Archive for August, 2005

Michelin Guide Rouge – A Guide for the 21st Century?

Posted on: August 27th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

In the early 1900s, when there were but 3500 cars in all of France, Andre and Edouard Michelin were the visionaries that understood that the success of the invention would require the journeys to be as risk free as possible.

This was quite a feat as roads at that time were not tarmac, nor were they marked and the vehicles in question frequently broke down. It fell upon the ‘hired help’ – as anyone wealthy enough to own a car, also employed a chauffeur – to navigate the safest route that would include accommodation, fuelling, servicing and tyre changing outlets.

And so the birth of the Michelin Guide.

By the mid 1920s there were over half a million cars in France, a growth which prompted Michelin to charge for the Guide for the very first time. This era also ushered the first Michelin Red Guide that we know and understand today – maps, recommended hotels, restaurant ranking with stars and so on. Nonetheless, Michelin remained parochially French for a further half a century before rapidly expanding around Europe.

The anonymous inspection system and closely guarded – some would say shrouded – secrecy of the ranking criteria remained. For whatever reason the star awards from the Michelin Guide became the key benchmark of success for chefs across France and Europe as well as a cultural phenomenon in France.

The Guide had moved unnoticed from a manual for the privileged motorist to a bible for the industry and tourist in equal measure. However, there has been no room for complacency, even the most conservative and established institutions must adapt to the times to survive and flourish.

The dawning of the 21st century has been a case in point and a turbulent ride for Michelin, with both internal and external challenges.

Internally, a former inspector, Pascal Remy, resigned and wrote a potentially explosive book called ‘An Inspector at the Table.’ Monsieur Remy alleged an array of less than noble practices, for example, that certain three star awards were retained by undeserving restaurants for mutual marketing purposes; that in one particular year there were only a handful of inspectors for the whole of France and most of them were occupied with filtering old data.

The response from Michelin was swift and strong with full page newspaper ads in France underlining their principals and practices. An exercise somewhat undermined by the gaffe of awarding stars to the Ostend Queen in a Benelux Guide prior to the opening of the restaurant.

External pressures have also come;noticeably from within the industry, with several prominent chefs speaking out at the cost, stress and unrelenting pressure of seeking and retaining the stars. A matter of particular prominence in the last ten years with chefs “giving up” their stars in protest.

Perhaps all of these happenings are more a reflection of the downside of success than an indicator of difficult times? It might appear that the guides have developed so much power they may set the trends rather than measure them; they may self serve rather than reader inform; they may pressurise rather than encourage.

Michelin consistently spell out that they are not consultants to the industry but designed to provide information to their readers. That said, there are no end of chefs seeking out the Holy Grail of the Michelin formula or prescription for recognition. This recognition extends far beyond the ego; the stars make money pure and simple.

However, the power of Michelin can only be maintained should they sustain the faith of the reader and while this may have been shaken by Remy and Industry events, the greater threat lies with technology. The reader today is faced with the near boundless opportunities provided by the internet. This can be a double edged sword for businesses – adapt and find a wider audience or die.

A little dramatic perhaps, but millions of restaurant visitors from around Europe and the World are writing their views and reviews online; a paperback guide is relevant as a benchmark at a point in time once a year, new internet reviews are available daily. Shouldn’t this change make guides such as Michelin obsolete? At the very least provide a stern test of the strength of the brand?

Michelin have been quick to go some way to embrace this potential threat as an opportunity with the development of the online; a free to access version of all the European Guides. Over the last 18 months, the website has significantly improved its value and ease of use to the ‘surfer’ and must generate significant revenue for Michelin in its own right – a potential opportunity perhaps to invest in more frequent assessments and updates to the readers.

They have also demonstrated a proactive move to broaden the brand; the introduction of the first US edition (New York), scheduled for September 2005; the Guide to Pubs in Britain to reflect the rise of Gastro Pubs; the introduction of an in-car satellite navigation system guide; a new six tier rating system <<les espoirs>> in France.

