Derek Bulmer has been in the Hotel & Restaurant industry all his working life. He joined Michelin in 1977 and worked as an inspector for many years before becoming deputy editor to Derek Brown. For the last thirteen years Mr Bulmer has had editorial responsibility for the GB & Ireland Michelin Guide to Hotels & Restaurants, The Main Cities of Europe Guide and more recently the Eating out in Pubs Guide and The London Guide.
On Tuesday, January 19th 2010, Derek Bulmer found time to record a 12 minute iTunes podcast interview with Simon Carter, editor of www.fine-dining-guide.com . Interview took place at The Marriott Hotel, Grosvenor Square, London. The original podcast can be listened to by typing “fine dining uk” into the main iTunes Store search box. The podcast is free to access. This interview is best read in conjunction with the internet first interview with Derek Bulmer that took place in 2005 – many elements (many questions and answers) are timeless.
Tell us about your professional roles and responsibilities?
My main responsibility is to represent Michelin and to provide our readers with the best quality possible selection of hotels, guest houses, restaurants and pubs. I’m specifically responsible for four publications; the main one of course is the Great Britain and Ireland Guide, then there’s The London Guide, which is an extract from GB&I presented in a different way. The Eating out in Pubs Guide, which is an update of all the best pubs once a year and finally The Main Cities of Europe Guide which brings some additional responsibilities for Nordic capitals and capitals in central Europe.
In addition, my team and I assist with some of the new city guides that are being produced on an on going basis all over the world.
With the launch of GB&I for 2010, tell us of some of the trends you see in the marketplace?
Well I think the first thing we’ve noticed is that the industry has been very resilient, more so than we feared, with restaurants surviving the recession better than we imagined they might.
In fact, chefs have been imaginative in putting on different menus that have kept the customers coming in through the door. In effect, in certain places, we’ve seen ‘credit crunch’ menus specifically for these straightened economic times: These restaurants have been successful at keeping customers and will be well placed to move forward when times get better.
Any further, general cooking trends, about which you’d like to elaborate?
Well, we’ve seen the continuation of a trend that I’ve talked to you about for several years now, namely the idea of more flexible, informal dining. There’s perhaps the start of a new trend that is beginning to emerge and we’ll see more of in the future in “tapas” style dining;breaking away from the more structured menus that we’re used to and allowing the diner to order as many or as few smaller dishes as they wish. We’re starting to see more serious chefs going down this particular route.
Tell us about Rising Stars – What do they mean to the reader and the Chef?
The rising star symbol was something we introduced five years ago right across our European range of Guides. The ideawas to give our readers a little more of an insight into our thinking – to tell them who was right at the top of a particular category and therefore who might be considered for promotion in years to come.
It’s had two effects really; readers have tended to write to us more about those targeted places so Michelin get a lot more feedback and sometimes it gives chefs the impetus, or final push, to get from one category and into another. So it’s a kind of incentive? It’s a bit of an incentive and it’s opening up our thoughts to our readership – something we didn’t do in the past.
In terms of the coverage model of inspectors for Michelin, how does that work?
Our inspectors are very mobile. We have around 80 inspectors in total; 70 of them are based and work (most of their time) in Europe along with a further 10 who based in the US and far east.
As I said, they are a very mobile crew, a team is not limited to working in the geography of the guide they make and depending upon the languages they speak, they can work anywhere for Michelin.
For example, a number of the British inspectors do very well with this arrangement; not only will they cover Great Britain and Ireland and the Main Cities of Europe but also are in high demand all around the world with the new City Guides that Michelin are making.
And I guess that would help with the benchmarking of standards across Europe and the world?
That’s the whole idea! We’re aiming to get one consistent standard for entry into the guide, for one star, two stars and three stars around the world: The more experience you have on an international scale the easier it is to get this benchmarking.
Tell us about The Main Cities of Europe Guide and are there any plans to expand that publication?
This year it will be published on March 16th (2010). The main cities is an interesting publication because it allows us to visit countries where no Michelin Red Guide otherwise exists.
