefs - and their establishments – have been handed coveted stars.

It’s a nerve jangling time of year for chefs. In the run-up to Michelin announcing its star and Bib Gourmand (good food at moderate prices) picks for the coming year, tensions will have been running higher than normal in restaurant kitchens across the UK.

Chefs already labour under a reputation for being bad tempered – deserved of some. But such is the Michelin Guide’s status, that even the most mild-mannered chef and his team is likely to have been feeling the pressure these last few weeks.

Michelin stars – how many and worse, losing them – can make or break a chef’s reputation. Having the coveted accolade seals your place among the best of the best and allows you to gain entry to an elite club with all the benefits that brings, the most obvious being a boom in business.

Being deleted from the list is a fate too dreadful to contemplate.

The Michelin Guide has been going for more than a century with the dedicated UK and Ireland version launched in 1974. There are now many other food guides vying for public attention, but through wars, economic downturns and changing tastes, Michelin has stayed the course.

It is the one food guide that chefs really want to see their name in and the rating above all others that impresses diners. There is a definite aura surrounding a Michelin starred chef.

Chris Bishop The Raby Hunt in County Durham
The Raby Hunt in County Durham
 

Rebecca has been talking food since daybreak. The results are released to both the restaurant industry and the Press at the same time. The odd well-publicised leak aside (2013’s winners were announced a week early in September 2012 on the official Michelin website due to a ‘technical error’), no-one gets to know ahead of time.

This year the announcement came at 7.30am via Michelin UK’s Twitter feed with a link through to a matter of fact document listing the selected establishments and highlighting those who had lost their star billing.

No celebrity opening of a gold envelope. No names being called out live on TV by Rebecca (although that may yet come). And no fanfare.

But if the buzz that started up within seconds on Twitter as to who had and who hadn’t made the grade, is anything to go by, those 13 sheets of paper will have been forensically analysed.

Across the UK, 167 one, two and three stars were awarded – the most in Michelin’s UK history - with 155 Bib Gourmands. That’s not to mention the nearly 600 pubs plus hotels and guest houses that also warrant a mention in the guide for offering everything from good accommodation to food at affordable prices.

The Home Counties, London and Cornwall have fared particularly well on the star and Bib Gourmand front. They always seem to.

The picture in the North East has remained unchanged, which can be seen as both a positive and a negative.

James Close at the Raby Hunt at Summerhouse near Darlington successfully retained his Michelin star for the third year in a row. And Bib Gourmands have again gone to David Kennedy’s River Café on North Shields Fish Quay, Terry Laybourne’s Bistro 21 in Durham and Broad Chare in Newcastle and the Bay Horse at Hurworth on Tees near Darlington.

Good news then that none of the region’s top-rated Michelin establishments has fallen by the wayside. But not so wonderful, perhaps, that in an area that stretches from Berwick to the North Yorkshire border, there’s only one Michelin starred chef and four Bib Gourmands to shout about.

What does this say about the North East’s current crop of culinary endeavours?

Rebecca, who’s waiting to undergo another radio grilling, chooses her words carefully. She is familiar with the region and its “beautiful landscape.” And she is full of praise for James Close as a self-taught chef – he gave up his dream of being a professional golfer to follow his passion for food – and cites him as a name for the future.

“What a passionate guy,” she says with warmth. “He is self-taught and has natural talent. He is proof that you can succeed.”

Broad Chare Lamb
Broad Chare Lamb
 

Yes, she concedes, other areas of the UK would appear to have an advantage, and the North East is bordered by two successful Michelin areas in Cumbria and North Yorkshire – L’Enclume at Grange-over-Sands has scored two stars for 2015 with The Samling at Ambleside getting one.

The Star Inn at Helmsley in North Yorkshire is a new addition to the Michelin list with one star, and the Black Swan at Oldstead has retained its Michelin status. The Yorke Arms at Pateley Bridge is another one star stalwart.

