Simon Carter interviews Head of Hotel Services at AA, Simon Numphud, who has responsibility for the production of the AA Restaurant Guide. Interview took place September 2014, days before the 2015 Guide launch at The Grosvenor.
What are your exact roles and responsibilities with the AA?
I look after AA Hotel Services, the business responsible for running the UK classification schemes. These include the Rosette scheme which fuels the restaurant guide and the star rating scheme for hotels and guest accommodations. The schemes and awards encompass circa 10,000 hospitality establishments from which we produce a suite of guide books and mobile applications.
Tell us about the launch dinner of The Restaurant Guide (22nd September)
An annual event that has been going for over twenty years, most recently a black tie gala dinner to celebrate the hospitality industry. The event is extremely well attended by chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and leading figures of the hospitality industry.
The event will be at Grosvenor House this year, a return after five years at The Hilton, Park Lane. The dinner was last held at The Grosvenor for The AA Centenary event in 2008. We’re delighted to be back there, it is a superb space for these events with around 1,100 guests expected, which represents a record number (even more than attended our Centenary).
Each year we have a tradition of inviting a top chef to present the food for the dinner and this year we’re delighted Tom Kerridge is on board. Tom’s had an amazing couple of years; he was awarded four AA Rosettes and made AA Chef’s Chef of the Year last year so we felt it would be fitting to invite him to be part of the event.
Tom’s food will be complimented by Taittenger champagne aperitifs served from magnums plus a range of superb wines chosen by our sponsor Matthew Clark.
There will be 24 feature awards such as restaurants of the year, hotels of the year, pubs of the year, a service award (which The Waterside were the inaugural winners of last year) and so on. We have one new award ‘The Spirit Award’ aimed at those establishments that have been most proactive, imaginative and successful in promoting spirits to the consumer. There has been something of a renaissance in the market and this award reflects that trend, as an example The Feathers at Woodstock holds a world record number of gins, but there are so many places that have made a real effort, so we’re delighted to present the award sponsored by Balvenie.
The evening will also include a range of new multiple Rosette award presentations as well as new AA Red Star hotels. The two pivotal awards to close the evening are the Chefs’ Chef, which is a unique award in that it is chosen by every chef who holds a rosette in the scheme (rather than by us!) and The Lifetime Achievement Award. The ceremony coincides with the Guide launch date with each attendee taking away a guide on the evening of the ceremony.
Fiona Bruce will be hosting the event and helping me present the awards.
What are the criteria for the awards of each Rosette?
It is a tricky question as to how do you distill into a discernable paragraph the difference between each of the Rosette categories? Essentially it is a benchmark as to how well a chef applies a technique whilst maintaining maximum flavour. For us the Rosettes are all about the flavour; the clarity of- the preciseness of- the balance of- and so on. In addition, a chef may have great skill but must also have the right quality (and preparation) of the right ingredients.
These days the consumer is very knowledgeable, with the plethora of TV programmes, books and web access, and this has pushed standards up even higher; we are now a nation far better educated about quality of cooking, quality of ingredients and efficacy of provenance in producing the best of finished dishes.
Customers appreciate the written descriptions that feature in The AA Restaurant Guide?
The written descriptions tend to focus on the feeling and atmosphere of a restaurant and give guidance to the consumer on the type and style of a restaurant as well as an overview of the style of cooking. The Guide will also feature examples of the cooking from the meals we’ve sampled without going in to too much detail as the menu may have changed by the time the consumer pays a visit.
The AA Restaurant Guide will also want to point out anything that is particularly distinguishable about the restaurant, for example, if it has a cracking wine list or some stunning architectural feature. As a further example, the Guide may convey if a restaurant is big, bustling and with bookings required. Anything that can help build an appropriate picture of the restaurant for the consumer, in an open and balanced way, reflecting our own experiences.
What do you make of the restaurant scene for the rest of 2014 and beyond (as reflected by guide)?
The UK restaurant scene is getting stronger and stronger, there is strength in depth wherever you look – perhaps not something you would have found ten years ago. A recent development is how widespread geographically quality is to be found.
