Archive for December, 2009

December 2009: Fine Dining Guide December Newsletter

Posted on: December 4th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood is delighted to announce the continued success of a free iTunes podcast series. You can find any episode by typing “fine dining uk” in the main iTunes search box.

A packed newsletter this month – The last of 2009 – with a broad range of interesting features and updates to share. The website itself has experienced some minor enhancements, around a new look and feel, with centre aligned pages of uniform (wider) width, a brighter background and freshened up section pages.

newsletter interviewees

Content wise fine-dining-guide bring two great feature chef interviews – the first is with Alain Roux of The Waterside Inn : Alain talks openly about his fond memories of food and restaurants through to his philosophies for taking the institution that is The Waterside Inn forward.

Respectfully regarded by many in the industry as a “chef’s chef” Phil Howard of the Square gives an insightful, food-led, interview that makes impressive reading. fine-dining-guide also reviewed the restaurant.

This issue also sees a lead feature interview for the National Guides Section: Andrew Turvil, Editor AA Restaurant Guide talks about answers to all those interesting questions that those both inside and outside the trade are always asking, well worth a read.

Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons has been celebrating her 25th anniversary this year and fine-dining-guide were delighted to participate: An interview with Philip Newman-Hall, Director/General Manager  proves informative and educational about philosophies of hospitality and the skills associated with luxury hotel management.

Twitter: The fine-dining-guide Twitter page continues to grow and now approaches 1200 followers ( The top 20 or so news tweets can also be found on fine-dining-guide’s News page.

General Website Updates: Apart from the aforementioned minor enhancements, successful search criteria on Google has gone up 20% since the last newsletter. Google have also found the website sitemap – type “fine dining guide” into Google and you will find a more extensive listing and indexing (subheadings). It may take some time for these to settle down and be of genuine use to readers but a good start!

Overall viewing figures have been steady since our last newsletter – around 50,000 page views from 22,000 visitors but there is a marked trend in improved Google conversion. This may be due to a breakthrough on US and Asian searches finding the site quite highly placed for Michelin related searches.

To encourage this, The Michelin Section has been thoroughly updated with the Hong Kong & Macau Stars and Press Release, Tokyo Stars and Press Release, Osaka Kyoto Stars and Press Release and New York and San Francisco Star and Bib Gourmands Listings (all 2010 Guides) (

The popular Restaurant Picture Gallery continues to be updated; visits to Apsley’s, Aqua Neuva (plus review) and Pierre Koffman’s Restaurant on the Roof at Selfridges as examples.  Opinion/News: As 2009 draws to a close, a look back at the last twelve months has witnessed a market in a state of flux, enduring turbulent times: The most successful have displayed a constant stream of creativity in making battling strides forward, indeed the top end restaurant scene perhaps experiences it’s most progressive periods during such times. Examples are abundant of the creative menus and intelligent promotions that have characterized the year.

The local, organic, sustainable produce debate has been brought to a wider audience during 2009, certainly making an impact on thinking and menus, a trend that perhaps has natural endurance into the future. Likewise, as customers search for optimum value from the wine list, the burgeoning New World has stepped a further rung up the ladder of quality, value and availability

Finally, fine-dining-guide, would like to pass on sincerest thanks to all those who have participated in 2009 including those who have provided significant assistance in making many of the articles possible. The year has proved by far the busiest both in terms of traffic and output and we look forward to 2010 with optimism.

Merry Christmas! Until next time Happy Eating and Happy Drinking!


Restaurant Food Photography in the Information Age

Posted on: December 3rd, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we discuss the fashion of photography being applied to fine dining restaurants and examine the implications for the future as well as the benefits and drawbacks to restaurants in the present.

Long before the first photographs were made, Chinese philosopher Mo Ti described the concept of a pinhole camera in the 5th century B.C.E

According to Wikipedia, the word photograph was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos) meaning light and γραφή (graphê) meaning drawing, together meaning “drawing with light.”

While significant progress was being made in Britain during the 1820s and 1830s, notably by William Fox Talbot, it could be argued that French inventors were slightly ahead in the race to complete the task of producing the first public photograph.

It would appear that while Herschel coined the popular name, the first actual public photograph was taken in the same year (1839) – by a Frenchman of a Frenchman – captured having a shoe shine in a Parisian street.

At the same time a significant part of the western world was living through a new industrial age – a corollary of which was an exploration of the power of markets, where ‘commodities’ could be ‘owned’ and ‘traded’ by private individuals.

At any time of significant change there is a reaction – a high swinging pendulum of activity before a sensible middle ground is found. For example, there developed a movement of Romanticism in art, literature and music, that placed emotion above rationality.

