Derek Bulmer has thirty plus years of experience at the world-renowned Michelin Guides. Having just retired after thirteen years as editor of the Great Britain and Ireland Guide, Mr Bulmer is now focusing his attention on a new venture – one without the corporate constraints – that of consultant to the industry as part of the company MyJam. Derek found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, interview took place at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the end of February 2011.
How are you finding retirement?
I must admit I’m loving retirement although there are both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that I don’t have all those publishing deadlines and big company procedures that I once had to follow: The disadvantages are that over a long period of time you get to know your team very well and see many of them as personal friends and you miss them…
However, one of the biggest disadvantages, that I perhaps miss most of all, is the expense account! (laughing)
Tell us about some of the highlights of your career?
Whilst the vast majority of my career was concentrated on the Great Britain and Ireland Guide, over the last fifteen years I took on additional responsibilities: Taking on the Main Cities of Europe Guide showed me, for instance, how the Nordic countries were producing fabulous food.
Also under my stewardship, the London Guide was redesigned and redeveloped to become a more accessible book, with longer written restaurant and food descriptions – more interesting I believe to our readers.
Starting the Eating out in Pubs guide from scratch was also a highlight – reflecting the trend that was happening in the industry of pubs serving good food.
In the first instance, my French boss had to be persuaded that pubs should appear in the Great Britain & Ireland Guide, have a specific symbol and later be considered for the award of stars: The Eating out in Pubs Guide as a dedicated book, was a natural progression but also one that needed the understanding of the company hierarchy.
The pub phenomenon is after all, uniquely British and whilst they’ve (pubs) always had a good reputation as welcoming places to drink, the food aspect only really gathered momentum over the last twenty years – which was right through my tenure as editor.
The Bib Gourmand was introduced in 1997 and I’ve enjoyed seeing that rise in popularity over the years. From the thousands of letters that were sent in, many focused on the bib gourmand and effectively thanked Michelin for making these addresses known (as being of good quality and value for money).
It is understandable that the majority of the press concentrate on where the stars are being awarded but the readership actually has a much more diverse set of interests.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
I would have to add to the highlights that my proudest professional achievement was being appointed editor of the Great Britain & Ireland Guide. I was only the third editor in Great Britain & Ireland guide history (and the first editor was only in the position for two or three Guides.) ]
The way you conduct yourself, the way you behave, the way in which you make awards all had to reflect the integrity, reputation and professionalism of Michelin. It was a great responsibility to be entrusted with the role and a great feeling to know that you had been given that trust.
What do you feel is your legacy to the Michelin Guide?
The thought that I maintained that sense of professionalism and integrity that my predecessor had established – that was always important to me.
I think I have overseen an era of expansion in restaurant eating and the star system has become more diverse and accessible – not just simpler restaurants or pubs but more ethnic restaurants, too.
How have you found the ever spiralling media interest in restaurants and chefs?
Well it has been increasing for the last quarter of a century and anything that puts the spotlight on the industry that I care so much about must be a good thing.
Tell us about the role of a consultant to the industry?
The idea of what I’m doing now is to use the knowledge and experience that I’ve gained in working for thirty plus years for Michelin to give something back to the industry. In particular using those skills and that experience to help chefs improve the end product in their restaurants.
In my role at Michelin it was inappropriate for me to give detailed feedback to chefs, restaurateurs or hoteliers about their business. Now that I no longer have those constraints there’s an opportunity to advise and guide accordingly.
In terms of the organization I now represent: MyJam is a young and dynamic company that has quickly established itself as a dedicated restaurant marketing and PR company. We have the opportunity to deliver a complete package of marketing, PR and consultancy and the objective is to become one of the leading players in this field and operate with the highest levels of professionalism and integrity.
With your recent experience around supporting the development of the international city guides for Michelin, presumably you have international consultancy opportunites, too?
Yes, I have had the good fortune of some engagements abroad although that is an area I hope will develop further over time. At the moment I am kept busy in and around London, which is not surprising as so much of the best cooking in this country is concentrated in the capital.
What would a typical consultancy engagement entail?
Well it depends: If we are talking about a restaurant consultancy then it is a three step process – an incognito visit, a detailed written report and a one on one debrief with the chef. I will try as many dishes as is necessary to write a comprehensive report and this package may be repeated several times a year to gain a sense of progress.
I can also do a sort of food dissection, where it wouldn’t come down to chance on the three dishes that I happen to choose but a broader selection of the chef’s repertoire. In this way luck is taken out of the equation and I am able to establish the overall quality of the cooking in a comprehensive manner.
Should it be a hotel review it would encompass everything from the moment I make a reservation to the moment I check out as well as the meal experience. I’m just as happy to provide a detailed report and debrief on a hotel operation as I would be for a restaurant.
What do you think is the current state of top end restaurant eating and how can it improve?
In terms of London, there seems to be no slowing down whatsoever – top end restaurants are opening on a regular basis and are packed out. Perhaps as you go out into the countryside things are a little tougher.
What makes London such an exciting place to dine out is the level of diversity – a level probably only matched in the world by New York.
There is also a trend towards more relaxed, informality in top end restaurants which perhaps makes them more accessible and can be viewed as a positive trend.
From what I’ve seen of top end restaurants in other parts of Europe and around the world is that the unique British culture is driving this process – people in this country are very receptive to new ideas and readily adopt new trends in their dining habits. As a result we have this balance of flexibility with quality that makes London and Britain a very exciting place to eat. And long may that continue!
And so it was time to leave, Derek Bulmer had been as charming, courteous and professional as ever – Ashley Palmer-Watts and team provided a wonderful lunch and the perfect backdrop to the interview. No doubt Derek Bulmer and his new venture will prove great successes, mirroring the many years of outstanding contribution to the industry