Fashions in the industry will continue to come and go – today it is molecular gastronomy and less salubrious surroundings; Michelin reflect that change. As with their marking system everything is well considered and reflects a confidence and stamp of quality in decision making for their readers.

Add to this the dramatically improved transparency in measurement, management and practices (as demonstrated by the 2005 press pack and their first ever internet interview ) you find a Michelin Guide moving forward at pace, evolving as ever in the innovative spirit of Andre and Edouard Michelin: A Guide which no doubt is in safe hands for the 21st century, both as a leader to readers and industry members alike, in whatever guise or whichever market segment the reader dictates.

Bountiful Birmingham

Posted on: August 17th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

“Balti, Bournville, Bull Ring.” Ask anyone from the Home Counties what they associate with Birmingham and these three features often come to mind. Not that they are unimportant aspects of the city’s food heritage, but on their own they paint a limited picture of what the city has to offer.

And yet this stereotypical perception will soon be – if not already – a thing of the past. England’s second city, so often the butt of southern scorn or patronising condescension, now finds itself at the centre of national media attention for more reasons than curry, chocolate and covered markets.

As Richard Johnson of The Independent wrote on 15 January 2005, “The city is no longer second class…Birmingham was always somewhere you drive through; Or – thanks to spaghetti junction – somewhere you drive around.”

Sky TV, for instance, will feature its foodie developments in its new programme Taste later this month. Even Jeremy Clarkson, whose Sunday Times review of Simpson’s was littered with gratuitously insulting comments on Birmingham eating out habits, has lamented his comments in a recent interview with Nick Owen on Midlands Today.

Foremost amongst the reasons for this higher profile is the awarding of a Michelin stars to Simpsons and Jessica’s at the start of 2005. Applauded also by other major food guides and critics from the national broadsheets, these two restaurants have placed Birmingham firmly on the gastronomic map. Food lovers will travel some distance to eat here.

And yet this is only one element of the new found self confidence. Far from apologising for its supposed inadequacies, the city is now trumpeting its glories, not all of which are new.

Birmingham Bites, a new food and drink campaign to promote excellence in eating out, local produce and weekend foodie breaks, was launched in September 2005. It focuses on five elements: World Cuisine, Local Food Producers, Fine Dining, Cookery courses, and Markets Food Halls and Specialist Delicatessens.

The BBC Good Food Show, to be held at the National Exhibition Centre from 23- to 27 November, will be used to showcase this campaign. With its established reputation and big celebrity element, the event is likely to attract some 150.000 visitors. They will be able to pick up tips from local award winning chefs, taste the best of Birmingham’s local produce and win prizes provided by the city’s leading food outlets. A special feature will be the opportunity of tasting dishes from top Birmingham restaurants – £5 for two courses.

However, an exciting programme of events has already been underway since last September (2004)

On the World Cuisine front for instance, the city’s status as the Curry Capital of Britain 2005 has been enhanced by the Balti Breaks scheme. Three options – Vegtarian, Original or Red Chilli/Green Chilli options, have involved shopping expeditions with, and cookery demonstrations by, the chefs of Imran’s, Royal Naim and Al Faisal’s respectively. Thus the trade secrets of the Pakistani –Kashmiri community of the Balti triangle have been revealed, giving enthusiasts the ability to create restaurant style dishes at home.

The contribution of well established producers to the city’s culinary heritage is being recognised by the accolade of “Food Hero” Consider, for instance, Greg Pearce, Prawn star, a fifth generation proprietor of Pearce’s Shellfish which has been trading since the 1840s. More recently, Aktar Islam of Lasan Restaurant, has developed a unique fusion menu – involving much exotic fruit and vegetables – of Indian and European cooking styles. He is enthusiastic about telling how Indian dishes have been adapted to suit the western tastes. Nor has the Bournville connection been forgotten: George Dadd has been hailed the “Choc Star”. Now Chief Chocolate Taster at Cadburys, he originally joined the firm 33 years ago as an analytical chemist. Today, he is measuring and advising on the exact level of ingredients, and conducting laboratory tests to ascertain the product’s possible shelf life.