In fact, we’re always looking to expand this book, and most years we add cities. This year it will be the turn of Salzburg to be included.
Coming back to the GB&I marketplace, during these difficult economic times, can Michelin reassure chefs and readers that they remain focused on the entire menu and not just set meals?
It’s not our place to tell chefs what menus to put on, Michelin will only go along and consider what they’re offering. Where we find a choice and perhaps that choice includes a temporary menu that has been put on especially for these difficult economic times, Michelin are more likely to eat from the a la Carte Menu.
Michelin understand that in six months time (for example) that the ‘credit crunch’ menu will disappear and the restaurant will go back to their normal menu so that’s the one we’d be looking at to think in the longer term.
On the subject of the GB&I Guide, there may be some feedback from chefs that stars are ‘hard won’ in this marketplace; do you have a view on that?
Yes I do! Stars are hard won; in fact they’re very hard won! The top of the industry has very high and rising standards and Michelin reflects back these very high standards when considering awards throughout the country.
The one thing I would add is that it is no easier today to win a star in France or Italy or indeed New York or Tokyo than it is in GB&I. The reason I know that is because I’ve been personally involved in the decision making process in such places and I certainly don’t adjust my standards to make it easier when I go and work abroad. It’s the same standards throughout.
What benefits to the reader does the London Guide bring?
The London Guide is slightly different – it’s aimed at Londoners first and foremost and visitors to London. People who are not planning to tour the whole selection of GB&I perhaps would prefer a guide that is just targeted for London.
The nature of the book allows Michelin to provide a lot more information – more descriptions, more insight into our thoughts with some tips and guidelines etc. So yes, it’s a book specifically designed for residents and visitors to the capital.
Can you tell us more about the editing process and the production process of the London Guide?
The London Guide is made by the same team of inspectors that are making the Great Britain & Ireland Guide. It is the inspectors job to supply our in-house team of text writers with notes on how the text should flow to reflect the unique nature of each restaurant.
The process is that the inspectors bring reports back to the offices, the text writers write a text, they run them back past the inspector to ensure they have picked up the essence and accuracy of what was intended and then I would have a last look at each of them before they get printed.
What is the current role of reader feedback in the production of the Michelin Guides generally?
Reader feedback has always been important to Michelin. In fact it is actively encouraged through the inclusion of a questionnaire in every Guide we sell. Michelin appreciate information about the hotels and restaurants that we do recommend but also those that we don’t. This helps enrich the guide with knowledge of potential new entries, too.
It’s also very useful to know what readers are thinking about addresses that Michelin may be targeting for a specific award. So it is very good information that we do take into account.
So it essentially contributes to a decision that is made by inspectors and so on?
It does indeed. At the end of every year we have something called a star meeting that may last three days. The team will discuss in great depth all the candidates we are considering for the year – each inspector has the opportunity to talk about meals at addresses in great detail. At the same time we’ll take into account reader feedback for that address, after all we are focused on making the guide for the reader.
Written publications are ‘date in time’ and the internet is about ‘real time.’ Do Michelin have a strategy to take advantage of the ‘information age’?
Yes, we’re always moving forward. We introduced the viamichelin website some years ago, which contains our whole selection on line for free. Additionally, we have the iphone app which allows the user to download the guides of a particular country to their phone. We sell 1.2 million Guides a year, a huge number, and we’re disseminating this information is lots of different ways to reach as wide an audience as possible. While we don’t currently publish updates more frequently than annually (or have any plans to do otherwise), it is something we’ re always thinking about for the future.
What is your perspective of the future of the Michelin publications?
One word would sum that up – Expansion! That something we’ve been doing for the last ten years, you’ll know that we’ve been bringing out a new guide for each year. Last year it was Kyoto and Osaka.
It’s true to say that further expansion will be in the city guides that we continue to make and publish around the world. We may see more expansion – possibly in the US, certainly in Asia.
Thirty years ago, when I started inspecting for Michelin, my visiting was around Coventry and Liverpool, the inspectors of today have much more exciting destinations that they’re going off to! (laughing).