The words “Michelin star” can conjure up very different emotions depending on the person you are speaking to. To chefs who have recently been awarded the highly-sought after accolade, it fills them with indescribable pride – the foodie equivalent of winning an Oscar. For those who have had theirs stripped away, it’s a bitter sign of failure. For customers, it’s a marker that a joint is offering world-class fare.
The woman in control of it all – in the UK and Ireland, at least – is Rebecca Burr. As the editor of the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland she has the power to make or break restaurants across the British Isles.
Since taking the position in the Nineties, she – like other reviewers – has eaten in about 250 restaurants each year. So she knows a thing or two about what makes a restaurant exceptional.
The Independent spoke to her to find out her criteria for judging a chef and whether her friends are brave enough to have her over for dinner.
What’s it like to have what sounds like the best job in the world? How many restaurants do you visit a year on average?
On average inspectors are out on the road three weeks of a month, including weekends. We are advised to eat three meals a day at top class places, as well as more simple places in between – so it’s not all foie gras. We have lunch and dinner every day and note down other places to visit. Over the year we average at 250 to 300 places. We’re very fortunate! It must be one of the best jobs in the world. But we don’t get special rates unlike critics and don’t go in the first month of a restaurant opening unless we’re close to a guide deadline and we know the chef and we want to include them. We want to be undetected and book anonymously for a true experience.
How does a person end up working as a Michelin inspector?
It was 1998 when I joined the company so I have a similar background to all inspectors. We all have some formal training at a hotel or restaurant or in the wine business, or on the ground experience as a chef. These people have an inherent understanding of what goes into a business and that some places get an off day and the trials and tribulations you have to undergo to work in this business.
What is your criteria when assessing a restaurant?
It’s very fluid as every place is different. We have a few guidelines, including consistency across the menu. We’ll visit a candidate many times to make make sure the chef cooks all of his or her dishes the same every time. That’s really important. Value for money is a criteria that sometimes shocks people. We check that they are charging the correct amount. That’s important. We also look for the flair and technical skill involved and the quality of the food.
How hard is it to conceal your identity? Is it hard not being able to have a presence on social media?
If I meet a new group of friends and I say I’m not on Facebook and people sometimes say “come on, you need to get with it!”. But I manage the Michelin social media account so I’m actually very on it! But I can’t say why I’m not online. In a social situation, I hope that the conversation changes when we speak about jobs. I’m not a good fibber.
We try to be discreet. We are making a guide that we want to be reliable for our readers and we don’t want preferential treatment at all. Some of my colleagues make up lots of names and disguises, but I don’t myself. But it’s becoming less unusual for a person to travel and dine alone now so it’s harder to spot us.
What has been your favourite experience as a Michelin inspector?
I’m very fortunate to go to the top restaurants all over the world. It’s hard to name names because I think it depends on who you’re with and the occasion and what you want to spend. There are super little places in the UK with husband and wife teams who give 100 per cent to the business and some cracking pubs. When I first started it first started no one detected the talent of Tom Kerridge and The Hand and Flowers.
It was a highlight when we saw him settle in at a ramshackle pub. We thought this guy will go places and I was delighted we were the first to acknowledge him. That’s still the only pub still with two stars. That was a highlight. I hadn’t taken over too long as editor and I spoke to some French colleagues and they were very suspicious of what this new girl was proposing and they were taken aback.
Tell us about your worst experiences
I think I entered the company in the good years. My predecessor who did it for 30 years, some of the stories from the Seventies were just horrendous. The menus were pages long. Back in the day when you didn’t have a phone to distract you you’d take a newspaper to a restaurant. On one occasion an inspector was offered a newspaper at lunch and set it on fire. He never lived it down.
Now, sometimes there can be a lot of hype around a new opening and we’ll go two months after it opened and can’t see what all the fuss is about. I know a few high-profile restaurants charging a lot of money and they didn’t make it into our guide because the food just wasn’t star-level. We’ve got a lot of very good standard restaurants in the UK, and London is looked at as top destination in the world. It’s a real melting pot of different cuisines.
What should diners in the UK be excited about?
We have another guide, which is the Bib Gourmand that lists meals that are three courses for under £28. That’s the stamp of really good value modem cooking. Some chefs aren’t bothered about a star but they want a Bib Gourmand. So there are some really fantastic gems in the collection. I think we continue to find reasonably priced places in London that put pressure on rest of country. There are a lot of really nice lunch deals in starred restaurants with set menus and we know that a lot of diners like those. They’re a really good deal and that seems quite hidden around the country. Bristol is really on the up – we have a massive selection of really talented chefs there.
Do any of your friends ever invite you over for dinner?
Friends do invite me out. Friends know I’m happy if anyone offers to cook for me and were not that precious.
What do you cook at home?
That’s a dreaded question! Not as much as I used to. We all need downtime so I tend to go to the gym more than I cook at home! I couldn’t possibly master some of the dishes that I have out. But if I’m in Devon or Cornwall or the west coast of Scotland I will always buy good fish and grill it. I know a lot of inspectors who enjoy doing that.Reuse content