High amongst the proliferation of cookery schools and classes is Simpsons. L’Ecole de cuisine, which features one day courses of up to ten people. The experience comprises a cookery demonstration, gourmet lunch, wine tasting and kitchen tour. They are run by Top Class Food Hero Charlotte Barr, a brilliant graduate of the city’s prestigious College of Food and Tourism and once Egon Ronay student chef of the year. Her experience at Rick Stein’s Padstow restaurant, Le Caprice and the Ivy enhances her impressive CV.

The demand for quality products has seen Farmers’ markets flourishing in the city centre and its suburbs: Of particular note were the Gourmet food Market at the Bullring, and the National Market fortnight have been held in September and October

Nor have the less fortunate been forgotten in this seeming abundance. Birmingham restaurants have been taking part in StreetSmart, a national campaign sponsored by Bloomberg to help the homeless. At breakfast party held at Simpson’s to celebrate its second year in Birmingham, local organiser Roulla Xenides, of S & X Media, thanked local restaurateurs for helping to raise £8000 in 2004/05 for local homeless charities, and for continuing the campaign.

Driving the move to promote the city, is Marketing Birmingham, a public-private agency engaged by the city council to raise Birmingham’s profile both nationally and internationally. It also has an office in Piccadilly –“Birmingham West 1” –

Neil Rami, its Chief Executive, is excited about the scene: “Birmingham is a creative and cosmopolitan city with a fantastic food culture – from its markets which have been established for almost 100 years to a huge range of international, fine dining restaurants and home grown products.”

Renowned as the leading conference city in the UK, Birmingham has become a leisure destination in its own right, rather than just a place to pass through or to visit on business. Hotels have noted a 20% rise in occupancy rates at weekends, reflecting major commercial developments. The city centre has been revitalised –with a £40 million Bullring redevelopment. including the biggest retail outlet in Europe and also attracts major cultural events, both of which are serviced by an increasing range of restaurants and bars. A boulevarding city centre, with 6000 residential units available, has attracted the young professional market; indeed, every apartment in the Bullring development has been sold in advance.

Demand creates its own supply. The 100,000 professionals in the city form a demanding sector feeding off itself. They are prepared to pay for quality eating, the medium range informal style brasseries such as Le Petit Blanc and Bank benefiting the most. There has been growth in this area which has settled.

All this impacts on the restaurant scene in a symbiotic way as people seeing this want to be part of the action. Andreas Antona, chef patron of Simpsons is one such person. Six years ago, Birmingham was not right for his investment; a year ago it was.

Raymond Blanc is another: “Birmingham has a dynamism that I admire….this is a city going places, and I want to be part of it.”

And there is an industry to back this growth: the city has the largest food market in Britain, contributing £400M to the local economy annually, whilst the College of Food trains some of the best talent in the country, attracting an international array of students.

Moreover, the internet has revolutionised how Birmingham markets itself. It was first city in the UK to have a Destination Marketing Agency and also a Destination Management System using the internet for hotels and restaurant bookings. Short breaks have been promoted as part of an optimisation strategy. Food sites like Birmingham Plus will continue to inform enthusiasts of the best.

And what of the future? Given the energy, dynamism and variety of Birmingham Bites and the underlying strategy of Marketing Birmingham, the city can only go from strength to strength. Such optimism was reflected in conversations at the first anniversary party of the Hyatt’s refurbished bar, Pravda. The chocolate fountain, a reminder of one of the past and current glories of the Birmingham food heritage, was an appropriate buffet centrepiece in what was Chocolate week

January sees the publication of the Michelin Great Britain & Ireland Guide and with the undeniable momentum enjoyed by the city, surely more accolades will follow.

With thanks to Roulla Xenides, S&X Media,

– Daniel Darwood