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Q&As with Derek Bulmer

Derek Bulmer may not be a person that comes to mind when thinking of world-renowned restaurant bible, The Michelin Guide, but he should be. As editor of the Great Britain and Ireland guide, he's a man who knows more than a thing or two about what makes a good restaurant great. Web editor, Debra Waters, interviews Derek incognito, of course.

The Michelin Guide is THE restaurant guide – why is it so revered?

I guess it’s a lot to do with our history. We first made a guide to France in 1900 so we’ve now entered our second century and are about to celebrate the 100th edition of the Guide France this March (the extra nine years were those when we suspended publication for the two World Wars). Additionally, we have built up a reputation for professionalism, integrity and independence (entries in the guide are free of charge) over many years and generally have the respect of the industry.

Do reviewers need a food background or specialist skills?

Our inspectors are generally recruited directly from the Hotel and Catering industry with appropriate qualifications and experience. Language and writing skills are an added bonus.

Is there a careful selection process when choosing reviewers?

Certainly there is. When we advertise for a new inspector we usually get between 200-300 applicants for one job so we are able to choose carefully. The interview process includes a meal out with the Editor or a senior inspector resulting in a detailed report being written.

And the same applies when choosing which restaurants to visit?

We choose the restaurants we list very carefully and this can often mean a series of meals over a period of time to ensure consistency.

What does the Michelin Guide look for in a restaurant? Is it more than just the food?

Primarily we list restaurants based on the quality of the food they serve and in this respect we specifically consider the following: the quality of the ingredients used; the skill in their preparation; the combination of flavours; the levels of creativity; the value for money and the consistency of culinary standards – both across the menu and over a period of time. Naturally, there are also minimum standards relating to cleanliness, hygiene, upkeep and service that need to be achieved because, no matter how good the food is, if the restaurant is cold and dirty and the service unfriendly then the experience will be a disaster.

You must have seen staggering changes to the UK restaurant scene over the last decade – and the quality is improving year on year (you’ve awarded more stars this year than ever before) – why do you think this is? Is it the snowball effect?  A more informed public? More informed chefs…?

The answer is yes to all the things you’ve mentioned. A more informed public demand higher standards, more informed and confident chefs now have access to better quality products than ever before, and the snowball effect means there are more good restaurants and pubs than ever before. The UK can now boast of having a mature, rich and exciting restaurant scene.

Does it concern you that the credit crunch could have a negative effect on the catering industry? Do you think quality could be adversely affected?

Of course it concerns me and I sincerely hope the credit crunch will be short-lived and not affect too many businesses. Restaurants need to concentrate on maintaining standards, whilst at the same time controlling costs very carefully and offering customers value for money.

What about the Bib Gourmand establishments: how do they differ from ones with Michelin stars?

The Bib Gourmand is an increasingly important award that points out restaurants that are offering good food at moderate prices (the upper limit is currently £28 for a 3 course meal). It differs from the star in that generally the dishes produced are of a simpler nature but they are nevertheless carefully prepared using good quality, if perhaps cheaper, ingredients. It is a value for money award as apposed to the star which is based purely on quality.

You must get to sample some of the UK’s finest cuisine – is there any other job you’d do if you weren’t editing the Michelin Guide? Or is this job as good as it gets?

For me this is as good as it gets because, like all the inspectors I employ, I have a real passion for food and wine and a love of travel. However if you prefer the 9-5 routine then this is definitely not the job for you. If I didn’t do this then I would like to be a wine producer.

If you had to eat at one restaurant for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?

None! No matter how good the restaurant and the food they serve I wouldn’t want to eat in the same restaurant for the rest of my life because it would eventually become routine. The beauty of this job is the variety it offers and the thought that the next wonderful discovery is just around the corner.

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