Interview: Andy Hayler, Restaurant Critic. (Sept 2008)

Posted on: November 29th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Andy Hayler

World-Renowned Food Critic, Andy Hayler

For over twenty years, Andy Hayler has been passionate about fine dining. He has travelled the world in search of perfection and on occasion found it. His journey to all 49 Michelin three star restaurants in Europe was an extraordinary one; could he possibly go one better and cover the new global Michelin map? And yet there is so much more; a published book, a pioneering website, TV appearances (home and abroad) and professional freelance writing.

Andy found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide. The Interview took place at the Andaman Restaurant, St James’ on September 5th 2008.

Tell us a little background about yourself?

Well I suppose I have a double life really (smiling). From a work view point I’ve spent most of my time in the technology industry and had a number of jobs with Esso and Shell before starting a software company called Kalido and now an analyst company, Information Difference.

Over a similar period I’ve had a strong interest in food. I grew up in the west country where food opportunities growing up were basic and when, after university, I first came to London, the restaurant scene was a revelation.

Was there a particular Guide you used to help you in your choices?

Well when I first started eating out I found the Good Food Guide the most interesting and reliable. As you know most other guides the entries are paid for either indirectly or directly through undisclosed fees or advertising – the Good Food Guide wasn’t and still isn’t. I began writing in reviews to the guide and found this quite rewarding. This extended into pulling together reviews for a newsletter that was originally intended for my circle of friends.

Is this how your London Restaurant Guide book came into being?

Sort of…I used to visit a bookshop called Books for Cooks in Ladbroke Grove that was run by a lady called Clarissa Dickson Wright (who later became much more well known as one of the Two Fat Ladies on TV). I was a regular in the shop and showed her a copy of the newsletter and she suggested that I get it published.

I had no idea of how the publishing industry worked and naively sent off copies to only two publishers with a covering letter. Fortunately one of them contacted me almost immediately and said they’d be interested in publishing a book. In 1994 the book was published with London Transport organised as a sponsor.

And was there ever an updated version?

I was certainly asked about a next version. I had no plans to produce one but still maintained diaries every evening of all my eating experiences. I decided the best way to keep this up-to-date and published was via the fledgling internet.

I started the original site in 1996, which I guess was fairly early in internet terms. Over a period of time I kept updating the site and maintained it as a newsletter concept for family and friends.

From around 2003/2004, when internet technologies like Google were starting to become very successful, I noticed that I was getting emails from strangers who had found the site from surfing. The interest in the site grew quite quickly.

Didn’t the Guardian Newspaper recognise your site in 2006?

Yes, I was amazed and flattered. They (The Guardian) ran an article on the top ten food websites. I was surprised to be contacted by them and they recognised the site as the second best food resource on the internet. One of the things that I was curious about was how they came across the site. The journalist told me that it was from feedback from chefs who had read the site, which was again very flattering.

There were a couple of other interesting points: the first was they were particularly positive about the content: the second that it looked as though it had been written on a 1930s typewriter and stapled to the internet! (Laughs).

This prompted you to move to

Yes. I also took step back at the design and content that I wanted to present. I added a photo gallery and some maps for London and Michelin three star restaurants around the world. I mark restaurants that I visit out of 10 for food and also give a value rating out of ten, I also started a weekly food blog that has done well. The site now gets around 140,000 page views a month with typically 1,400 unique visitors a day. I’m pleased that I continue to get a lot of correspondence, including a great deal from chefs.

Why do you think that so much of your audience is from the industry?

I guess its because I don’t have any contraints, that is to say I write almost exclusively about the food. Most broadsheets and magazines have entertaining writers that perhaps (for their audience) pay as much attention to décor, fashion, service and so on. One of the themes of the site that I’m very proud of is the focus on the food on a plate.

What started you eating at the great restaurants around the world?

In the mid 1990s The Good Food Guide ran a one off article about two or three great restaurants from around the world. One of them was called Jamin in Paris and written up in the article as probably the best restaurant in the world.

