When you wish upon a star...

Thursday 29th January 1998 00:00

Footballers have FA Cup medals, film stars have Oscars and chefs have Michelin stars.

That's how Gordon Ramsay, chef-proprietor of two-Michelin-starred London restaurant Aubergine, sums up the importance of the French tyre company's little red book.

Others in the industry agree. "It's great kudos," says Nigel Haworth, whose Northcote Manor restaurant in Lancashire won a star three years ago.

"Chefs take the Michelin guide enormously seriously," confirms Shaun Hill, proprietor of the one-Michelin-starred Merchant House in Shropshire.

But, as Hill reminds us, Michelin is not intended as an in-trade award: "It's there for the punters." The question is, just how effective is it at pulling in those punters?

No difference

Not that good, according to some. Pippa Hayward, co-owner of the former Redmond's restaurant in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, claims winning a star in 1991 made no difference to trade. Nor did it prevent her and her husband being forced to sell the business in 1994 when recession hit.

Another sceptic is chef Peter Chandler, owner of Paris House in Woburn, Bedfordshire. His 45-seat restaurant won a star in 1984 but lost it two years later after Chandler changed his style of cooking to better suit local tastes.

"We had to revamp the whole business and switch to a different format, otherwise we would have gone bust," says Chandler.

Yet for other restaurants, the award of a star has proved a boon. Trade at the 30-seat Pennypots Restaurant in Truro, Cornwall, increased by 40% after chef-proprietor Kevin Viner won a Michelin star. "We got a lot of publicity out of it, which is important if you're out in the sticks," says Viner, who has since moved to Falmouth.

Ramsay reports that average customer spending at Aubergine has almost doubled in four years to £70 a head, enabling him to increase staff numbers from nine to 25 as he strives for the coveted third star.

And at Juniper restaurant in Altrincham, south Manchester, director and head chef Paul Kitching is looking for a 10% hike in custom after winning his first star last week. "It's the financial benefits that the star will bring us and not the pat on the head," he says.

"We are obviously quite an expensive restaurant in the area and we need certain accolades and awards to justify the prices that we charge."

Welcome publicity

Juniper has already taken a booking from a party travelling from Glasgow who read about its award in The Times last week. "A Michelin star acts as a beacon to bring people in," believes Kitching.

Although restaurants are not allowed to advertise the fact that they have stars, most chefs confirm that Michelin recognition brings with it welcome publicity, drawing in its wake restaurant critics and even inspectors from rival guide books.

All agree that, as an international guide, Michelin has plenty of pulling power with foreign visitors. Nigel Haworth says that overseas guests at his 14-bedroom hotel always dine in the restaurant once they learn it has a star.

So why doesn't it work for everybody?

Haworth believes the guide is often misunderstood in the UK. "If you have a Michelin star, Joe Public might think it's too expensive and will never go there.

"It definitely puts a certain number of people off. Some of the people I grew up with would never come here because they think it's too out-of-touch for them."

But, Haworth argues, this is not necessarily true, especially in one-star establishments. Northcote Manor, for example, does a £16 set lunch.

Some potential business may also be turned away by the perceived "starchiness" of Michelin-rated restaurants, a criticism Peter Chandler believes is justifiably levelled at some two- and three-star places. "Although the service is absolutely fantastic, you get Ice-Cold Harry out front," he says.

Hill believes the problem lies with chefs who open a restaurant with the express purpose of winning Michelin recognition, without having enough potential customers in the area to support such a venture.

Viner agrees: "Some of the small places that are not really busy enough are getting kids to work 15 hours a day for next to nothing, just to achieve a Michelin star." Other proprietors fork out huge salaries for star chefs they can't really afford, he claims.

Viner's advice is to let Michelin recognition come naturally. "The most important things are customers and turnover. You can't destroy your business," he says. Ramsay agrees: "The most important thing is to keep your restaurant full. You shouldn't lose sleep over a Michelin star."


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