The changes happening in the world were perceived to be toward a cold, calculating, ‘scientific’, industrial, money making society and Romanticism harked back to interpretations of strong emotions and the aesthetics of beauty.

Another anti-industrial age movement began in philosophy – that of Subjectivism. Putting it (probably too) simply this states that the world exists purely in the mind of the perceiver and it is the sum of on-going social experiences and interactions, in ever changing environments, that dictate perception at any given time.

My understanding is that those who apply this philosophy to art suggest that there is no such thing as ‘creative genius’ as the list of contributing sources from the sum of past experiences to any ‘work of art’ would be so long as to render any definition of ‘ownership’ worthless – there is nothing new under the sun.

Currently the rules and regulations of the industrial age hold sway in the modern age – there are markets, commodities, traders and money. A work of art can be attributed to an ‘entity’ (a person) and traded between ‘entities’ (people) for a price.

Intellectual Property (IP) law is the mechanism through which the ownership value of a creative work is protected. For example, a composer with his music, an author with his books, an artist with his paintings or a programmer with his computer software – all make use of IP law to protect their assets from ‘theft’.

A high resolution photograph of a work of art would have the rights associated remain with the artist; like the photocopy of a book with the author; like the file copy of a song with the composer; like the function, look and feel of a software application with the developer.

Re-use may be completely prohibited by the ‘creator,’ through to a license being required with associated fees for re-use. In certain instances terms of ‘fair use’ are explicitly agreed, such as photographs of fine art being granted free licenses to non commercial academic institutions.

At the dawning of the internet digital age, Microsoft and Apple fought out a multi-year, multi-million dollar court battle over the ‘look and feel’ of their desktop operating systems. One could argue that over the years Microsoft have proven the undisputed champions of navigating their way through IP laws in software applications to their significant benefit.

However, should one take a photograph in a restaurant, of people and/or of the food they are eating, the rights associated with the photograph remain with the photographer.

Neither people nor indeed the chefs’ creation can qualify for IP protection. This blurring is partly covered by a separate set of laws around privacy and appropriate or otherwise invasions of privacy.

As far as the budding fine dining restaurant blogger is concerned (or fine-dining-guide for that matter) photographs taken of the chefs’ creations are of interest to like minded enthusiasts and get published on sites all over the world.

The blogger or webmaster retains the right to enforce copyright (IP) as they see fit – usually by allowing Google image indexing access for free.

The case for allowing this practice is made stronger by the fact that the vast majority of top end restaurant food photographs are taken by non-profit making non- commercial sites that are maintained by enthusiasts.

Further, we live in the middle of Bill Gates prophesized ‘Information superhighway’ and all information is expected to be freely and instantly available for immediate consumption and disposal – Witness even information injunctions in the UK High Court that are ‘shouted down’ by the twitterati within minutes.

The pendulum swings strongly from side to side but the momentum is with freedom of information – no matter how damaging that may be to people in general or to their livelihoods.

No doubt, as with all things, the pendulum will swing to a happy balance of common sense. Since Plato, in The Republic, the need for censorship and information protection in society has been understood.

In 2004, fine dining guide were one of the first sites to carry a diary of restaurant picture gallery images on the internet.

The last six years has seen an explosion of content on the net of recorded visits to top end restaurants – couple this with the digital world’s demand and appetite for information, then surely this is both an unstoppable trend and further, a good one!

From the chef/patron’s perspective a wider audience than ever before has access to seeing what visiting a top end restaurant is likely to entail. The awareness, PR and marketing potential are enormous and can only help boost trade for the industry. Or does it?

There is a double edged sword to such things. The chef/patron of the restaurant has no control.

It is assumed thus far that the photographer of restaurant food is a budding enthusiast with their heart in the right place. Even where this is the case there is no guarantee of adequate lighting, nor indeed capable photography – proportions, editing, focus, perspective and so on – equally the chef may just have a bad day at the office.

In other words there’s no guarantee that the photographs taken are a positive and fair reflection of the food on offer.

It was once said that the camera may never lie, it just doesn’t tell the truth. With fine dining guide we often have chefs delighted to participate, however on one occasion the pictures were said to “not represent me, my restaurant, or my cooking.”

Even though it would appear that the chef had no enforceable rights to have them taken down, the site was quick to politely oblige.

There are of course always those who are mischievous, have an axe to grind or are just plain malicious, and set out to misrepresent a restaurant’s food. In the information age these people, too, have a significant platform and audience.

So what may chefs do to protect themselves? We see The Fat Duck restaurant website making IP statements about the re-use of images on their site. This is yet to extend to photographs taken of food in the restaurant.

