The AA Restaurant Guide has proven a leading authority to restaurants, customers and chefs for over seventeen years. Since the 1960s there has been an AA Hotel Guide and since 1908 The AA Handbook has touched on food and restaurants.
Andrew Turvil (left) is coming up to his first anniversary as editor and found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide.
Interview took place Thursday 26th November 2009 at Andrew’s home in Brighton.
Tell us some background about yourself?
Initially my background was in editorial. At the beginning of the 1990s I was lucky enough to get a position in a junior editorial capacity at The Which? Good Food Guide.
I grew up in a family with a passion for food and, like so many British people of my generation, it was holidays in France in the 1970s where I had my eyes opened to good food. We lived in Switzerland for a year, too. The food encountered in France was in stark contrast to what was typically available in the UK at that time.
At The Good Food Guide at the beginning of the 1990s, I was lucky enough to work with Tom Jaine, who joined the Guide as Editor at about the same time, and then Jim Ainsworth. I learned from them both about what constitutes good cooking, the importance of quality, seasonal produce, the attention to detail required to deliver first-class food, etc. And I started working as an inspector.
Over the last twenty years I’ve borne witness to the flourishing and almost revolutionary changes in dining out in Britain. From the mid-1990s I took over as manager of the Good Food Guide’s team of inspectors and also edited The Which? Pub Guide – more travelling and eating – at the time of the rise of the gastro-pub.
I moved into the hot seat as editor of the Which? Good Food Guide and after completing four editions (2004, ’05, ’06, ’07), I went freelance. I jumped at the chance to edit the AA Restaurant Guide when asked, and I’m very proud of the 2010 edition.
Tells us a little about the history of The AA Restaurant Guide?
The AA first started assessing hotels and restaurant in 1908. Over a century ago! The AA Handbook was initially the ‘vehicle’ for this, which was about quality ratings for Hotels but also touched on the food. A separate guide for Hotels was created in the 1960s and a further separate volume specifically for restaurants was launched seventeen years ago, just as the UK dining scene started to get very interesting.
What is your personal philosophy for the Guide?
First and foremost the clue is in the title – it’s a Guide book. It has to serve that function and be rock solid, reliable, credible and informative so that customers are happy to invest £16.99 in each edition. My team and I endeavour to write interesting and accurate reviews of restaurants and generally make it a good read.
I have a dual role. As editor, I am responsible for what is written about each restaurant. As an inspector, I am part of the team, eating out and awarding the rosettes.
Guides these days have changing formats – has this trend affected the AA Restaurant Guide?
The 2009 Guide went to a slightly bigger page size and simplified the way some of the information is presented. Over the years, the guide has certainly experimented with different formats. What we have now is clear, easy to understand, easy to navigate and colourful. We also have the space and opportunity to include a number of feature articles, giving the book a bit more scope and breadth, which is all part of making it useful, informative and a good read.
Tell us about The AA Restaurant Guide Awards?
It’s great to have the opportunity to reward and recognise restaurants that stand out in any given year. A significant achievement such as the 25th anniversary of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons is certainly something worth rewarding. Raymond Blanc has received the maximum five rosettes in every edition of the AA Restaurant Guide, and this year we gave him the much deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. Then there’s the chance to highlight up and coming chefs and to acknowledge the fact that great restaurants can be found all over the country, not just in London. There’s also the Chefs’ Chef award – all chefs listed in the guide were invited to vote – which went to Marcus Wareing this year.
Tell us about the Guide’s internet presence?
The AA website is a fantastic resource, including information on travel and where to stay and eat. The printed book and the internet site complement each other very well. The book fits snugly into any glove compartment. The 2010 AA Restaurant Guide can also be purchased from The AA at www.theAA.com/shop
What is the set up for the inspection team?
The majority of the AA inspection team is full time, with approximately thirty regionally-managed inspectors. They have industry experience, top-notch training and follow strict criteria when inspecting hotels and awarding rosettes to restaurants. It is as objective as humanly possible.
Some of the inspection team are what we call ‘eater-writers’ – exclusively visiting stand alone restaurants.
How do new or existing addresses go about getting an inspection?
Simply enough we need to know they exist and, secondly, that they’re right for an inspection. The Guide will make a discerning decision, initially based on the menu, but also taking into consideration the background and experience of the people involved. Often a new opening will immediately be on the radar of the regional inspectors. In addition, restaurants can write to the AA Guide, email us, and our readers are more than welcome to recommend places.
How frequent might an inspection happen?
The ambition is to inspect as often as possible. I would suggest The AA Guide is very competitive in the area of inspections given the size and reach of the inspection team. The top places get multiple visits, especially when a promotion or demotion is being considered. We always inspect when a chef changes.
What is the decision making process for Rosette promotion or demotion?
The inspectors are all experienced in grading rosettes, bench-marking as it were, and awards are at their recommendation. At the higher levels (three rosettes and above) there are usually multiple visits and the award is ratified by our ‘Hospitality Awards Panel’ of independent experts. So, in the event of a recommendation to change Rosettes at the higher level, this panel will provide a layer of ratification. The AA Restaurant Guide has a robust, consistent and objective process and takes these decisions very seriously.
What role does reader feedback play?
The AA Restaurant Guide’s content is essentially based on the work of a team of expert inspectors. Its methods are robust and reliable. In that sense, although we welcome reader opinion, it is not the bedrock of the Guide. There are forms at the back of the book and we’re always happy to hear about our readers experiences in restaurants. You can have your say on the internet version, too.
What gains Rosettes – food on a plate or other factors?
Rosettes are purely about the food on the plate. The Guide entries cover other factors such as setting, atmosphere, wine and service and so on. So the quality of the cooking is the beginning and end of the Rosette awards.
Any plans to change the Rosette System?
Absolutely not. It is a brand that is strong in the industry – the public and chefs understand the Rosette system well. Chefs are rightly proud to put their AA Rosettes on their CVs or present them with a high profile at their restaurants, or on their websites. And the customers, our readers, seem to appreciate the clarity and reliability of the awards.
What is the situation regarding consultancy provided to chefs?
The AA does provide consultancy on everything from housekeeping to book keeping to the food. The objective is to help raise standards in the industry. This is separate to the research and inspection procedures, and, as Editor of Restaurant Guide, I have absolutely no involvement with the consultancy process.
The January interim awards is well received…tell us about that
One of the challenges with a guide book is that it makes a statement only once a year. The interim awards enable us to provide a ‘mid-term’ update. During the year, one and two Rosette entries are changed, when necessary, on an on-going
basis on the on-line version of the guide. As the three rosette and above awards may have multiple inspections, any changes were previously only revealed at publication of the guide. The January update means the readers – and chefs – don’t have to wait 12 months. This seems to have gone down well with all parties.
What are the plans for the AA Restaurant Guide?
To play to the AA’s strengths – the integrity of the brand, the size and reach of the organisation – and to make the Guide as innovative, informative and useful as possible. I want anyone who loves good food and restaurants to have it on their ‘must read’ list.