The combination of awareness, competition and momentum have seen the rise of cities like Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham who display strength in depth or towns like Marlow (being the rule rather than the exception) as a countryside gastronomic centre, attracting more and more food-led ventures, feeding an ever growing demand from consumers.
Diversity of choice is another feature including every type of ethnic food to every type of social experience in venues. The UK has culturally adopted a lifestyle change in eating out which is marvelous to witness, an appreciation of good food is now so widespread, and the determination to eat out a conscious lifestyle choice.
Kitchen gardens are now a feature in their own right and the field to fork mentality is now so well managed to fulfill restaurant needs, there are countless examples.
There are also the continued rise of the independent restaurateur in London with both sheer volume and quality of openings impressing and will continue to impress the consumers of all ages.
Are you aware of what the awards mean to chefs and customer alike?
We’ve just finished recording VTs for the ceremony on Monday 22nd October and one set of them is about what is the impact of receiving an AA Award. Each of the establishments we filmed spoke very kindly of the awards and the positive impact that they’ve had on the whole team, not just the proprietors, as the awards serve to motivate and recognize all the teams involved.
One leading chef has also pointed out that it helps to retain and recruit staff as chefs see the Rosettes as a benchmark of quality, which credibly reflects their skills and so may appear on their CVs. Once you add the trust, robustness and respect as elements of the AA Guides, you can start to understand the value of a brand, to consumers and industry alike, an institution that has been professionally in the hospitality business since 1908.
What is the decision making process for the making of awards of Rosette – both promotions and demotions?
A robust system: An inspector awards or removes one or two rosettes on the basis of an inspection. With respect to the top ten percent (three, four and five Rosettes) there would be a series of visits to promote or remove Rosette awards.
The system enables a view of the meals across the menu and across the seasons – an area inspector would have to be very confident of a meal to put it forward (the starter, main and dessert would all have to show the consistent strength required) as he/she would be followed by a senior inspector and a further visit to ratify decisions.
There is a hospitality industry panel which I chair and sits twice a year (to review top end decisions). When awarding at the highest level we have a careful approach as consistency is vital – we would not want to award one year and remove the next year for example.
Are all inspectors full time or is there a mixture of contractors?
We have a small number of freelance employed inspectors who also write for the guide but 95% of inspectors are full time employed by The AA Restaurant Guide.
Is there a particular process by which a restaurant is inspected? And where/how do you source your pool of restaurant knowledge?
You will not be surprised to learn that we are inundated with requests from consumers, restaurants and pubs to make inspection visits.
The Guide covers 2,200 establishments across the UK and there are only so many inspectors – we couldn’t possibly visit every restaurant or pub so there will be a judgment call where a number of factors will apply. Perhaps one of the lesser known aspects is that we might visit an establishment in an area where we currently have a low concentration of entries, or filter listings in high concentration areas: A classic example is that we would not list every restaurant in Soho but instead highlight the top four or five that are worthy of note and where our customers can expect a good meal.
In general, we look at the web, talk to chefs, listen to reader feedback, read the press and cover our regions thoroughly. We tend to be on the list of the PR agencies as well as links to publications like Caterer and The BHA (British Hospitality Industry) – so a broad network – from which to make reasoned judgments about where our inspectors should spend their time.
What role does reader feedback play?
We take all feedback in the context in which it is given. Should you get a trend of positive or negative differences from our last visit we will pay it some attention. A feature of consumer-led web tools like trip advisor is that you find feedback is naturally polarized. After all why would you bother to log on to write you had a satisfactory meal, which simply met expectations and represented reasonable value? The fact of life is that you will be moved to write by strong emotions, positive or negative. So long as you put the right filters in place then all feedback is useful in gathering a picture of an establishment. The final decision on any award is with the professional inspector following an inspection visit.
What are the latest digital developments with the AA Restaurant Guide?
The design of the apps have won a couple of awards and all have been refreshed. In fact, all things have been refreshed across all platforms.