Michelin stars in Britain have little to do with food

Playing the guidebook listings encourages restaurants to become more pretentious
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The Independent Online

Over the next few days, the national and local media will be reporting joy and heartbreak among various, relatively small businesses as the conclusions of a group of French adjudicators are made public. The latest edition of the Michelin Guide to restaurants in Britain and Ireland is about to be published and, although its findings affect the daily lives and eating habits of remarkably few people, it seems that we should all be concerned as to whether Gary or Gordon, Marco Pierre or Jamie are up or down, in or out of the ratings.

Most people, I imagine, will not waste too much time worrying about the change of seating arrangements on the top table of the restaurant business but, in its own small way, the regular Michelin ritual is a useful reminder of our inbuilt inferiority complex in matters of food to almost any other European country and, in particular, France.

Over the past 10 or so years, a large part of the middle-class population of Britain has been seduced into a state of gob-smacked reverence towards all things French: their countryside, their culture, their cheerful sense of family and community; their grown-up attitude towards marriage and adultery, their national pride and, above all, their food and their wine.

Over 100,000 Britons have acted upon their admiration and now live in France. Some of those left behind limply attempt to pretend that we are semi-Gallic by paying huge respect to the Guide Michelin but, like an over-eager child in awe of a cooler classmate, they get it slightly wrong. A publicity bonanza is awarded to precisely the kind of restaurant which is relatively rare in France: a hushed, self-important, expensive shrine to food which lacks the very elements which, for all but food bores, are more important than any dish - atmosphere, warmth and charm.

With their obsession with lists and hierarchies, the British have turned reasonably successful cooks - amiable, eccentric, aggressive - into celebrity "superchefs". With the emphasis on sophistication and originality in cooking, an unhealthy polarisation between the smart and affordable has taken place in the restaurant business. As a result, it is actually more difficult for a family to go out and eat a decent, reasonably priced meal in friendly surroundings, as the French do as a matter of course.

In fact, the Michelinisation of British restaurants is good news only for obsessive food fanatics, for those so socially insecure that they need to impress, and for people on large expense accounts. For all their stars and rave reviews, the restaurants for which one has to book several weeks in advance offer their customers a pleasure that has little to do with the meals themselves - the chance to be seen at the right place, to consume conspicuously.

Enjoying good food is a social as well as a sensual pleasure, and it would be good to think that one of the side-effects of the new interest in cooking is that more families now eat together, away from TV and computer, rather than hurriedly and on the hoof. Going out occasionally to a local restaurant, where the food is not a big deal but then nor is the price, is part of that process.

But food that has been fussed and agonised over, primped and promoted and awarded stars, is a sort of obscenity in a world in which there are so many higher priorities than filling one's face at vast expense.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that, when it comes to the unbearable snobbery of the food business, I bear personal scars. Briefly and ingloriously, I was once the restaurant critic for a Sunday newspaper. What seemed at first like a dream job, to be paid to go out with a friend once a week at someone else's expense in return for my considered thoughts on what we had eaten, quickly palled.

The restaurateurs were absurdly full of themselves, and hilariously competitive. On one occasion, I made the mistake of making notes too obviously at a London establishment and was ejected on the suspicion that I was spying for a rival. As time went by, I found it increasingly difficult to pronounce upon the food, or to take pleasure week after week in revealing that, after much deliberation, my guest had plumped for the bollito misto which she had found a touch bland. Expected to be skittish or contentious, I took to including rather superfluous riffs about poverty, unemployment or declining standards of literacy.

The problem quite often was that the more sophisticated the meals that I was offered, the more they seemed to me fussy and self-conscious, their look and taste produced for effect. Eating out was often like reading one of those novels that one senses has been written for critics and academics rather than readers; the point of the whole exercise - to give pleasure - had been forgotten along the way.

Playing the guidebook listings game merely encourages those in the restaurant business to become more pretentious and pleased with themselves than they are already. The price is not only paid by their well-heeled patrons. Indirectly, they make it more difficult for the rest of us to find a friendly, cheerful restaurant without those tiresome Michelin trimmings - star-ratings, snobbery and hype.