Will Michelin reviewers ever give Norfolk's restaurants another look?
PUBLISHED: 18:20 10 October 2019 | UPDATED: 18:20 10 October 2019
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It may have started as a way of getting drivers to expand their meal choices, but the Michelin Guide - and Michelin stars do still matter in the food trade, says Andy Newman
If you happen to know a chef, or if you have any friends who are enthusiastic about eating out, then you may have noticed on Monday afternoon that they were a little distracted.
In fact, they were probably glued to their Twitter feed, or else watching a live stream on Facebook, fixated on an annual event which it can be argued is wholly irrelevant and outdated, and yet which has a huge impact on the livelihoods of so many people in the hospitality industry.
Yes, it was once again time for a tyre manufacturer to pass judgement on what it thinks are the best places to eat in Britain - or at least those parts of Britain which have a decent rail connection or which are within striking distance of a motorway.
The Michelin Guide was founded in 1899 by the eponymous tyre company; the aim was to encourage owners of the new-fangled motor cars to get out and drive further in them in search of good food. The idea being, of course, that they would wear out their tyres in the process and hence need to buy more.
In the 120 years since the first edition appeared in France, the guide has become something of a monster, with a hugely disproportionate influence on what restaurants have to offer.
Every chef I have ever met has said that winning a Michelin star isn't that big a deal; and you know that they will continue saying that right up until the very moment they win one, when it will become the most important thing in the universe.
This year's announcements saw Sketch in London elevated to the coveted three star level. Sketch is owned by Pierre Gagnaire (who is French), and it joins four other restaurants in the UK which also have three stars: Alain Ducasse (who is French); the Waterside in Bray, run by the Roux Brothers (who are French); London's Gordon Ramsay (a celebrity chef); and the Fat Duck in Bray, run by Heston Blumenthal (who is a celebrity chef). Can you see a pattern emerging?
Now, many of you are probably asking how this is in any way relevant to your lives. Most people will never eat in a three-star temple to gastronomy, so what does it matter if a Gallic guidebook tends to be in thrall to its own countrymen and those who are regulars in the telly?
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The answer is that the Michelin Guide still has a huge influence, not just at top-end, fine-dining establishments, but right across the sector. And as most of us enjoy eating out in some shape or form, then what the blubbery tyre-man says will eventually affect our enjoyment.
It's a shame that Monsieur Michelin seems to have forgotten that Norfolk exists. There have been no new stars in the county since The Neptune at Hunstanton won its one-star rating 10 years ago. Both it and Morston Hall - which gained its star in 1999 - have retained their accolades again, and they deserve congratulations for doing so.
But have there really been no new restaurants in the past decade which reach the standard? Or is it that the inspectors prefer to stick to the capital and those places which have handy rail connections when it comes to seeking out new talent?
This matters, because having starred restaurants can massively increase tourism, and the halo effect benefits local eateries at all levels - and let's face it, in the current climate, they could do with some help.
Norwich has only ever had one starred restaurant, the long-closed Adlards (head chef at the time: Roger Hickman).
The workings of the guide are so secretive that we will never know whether inspectors have been to our county to see what's what, or whether they have bypassed us for more accessible places. Certainly if you look at the list of new stars outside London this year, the furthest east is in Nottingham. Maybe they didn't want to wear out their tyres on the A11?
The Michelin Guide tends to favour a certain type of formal dining, a type which is rapidly going out of fashion.
Nowadays most people want informality, unstructured meals of small plates, and generally a lack of the kind of white-linen stiffness which grabs the tyre firm's attraction.
Maybe our county's restaurants are concentrating on giving people what they want, rather than trying too hard to win a gong which bears increasingly little relevance to how most of us eat out.
But as long as restaurant-goers keep the Michelin Guide on a pedestal, it will continue to exert undue influence on chefs and diners alike.