Rebecca maintains, however, that despite appearances seeming to suggest otherwise, there are many good restaurants in the North East. “If you go to the map in the guide you can see that we recommend a number of places. There are some high class bed and breakfasts and hotels and we always recommend a few pubs.

“There are many more restaurants in the Michelin Guide that don’t make the headlines. A recommendation is very good as well.”

But if the North East wants to see more Michelin stars then “it is down to locals to demand better; it is down to whether there is a market for it.”

And there needs to be more successful food businesses.

The marker as to what makes a successful Michelin standard eatery has changed in the past few years. The ‘red book’ as it is affectionately known, used to be about fine French-style dining with the price tag to match.

But in 2006 Tom Kerridge’s the Hand and Flowers gastropub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, won itself a Michelin star. In the 2012 round of awards it became the first pub in the country to earn a coveted two stars – an accolade it has retained.

This shift also saw chefs begin to talk more openly about their stars – listed venues had at one time being advised not to advertise their Michelin status by the guide.

But shows like the BBC’s MasterChef and Great British Menu which constantly reference Michelin chefs and establishments, have helped raise awareness of the award scheme and its stars, in all senses of the word.

The accolades awarded each year has been rising too, a sign, one hopes, that British food is getting better rather than more stars being handed out because of any tweaks to the judging criteria.

Rebecca maintains it is not the guide that has changed its stance, however, but a shift in the UK dining scene as a whole.

Chefs looking to open their own places on limited budgets are now looking to rundown pubs to take on and turn around or deliberately setting themselves up in unfashionable areas with lower overheads.

Rebecca says: “Good food doesn’t have to mean expensive food.”

She cites North Shields Fish Quay as a prime example. “You’ve got Irvins, David Kennedy’s River Café and the Staith House. An area that was very rundown now has three good restaurants.”

Chef David Kennedy of River Cafe
Chef David Kennedy of River Cafe
 

It is those restaurants and the clientele they attract that have helped drive the regeneration of the fish quay. Multiply that situation nationally and you will see that people’s perception of what and where makes for a good meal are changing.

Rebecca has been with the guide since 1999 and has seen the transformation that has been wrought. Prices have become more reasonable – the five-course tasting menu at The Raby Hunt, for example, comes in at just £35 per person at the lunchtime sitting or £55 per person on an evening.

It belies the accusation that having a Michelin star bumps’ up the price. Some starred restaurants are expensive but Rebecca says: “It’s not true that all starred restaurants are expensive. There are some fantastic deals to be had, especially at lunchtimes.”

Neither does Michelin status necessarily mean stuffiness and overbearing staff.

Starched tablecloths and equally prim waiters, silver cutlery and cut glass don’t gain automatic admission to the Michelin fold. It is, as it should be, “all about the food,” Rebecca states.

That’s not to say moving up the scale from one to two stars doesn’t require a leap in ambience and presentation, but Rebecca says “it’s still about the food.”

The same goes for the Bib Gourmand awards, although at a lower price level. The limit is £28 for three courses.

The awards “reflect the continuing trend for competitively priced, less structured and more flexible dining,” Rebecca explains.

The North East may not have garnered as many Michelin accolades as other regions, but one thing is certain, across the board British cooking is on the ascendant.

With a new breed of self-taught chefs like James Close coming through and a renewed pride in home grown ingredients and traditional dishes, professional cooks no longer feel they have to adhere to antiquated culinary rules or trot out fussy and fiddly French menus.

Rebecca says: “The 14 new stars in our 2015 guide highlight the enormous richness and variety of the UK’s restaurant scene. They range from country pubs to hipster hangouts, from counter-restaurants to classic dining rooms.”

James Close, head chef of the Raby Hunt Restaurant
James Close, head chef of the Raby Hunt Restaurant
 

Variety is said to be the spice of life, and to trot out another saying taken from an old Vaudeville song, a little of what you fancy does you good.

It nicely sums up the more mainstream approach Michelin seems to be taking to food these days; an attitude that will hopefully serve the North East well going forward.

* The Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland 2015 is priced at £15.99. The guide is also available as a free downloadable app available from the Apple App Store.

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