Surely it could be argued that each dish is a created and re-created work of art that retains IP rights. Even though each dish is consumed from plate to stomach, it is a three dimensional object created by arguably an artist.

This would also serve to protect the chef from theft – are not his recipe and architectural creation two separate things equally worthy of intellectual ownership rights?

This is where the pendulum might start to swing back to a sensible middle ground – perhaps in the short term we may see top end restaurants start to enforce privacy rules (erecting a sign to the effect) that photographs cannot be taken on private property.

At the same time, perhaps making available a catalogue of ‘note perfect’ food photographs on their websites for free re-use to enthusiasts.

This naturally assumes that chef’s feel the need for control – the restaurant picture gallery remains the most visited collection of pages across the 250 page fine dining guide site. This no doubt will be true of a multitude of other restaurants sites and blogs that yield a free marketing, awareness and PR machine.

Perhaps the strength of the information age and the pendulum reactions against it mirror those of the last era of significant change – the industrial era – where art, literature, music and philosophy recoiled against change but found a happy middle ground that sustained the goodness, while the acceptable face of change was monitored and managed to the benefit of societies.

The information age, too, brings extraordinary sweeping benefits to a generation; it too may need to settle into a happy middle ground to the benefit of the common global society.

Interview: Philip Newman-Hall (December 2009)

Posted on: December 1st, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons has celebrated 25 years of operations during 2009. The luxury hotel, with a stunning Michelin Two Star restaurant sits in acres of beautiful Oxfordshire countryside.

World-renowned as the vision of iconic chef Raymond Blanc, the day to day running and management of the luxury property is in the safe hands of Director/General Manager, Philip Newman-Hall (left)

Philip found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about his philosophies for hospitality and provided fascinating insights in the art of great Hotel General Management.

Interview took place Tuesday 1st December 2009, at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

Tell us some background about yourself?

After leaving school, having done some summer work in a hotel as a waiter, I joined a hotel company called Falcon Inns, owned by Joe Lyons, on a chef’s apprenticeship within the kitchen. Within a short period I contracted dermatitis from handling flour and meat but fortunately the hotel had seen enough of me to offer a place on the management-training scheme. I stayed there for a number of years (including the period after their take over by Trust House Forte.)

At the age of 29, I achieved my first general manager position at The Spa Hotel in Tunbridge Wells, which was George Goring’s hotel. The previous four years had been spent there as deputy general manager.

Some years later, I had a step up to Operations Director of Virgin Hotels who had nine hotels at the time. This involved managing a group of hotels from afar but after four years found that I missed the hands on general management of a distinct, individual, high quality hotel.

In 1999 I joined Le Manoir as general manager and had five very good years before leaving to do some consultancy. Just five months ago I was delighted to return as director/general manager.

What are your early impressions after returning to Le Manoir?

Due to the passion, vision and commitment of Raymond Blanc, Le Manoir is effectively re-inventing itself every five years. So everything is, in a way, new and exciting. On the other hand the senior management team retains 22 of the 26 staff that were here when I left in 2004 – so there is the balance of continuity.

Previously, my brief had been to move Le Manoir from a world-class restaurant with 19 rooms to a 32-bedroom hotel with a stunning restaurant.

A transition was required into understanding and delivering the top class housekeeping, room service and ancillary services associated with a five star hotel (as opposed to a five star restaurant that also provided rooms.).

Now the hotel is looking at some refurbishment projects (spending £1.4m on four suites in 2010) as well as the potential to deliver an orchard, an organic farm and eventually a spa.

Over these early first five months, I’ve been observing, putting in place some subtle changes and am in the process of writing a five year plan with Raymond Blanc.

What is your philosophy of hospitality?

As a point of departure, put yourself in the place of the guest and think of how you would like to be treated. Think about the standard and level of service that you would expect and deliver against those expectations. It is also something that I think is inbred and perhaps difficult to train – the best in hospitality will instinctively anticipate the guest and deliver what they were ‘about to want.’

There’s also the need to be a good host – in so many hotels today you never see the general manager of the building, my philosophy is to be around the house, ‘managing by walking about’, being the host like an old fashioned inn-keeper.

It might be easy for customers to gain the perception that they are coming to an intimidating temple of gastronomy, however at the Le Manoir we like to foster the concept with both our staff and customers that the house is friendly, welcoming and comfortable; somewhere to shake off the sometimes stressful outside influences in life.

What proportion of your guests are Corporate?

One of Le Manoir’s successes in recent years has been thanks to 95% of our guests being private individuals, which lends itself to a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere in the house.