I decided that if I spent £100 a head or more on a meal there (which was a great deal then and still is now) I’d think it wasn’t worth it and not have to do it again – this proved to be a risky strategy that backfired. The article in the Good Food Guide got it spot on; Joel Robuchon was cooking at the height of his powers and the experience was absolutely stunning. I think it’s been widely acknowledged that the real debate is about who is the second best chef that has ever lived! This sparked an interest in eating at other up market restaurants and realistically most of those were not in the UK.

So your journey of eating at all Michelin three star restaurants began?

I was lucky enough with Shell to be travelling all over the world on business so I figured why not try the best restaurants in those places. I started keeping notes of my visits and noticed that by 2004 I had been to quite a lot of the 49 Michelin three star restaurants in the world (the world being Europe at the time). I realised that with a bit of effort that I could get round all the remaining restaurants by the end of the year – which I did.

A friend of mine suggested that this was quite some feat and I put together a paragraph for the newspapers. Originally the Metro ran an article which then got reprinted or referred to in many places – The Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Age and various publications in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In France it made it from a little regional paper and ultimately to Le Figaro. I found myself on French national television, I think the French were amazed that one of “les rosbifs” (Laughs) could do something so gastronomic.

I know you’ve been to Tokyo, what did you think of the Tokyo restaurant scene?

Very interesting. We had two weeks there in May and I visited all the Michelin Three Star restaurants. I think Michelin has done a great service in dishing out 191 stars to 150 restaurants in Tokyo and raised the profile of the dining scene in Japan. In my opinion this is well deserved, there is a real foodie culture with an obsession for the best ingredients. I think Michelin are just scratching the surface of what is out there and will take time to fully appreciate the relative qualities of high end dining establishments.

The reason France has the best restaurants is basically because they have a wealth of extremely high grade produce; the same is true in Japan. For example, the Tokyo fish market Tsukiji, which is the largest in the world, employs 14,000 people and stocks 700 varieties of (very) fresh fish!

And now there are Guides for the United States and Tokyo so is it possible to visit all the Michelin Three Stars again? Well I’ve been pondering that – I haven’t been obsessively going to all the three stars, partly because my wife needed some non-food holidays (laughs). There are currently (2008) 68 three star restaurants in the world. I have been visiting them periodically and found (September) that I have nine left to visit. The last reservation that I’m waiting for is Per Se so fingers crossed I’ll finish the journey in November in New York.

Over your travels do you have any top experiences that really stand out?

Well the best food I’ve ever eaten was at Jamin and also when it moved a short distance in Paris and was called Robuchon. I used to go there at least twice a year. It wasn’t necessarily that any one dish was better than anything anyone else could cook: It was that each visit there would be several dishes that were truly exceptional even at the three star level. Elsewhere you may get one dish, from time to time, that stands out in category.

I don’t find that there is one obvious outstanding three star today in the way there was when Joel Robuchon was cooking. My personal favourite is probably Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Over the years I’ve been there a dozen plus times and I find the food excellent. Essentially the trick at Louis XV is a brilliant chef-to-customer ratio (almost one chef per diner) coupled with amazing local produce. It also helps that allegedly Prince Reynier subsidises the restaurant as a loss leader for Monte Carlo.

And what are your current thoughts about the top end of the London Restaurant Scene?

I think its refreshing that in the summer of 2008, we have three of the most exciting new openings since Tom Aikens, namely L’Ambassade de L’Ile, Helene Darroze and Andaman. Jean Christophe Ansanay-Alex (Ambassade) is spending a lot of time at his London outpost and I find the cooking of the savoury courses there as good as anything in London at the moment. Helene Darroze, who has a two star restaurant in Paris, is producing excellent food, particularly when she’s there…and the brand new Andaman Restaurant at St James’ where the three star chef Dieter Muller has opened a new venture. My early experiences there are very positive.

And so it was time to stop, the interview had gone by in a flash – a mere 30 minutes of tape for all this transcript – a fine- dining-guide record. Andy will be appearing as a critic for the programme Professional Masterchef on BBC2 6.30pm Friday 12th September 2008.