People Intimidated by Michelin Star

“Bon Appetit definitely will lose its star,” says Oliver Dunne when I talked to him in January this year, referring to the Malahide restaurant where he is executive chef and owner, and one of only nine places in Ireland to be awarded a coveted Michelin star. “And to be honest, I hope it does. It will, trust me. I’ll make sure of it. Because it’s a negative to where I am situated in Dublin. People are intimidated by it, and I’ve witnessed that for years and years and years. Everyone can say what they want. Unless you’ve had one, and you’ve stood on the frontline and you’ve witnessed the conversations and you’ve listened to the nightly reports from the managers, what’s said and what’s not said; the crazy comparisons that people make – ‘Oh, I was in La Pergola in Rome, not the same as here’. Of course not, the restaurant is in Rome. Why would it be the same? They have three Michelin stars. People are intimidated fundamentally.”

Although this may sound like yet another chef saying, “merci, mais non merci” to the lauded Michelin Guide as they return their hard earned Michelin star on a cloche covered platter, Dunne insists that it is not the case. “The whole Michelin thing, and people saying, giving your stars back, that is nonsense,” he says. “A Michelin star isn’t mine to give back. I didn’t apply for a Michelin star, I didn’t fill out a form, ‘can I have a Michelin star please?’ I was awarded a Michelin star. It’s just that we have changed the offering, and for me and for my customers it is for the better.”

It’s Your Star Mr Michelin, Not Mine

Although Dunne may protest a great deal that he is not “giving back” his Michelin star, he is not alone when it comes to a decision to change direction and move away from tasting menus and formal frippery. Spanish chef Julio Biosca, tired of the tasting menu and fine dining straightjacket he had cooked himself into, requested that his family’s Fontanars dels Alforins restaurant near Valencia be omitted from the Michelin Guide in 2014, and due to a late application, didn’t manage to wrangle free until the 2015 guide was released. Similarly, Frederick Dhooge of ‘t Huis van Lede in Belgium asked to be omitted from the 2015 guide, bemoaning the fact in a Facebook post in March 2014, that customers who follow Michelin star restaurants expect a spectacle in the kitchen, the implication being that his pared back food is deemed to be too simple to be worthy of a gong  by hard-core gourmands. Also weary of the expectation for Michelin bells and whistles, accompanied by high prices, was French chef Olivier Douet of Le Lisita in Nimes, who, in response to the recession and a drop in diners, gave back his star in 2011 to follow the simpler brasserie route which has become increasingly popular in France. In 2013, his endeavours in bistronomy were rewarded with a Michelin Bib Gourmand, an award for “good cooking at moderate prices”.

“I will be getting in touch with the Guide before this interview comes out, just to let them know and to say I’ve changed, because every year, they send out a form around summer time asking if there are any changes going on. I hadn’t fully decided last year if we were going to make the change but I kept on delaying it. So I want to let them know, not that I owe them anything, it’s just courtesy.” [An edited version of this interview appeared in the Sunday Times, Sunday section on 11 January 2015].

”I think in Ireland, we don’t have the same exposure, there’s a complete misconception of what Michelin stars are,” he says. “The Michelin Guide isn’t responsible for that, it’s actually written in the book what a Michelin star is. But everyone thinks Michelin is about service and décor and dickie bows and cloches. But they’re completely wrong. A Michelin star is about three consistent courses. That’s it.”

Speaking to me in in 2013, for a piece I was doing for the Sunday Times, Sunday section; Rebecca Burr, the editor of the UK and Ireland Michelin Guide made the point that the star indicates the quality of the food and does not indicate a level of formality. “People think Michelin – expensive, French – I can’t stress enough that that’s not us,” she said. “We represent places in our guide with the knives and forks. People get an idea of formality, the price, the style, the whole environment. The forks go from five to one, and it doesn’t mean that one is any better than another, it’s just indicating the level of formality. It’s as simple as that.”