What makes a leader of staff and a leader of customers?

Leaders and managers are perhaps two different characters with different skill sets. A leader has the vision and managers put the vision into practice. A leader will be charismatic, sell and follow up on their vision, communicate well with all levels of people. A leader too, will be seen from the front and give and receive respect.

The biggest investment we make in this property is in the team of staff. It is very easy in this day and age to become an office bound, spreadsheet lead, accountant style manager which, to me, misses the point of bringing the best out of the core asset – the human beings that make up the soul of the building.

From a management perspective, Danny Meyer from Union Square Cafe has a great phrase “constant gentle pressure” which may involve being strict but fair but also to gently stretch themselves to bring the best out of themselves every day.

I’m a firm believer in retaining attention to detail from the staff and while having a proactive role in this maybe a theoretically minor part of my roles and responsibilities, it helps to provide a ‘guardian of the standards.’

Describe the organisation structure of Le Manoir

Raymond Blanc is the heart of the house and everything stems from him. I am the Director and General manager and responsible for the day-to-day running of the whole house. The kitchen is slightly separate in that Gary Jones (who has been executive head chef since 1999) has a dotted line to me and direct line to Raymond and the pastry brigade headed by Benoit Blin reports directly to Raymond. There are housekeeping, garden and maintenance, front of house and marketing and PR teams.

Tell us about past successes from Le Manoir (in terms of staff)

The house has spawned many successful people and we tend to keep in touch. Raymond is a giving person and people tend to give back to him. Last year for instance, Le Manoir hosted a dinner for 25 chefs and there must be approaching twenty who have gone through the kitchens here and gone on to Michelin stardom in their own right.

It’s not just about the chefs either, Le Manoir has seen, for example, an international community of future successful Hotel General Managers who have enjoyed their time at the property and also tend to stay in touch.

The list on all fronts is something we’re proud of and should I start naming names I’d be bound to miss someone out…

Tell us about the kitchen at Le Manoir?

The kitchen is the heart of the house – the raison d’être of the house is the food on a plate. Gary Jones has been here since1999 and this is his second period of tenure. It is still Raymond’s (Blanc) kitchen and he actively works on the preparation of every new dish that makes its way on to Le Manoir’s menu.

The brigade size has grown significantly over the years. Should you have all the staff in at one time – that is all the chefs, pastry and people washing up then it comes to 65 heads in total. This is in part due to having a very busy property but also Le Manoir has reduced working hours to prevent some in the kitchen working excessive shifts.

Raymond (Blanc) is always pushing forward, at the forefront, at the boundaries: For example, today as we speak, Raymond (Blanc) is in a meeting with the ‘Fish to Fork’ and ‘End of the Line’ people, understanding where Le Manoir has to be in sourcing terms to be a pioneer in sustainability.

Raymond (Blanc) has always naturally been a leader in this regard and was championing local and organic produce long before these things were more widely discussed.

What proportion of guests are returning guests?

With 25 years of history Le Manoir is at 35-40% returning guests, perhaps in the restaurant it is a higher proportion nearer 50%. The house would love to improve that ratio but at the same time are aware that there is a lot of competition and that we are also in the ‘aspirational market’; in that many guests come to celebrate once in lifetime occasions such as special birthdays, weddings or anniversaries.

What is the strategy for the house going forward?

Le Manoir is proud to continue to be a member of Relais & Chateaux – it is a uniquely French house in the English countryside. The kitchen aspires to three Michelin Stars and always will! The hotel remains in partnership with Orient Express hotels which helps with the broad base of European clients.

For the future, a spa would be important as the average length of stay at the moment is 1.3 nights. A spa would definitely help extend stay duration, which is important – shorter stays tend to place heavier use on the room, longer stays bring in more consistent revenues.

Raymond is still passionate about the house for the present and future and the soul of the house is to share that passion going forward.

From a brand perspective, the lynchpin of the brand is Raymond Blanc and everything flows from him, this is reflected in the progressive development of websites – one for Raymond Blanc and one for Le Manoir. Raymond (Blanc) will continue to do serious work on television and radio and the resulting spikes in website traffic give us a flavour of the awareness value of his work.

How has business been during the recession?

Turnover difference between 2008 and 2009 is marginal. The accommodation spend has been slightly down but compensated for by restaurant spend that has significantly increased. The 2010 pre-bookings look like another similar year.

The long-term strategy of aiming at the private market, where the last customer walking out the door is Le Manoir’s best ambassador, has stood the property in good stead. Should we maintain the philosophy of meeting and exceeding every single customer’s expectations then the house will continue to be strong into the future!