There can hardly be a serious restaurant kitchen in the country that has not wondered what it takes to get a Michelin star. For better or worse, the red guide's approval remains more sought-after than understood, and for many chefs the secret to Michelin-standard cooking remains frustratingly difficult to discover.
Yet you wouldn't realise this speaking to Derek Brown, the Englishman who took over as director of the Michelin hotel and restaurant guides at the end of last year. To him, it is all reasonably straightforward, as some of his responses in a question-and-answer article for Caterer a few weeks ago indicated (Caterer, 25 January, page 10).
For Brown, one of the main points is not so much that chefs don't realise what Michelin wants, but that they should really be far less concerned about the guide and far more about their customers. What is more, he sees Michelin inspectors as "essentially tourists themselves, who go to all the places and eliminate the ones that are not recommendable - to take the pain away".
So, rule number one appears to be: aim to please your customers first; worry about the guides second.
But do you have to cook haute cuisine to get a Michelin star? No, says Brown. "It is quite wrong to suggest that people cannot have a star in a bistro. There are plenty of examples of bistro food having a star. A star with us is exceptional cooking in its class. So, good bistros should cook well using the best ingredients of their type, not just lobster and langoustines. If you are cooking tripe, use the best tripe."
Consistency of cooking and service is another vital point for Michelin. Brown believes this is why the guide has a reputation for being slow to award stars - because the inspection team sometimes simply wants to build up a number of repeat inspections to see that standards are being maintained.
"If we rush in and are not really sure that someone will be as good next year as they are today, then we are taking a risk. If we make a mistake, we soon learn about it. We have a duty to our customers to make sure that what we tell them is reliable."
It's easy to forget that the "customers" of the Michelin guide are the general public, and not the chefs who take such an interest in their ratings. "We are working for the people who buy our guides," he stresses - the very people for whom the chefs are cooking.
The ethnic question
But does a restaurant have to cook French food to be in with a chance of winning stars? This is another frequent question, which is repeatedly denied.
"We have no axe to grind," says Brown. "People say we don't give stars to ethnic restaurants, but we haven't got anything against anybody. Why would we make a book and ignore a large part of what it was supposed to be covering? It wouldn't make sense, it wouldn't be professional. No, we have just found that not many of these restaurants are worth what we consider to be star quality food. It's as simple as that."
Brown pauses before adding, unprompted: "And it's not that we don't understand this sort of food either, because good food is good food wherever it is cooked and whatever style it is cooked in. Our inspectors have eaten in more restaurants than almost anybody you would care to name."
Overall, there seem to be few golden rules other than Michelin's confidence in its inspectors' ability to identify and reward good cooking - and, by implication, ignore bad cooking.
Indeed, such a straightforward philosophy can sometimes belie the Michelin reputation for complexity - it sounds so obvious as to make you wonder why you ever thought it was complicated.
"The intention behind our stars is to point out to people, from the selection of restaurants we have, those that are consistently offering a higher level of cooking than the average," says Brown. "One star is better than the average, two is better than one and three better than two, with more of the invention and personality of the cook." Quite.
Push the guides director a little harder and you might uncover some personal likes and dislikes. He admits to some impatience with amuse-bouche (in common with Egon Ronay, see Caterer, 11 May, page 5), but quickly adds that it depends how and when they are served.
"I do think that there seems to be a proliferation of amuse-bouches and pre- and post-desserts, and so on. I think this might be confusing for people. I think you need to ask the customers if they want it or not.
"People like me need to be careful in saying whether it is a bad thing or not because we are sometimes a bit close to it. We have to be careful not to be over-technical.
"If people go to a restaurant of a high quality and are given these extra dishes - which are really just a showcase of what the chef can do - and if they appreciate it, then it isn't a wrong thing. As long as it doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the principal part of the meal they have chosen. If chefs aren't careful, there is a danger that this might happen."
His views on fusion cooking are similarly qualified.
"Fusion food isn't really very new, is it?" he says. "Three or four hundred years ago, people were making fortunes out of importing spices from the East into Europe and those spices were essentially for putting into food. I remember my mother putting cinnamon into apple pie. Cinnamon is not, ethnically, an English product, so is that fusion?"
But Brown adds a note of caution to any restaurant opting for fusion cuisine, because although some combinations may work, others clearly do not.
"If it forgets the rules of good cooking, it can go wrong. I think we have all eaten a dish and wondered what it was we were eating - when too many flavours were assembled together."
Brown's characteristic response to questions about cooking is to constantly qualify and expand on what he says. His answers are sometimes simple, but never simplistic, so in the end perhaps there is no facile set of rules for giving Michelin what it wants.
Likewise, achieving Michelin stars may come down to a few simple-sounding principles, more easily spoken than achieved: cook inventively, cook consistently and cook well.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 8-14 February 2000