To any restaurateur, the award of a star from the Michelin Guide must surely rank as one of the proudest moments of their career. The 2018 Great Britain & Ireland edition features 17 new one-star winners, including six from London: Jamavar in Mayfair, Elystan Street in Chelsea, Aquavit in St James’s, La Dame de Pic in the City and A. Wong in Victoria.
Additionally, Claude Bosi at Bibendum in Chelsea won two stars, while back in Mayfair The Square regained its one, and ultra-exclusive The Araki amassed three. These awards are often considered a barometer of what is hot in the capital’s dining scene – arguably the most competitive and diverse in the world.
Ever since the tyre company started producing its guide to stopping places for French motorists in 1900, the Michelin star has been awarded solely on the merits of the food itself, with the restaurant’s ambience, décor or facilities not factoring into the decision-making process at all. Just a few simple but stringent criteria are used by the inspectors – who dine incognito and pay their own bills – when assessing an establishment.
As Rebecca Burr, editor of both the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland and Michelin Guide London, explains: “The most important thing is the quality and consistency of the food on the plate. Value also comes into it, and offering poor service certainly wouldn’t help. But the inspectors are really looking for quality ingredients used extremely well.”
In the search for new winners, and to ensure that existing holders are worthy of retaining their stars, the average Michelin inspector will each year travel around 30,000km, sleeping in 160 hotels and eating 250 meals. Phil Howard is one chef who knows very well what makes these professional gourmets tick. He held two stars at The Square in Mayfair before opening what he describes as his “London swansong”: Elystan Street in Chelsea. He agrees that consistency of quality is key. “There is no point cooking to impress a Michelin inspector,” he says. “I wouldn’t recognise them anyway; they do a pretty effective job of trying to stay anonymous. So I have to make sure that my food reaches the same high level every time, whoever is eating it… I feel that, rather than having purposefully set out to get a Michelin star – however great and desirable that is – I’ve got it as the by-product of doing a good job.”
Anyone eating at Elystan Street will appreciate just how well Howard does that job. Known for his no-nonsense approach, his cooking is refreshingly free of affectation or gimmicks. His desserts are especially famous. To understand why, just try his roasted figs with goat’s milk ice cream and citrus beignets. He explains: “I’m entirely unmotivated by the need to be different or to innovate. I’m purely in the business of delivering pleasure through harmony of flavours.” Although Howard doesn’t feel the need to follow culinary trends, he notes that “thankfully, there seems to be a swing back to a more honest style of cooking”.
Burr agrees. “Cooking in London is starting to shift back to a more classic style. Sauces are making a resurgence and all those gels and foams may be on the wane.” That’s good news to anybody who was left cold by such innovations as molecular gastronomy. It’s also welcomed by another chef who has just been awarded his first Michelin star, Henrik Ritzen of Aquavit in the newly regenerated quarter of St James’s Market.
Ritzen, who has worked at two other Michelin-starred restaurants (The Square, with Howard; and at Lutyens in the City), thinks that “food shouldn’t be fashionable”. Aquavit serves traditional Nordic cuisine with a modern twist in a brasserie-style setting that, CEO Philip Hamilton admits, “isn’t the normal Michelin-star environment. We have a relaxed dining concept that’s accessible to everyone”.
This ethos of affordability is reflected in the morning-to-midnight menu that includes an express lunch option of a main dish like Swedish meatballs or gravlax plus a glass of wine or beer for £15. Hamilton has an enviable track record as an international restaurateur: Aquavit’s upscale Manhattan branch opened in 1987 and has been honoured with two Michelin stars in the New York Guide. “This business is about making sure people have a great meal and a great time,” he says. “Henrik does exactly that – he creates food that makes you want to lick the plate.”
Whatever the political or economic outlook, London will continue to be a magnet for the best in international dining, based not least on its ability to attract the best chefs. “London is still the beating heart of this country’s culinary scene, and it has developed into a truly global hub for the industry,” Burr describes.
“It’s such an exciting and cosmopolitan city, and that’s reflected in the ingredients available and the huge variety of restaurant styles and cuisines. It’s also reflected in the number of chefs who want to come here from other parts of the country, and in fact from across the world. This year’s Michelin stars have reflected that variety and vibrancy.”
Seeing the success of this year’s new Michelin star winners, particularly the well-deserved achievements of Aquavit and Elystan Street, it’s not difficult to feel upbeat about the future of the British dining scene. As Howard puts it, plainly and succinctly: “food is in a good place right now.”