Although being awarded a Michelin star is the pinnacle of success for ambitious young chefs, the “curse of the Michelin star” is a phrase that has been dogging the reputation of the guide for some years. In 1999, Marco Pierre White famously returned his three Michelin stars and has never tired of telling the world that he quit because he was being judged by people who had less knowledge than him; and Skye Gyngell, the Australian chef who was awarded a star in 2011, seven years after she opened the Petersham Nurseries Café in south London, received repeated complaints about the fact that her restaurant was in a shabby-chic greenhouse, resolutely de trop for the well-seasoned gourmand. She removed the star from the website and soon quit, declaring that she never wanted to be awarded a star again. No doubt Michelin will bear this in mind now that she has opened Spring, a stylish new London restaurant with crisp, white linen table cloths.

Michelin Star is Not a Curse

Dunne says that he doesn’t consider his Michelin star a curse, it has been very good for the profile of his restaurant, but he too has experienced huge misconceptions with his customers. He tells the story about a woman he met on the stairs in the restaurant who was effusive with her praise for the food and the service, but was horrified about the fact that there was a teabag rather than loose tea in the teapot in a Michelin starred restaurant, and on that basis would refuse to come back.

“The funny thing was, that lady was eating the €19 early bird menu in the Brasserie,” he says. “She had had the most amazing meal and service in her life, but she wasn’t coming back because of a teabag. That’s the nonsense you deal with, that’s the nonsense I was getting on a weekly basis, people coming in with false perceptions of what they think it should be. They’ve never been to a Michelin starred restaurant in their life. It was very frustrating, but you just had to take it on the chin.”

People Confused About the Two Different Restaurants

The fact that Dunne’s Michelin starred restaurant was in the same building as his Brasserie, which has a Michelin Bib Gourmand, has caused much confusion to diners over the years. “Bon Appetit has always been operated from a different kitchen; a lot of people didn’t know that and they thought ‘oh it’s the same thing’ and over the years I’ve heard ‘why would I pay more upstairs?’ It was very confusing,” he says. “People would feel a bit on edge when they came in; the bar was the meeting point and you could guess who’s going up to the restaurant – people well dressed up in suits and dinner dresses – and then there would be our regular customers coming in who were very familiar with the place. It was a big mix and you could see some people were a bit uncomfortable with it, people didn’t know where to position themselves.”

He also maintains that as Malahide lacks the footfall of the city centre, it was always going to be difficult to sustain the high level of chefs and waiters required for the more formal restaurant; Saturday night business wasn’t enough to keep it viable. After a refurbishment in October, he has combined the two restaurants, using one kitchen and the same menu throughout, with starters ranging from €7 to €12 and main courses averaging €22. “All the guests that have been with us for a long time have said that it’s much better,” he says. “Business has boomed since it’s happened, we’re up by 20 per cent, and November was crazy, 30 per cent up on November last year. I’m kicking myself, why didn’t I do it years ago?”

Critics Are Talking Nonsence

With Dunne’s change of direction, the bets will surely be on about what restaurant is likely to swoop in and find favour with the Michelin inspectors, who stoically refused to award any new stars in Ireland in October 2014. Dunne isn’t convinced that there are any contenders yet, he believes we have what we deserve when it comes to Michelin stars and thinks critics saying that we should have more is nonsense. “I think there are restaurants that have the potential to have stars,” he says. “But then again, it’s like the whole thing behind Michelin. A lot of chefs are confused and they have completely inaccurate views of what is important for a Michelin star. They’re actually physically going for Michelin stars and if they copped on and stopped the nonsense and just cooked from the heart and didn’t try to win Michelin stars, they might achieve one.

“Let the food speak for what it is. But they focus on silly things like someone wearing white gloves and someone shaving nonsense onto your plate and someone burning the fire on your table. Just cook the food. Just serve the food. I get infuriated by it. The chefs out there, I’ve had meals where the chefs are clearly talented guys, they can cook at a very high standard, but I just walk out frustrated. What are they doing?” he says.

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