Interview: Simon Numphud, Head of AA Hotel Services

Posted on: January 15th, 2013 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Simon Numphud

Simon Numphud

Simon Numphud has been an employee of The AA for over fifteen years.  He worked his way through from junior inspector, to senior inspector, through management to head up, for the last six years, Hotel Services.  Here he gives a candid interview to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about The AA Restaurant Guide.  Interview took place at The AA Offices, Basingstoke in late December 2012.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I’m originally from Bournemouth and started working in hotels during school summer holidays, doing the washing up. After O Levels, my careers advisor at school suggested catering college, which I felt was a sensible idea, so I enrolled at Bournemouth College .

It was a two year diploma in Hotel & Catering & Institutional Operations.  Within the programme, students were sent for a six months placement in France .  I found myself in a Relais & Chateaux Association, Michelin one star property in the Loire valley, which proved an epiphany in appreciating that a career in hospitality was my future.

Upon completing my diploma course, I then applied to Oxford Polytechnic, (now Oxford Brookes University ) to do a degree in Hotel & Catering Management.  It was a four year modular course and was a great experience – one year was a placement in industry, which I spent at The Feathers in Woodstock .  I graduated in the bleakest of years, the midst of a recession, in 1991.

The next three years were a follow on from The Feathers – I teamed up with the head chef and restaurant manager (Sonya Kidney and her partner) and we opened the Marsh Goose in Moreton-in-marsh in the heart of the Cotswolds.  This became a well known restaurant and featured in all the guides.  It was certainly an exciting project and a great learning experience to be involved in the development of a quality restaurant from scratch.

The next step was as restaurant manager at The Beetle & Wedge Boathouse restaurant, which was owned at that time by Kate and Richard Smith, in Moulsford, Oxfordshire. Kate was a big supporter of developing her staff and encouraged me to expand my wine knowledge – I took courses via the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, entered sommelier competitions and completed trips to France.

After two years, I moved to run Hollington House Hotel just outside of Newbury, which was run by an Australian couple who had run the first Relais & Chateaux property in Melbourne, Australia.  It was a beautiful property – three red stars and three Rosettes.  We had the largest Australian wine list in the country, bought directly from Sydney and Melbourne.

Then the AA job came up as an inspector.  Fifteen years later I’m still here!  I’ve been fortunate to climb the ladder through junior inspector, to senior inspector, into management and for the last six years running the Hotel Services business division in the AA.  The knowledge gained across the spectrum of the industry during the last fifteen years, coupled with the previous experiences, has been quite extraordinary, and I feel particularly privileged.

What are your exact roles and responsibilities with the AA?

I manage the Hotel Services business, which sits within AA Media, the latter being the publishing and digital arm of The AA.

Where exactly does the AA Restaurant Guide sit in this structure?

The AA Restaurant Guide straddles across both AA Media and Hotel Services: Hotel Services own the core inspection team of circa 30 full time inspectors: Inspectors will have previously worked in the industry for at least four years and preferably own a relevant qualification, they will also complete a fairly stringent training programme which is continuous throughout an inspector’s career.

These factors are vital in achieving the level of knowledge required to exhibit empathy with the people we are giving feedback to in the industry, as well as benchmark quality appropriately.  This core team will make decisions regarding Rosette awards, and also provide the majority of the information that the editorial team will then make into the finished product of the AA Restaurant Guide.

In addition we have a small, separate team, trained to benchmark in the same fashion as the core team in Hotel Services; this team exclusively ‘eat and write’ for The AA Restaurant Guide and will cover both independent restaurants and Hotel dining rooms.

What is the editorial philosophy of The AA Restaurant Guide?

There have been several editors over the years and each will have brought their own personality to the AA Restaurant Guide.  The core philosophy has remained constant – a guide which can point the consumer towards establishments of better quality where they will find a restaurant or dining room where there is a chef with a real passion for cooking real, quality food.

The guide is also not just about fine dining – it crosses all types of styles, ethnicity and cuisines.  There are 2200 establishments in the guide so it is particularly accessible to the consumer; their tastes, choices and dining preferences.

Are you aware of the extent to which chefs use the Rosette system as a method of career benchmarking?

When the Rosette scheme was started in 1967 it was purely aimed at providing guidance to the consumer in finding quality food. However, The AA has been pleasantly surprised by the way in which Rosette awards (in particular) have been adopted by professional chefs as a way of benchmarking their development and also as an aid to recruitment.

One of the AA’s longest standing philosophies is about quality – we started benchmarking hotels in 1908, a very short time after the AA started and all areas in which the essence of quality can be spread is dear to our hearts.

What is the decision making process for the making of awards of Rosette – both promotions and demotions?

Our inspection team have the authority to make decisions regarding one and two Rosettes awards based on their skills and experiences.  One and two Rosettes makes up approximately 90% of the guide.

People must remember that one Rosette is a great achievement of quality as there are around 50-60,000 restaurants in Britain and the guide’s focus is on just 2,200 restaurants and dining rooms.

Three, four and five Rosette restaurants will be subject to a series of visits where we are looking for the right qualities delivered consistently.

These awards are made in the annual September launch of the guide book and supplemented by awards of higher Rosettes in a January update.

Sitting on top of this is an independent hospitality awards panel which I chair twice a year.  The purpose of this is to oversee the higher awards; verify the process and endorse the decisions made at the highest levels.  This gives the extra layer of robustness, of quality assurance, really providing an excellent endorsement of- and credibility to- the decisions we are making.

How are inspectors organised?

By geographical territory, so by postcode and county.  However as we seek a purity to the benchmarking on a national basis we aim to ensure that the inspectors are well travelled across regions.

We might ask, how does this restaurant stand out locally, in it’s region, in the country and across the UK ?  A three Rosette restaurant must mean the same in terms of quality wherever you are enjoying that restaurant.

How does a restaurant go about getting an inspection?

We make a discerning decision as we get fairly inundated with requests for inspections.

We will look at menus, chef’s CVs, as well as examine how a restaurant features in the context of their area – it must stand out.  To take soho as an example – where there is such an established concentration of restaurants – the restaurant will have to stand out as noteworthy in the context of soho to be considered for a first inspection. There is no charge for inclusion and we will look carefully at all aspects of a restaurant when planning visits.

What role does consultancy play in The AA Restaurant Guide?

Consultancy is an offering that has been developed over the last eight or nine years.  The offering grew organically from the process of giving feedback to hoteliers, restaurateurs and chefs.  The AA has always prided itself on giving feedback (perhaps now uniquely in the guide business) and this was well received to the point of requests for more information.

The AA has been particularly careful to ensure there is a clear distinction between the consultancy and training process and the Rosette award scheme.  This is imperative for credibility: we have seen our consultancy and training support gives teams a better understanding and focus on how to deliver quality and improve standards in their workplace and critically the importance of consistency.

In excess of 800 chefs have now been through the Rosette Academy and part of this is to encourage the retention of core craft skills which to an extent have become lost in recent years.  The most advanced chefs can create extraordinary things but perhaps there’s the opportunity for many to get the basics right, make one step at a time and consistently produce dishes which reflect their personality and deliver on preparation, taste, texture, temperature and technical execution.

What role does reader feedback play?

A highly valid and important role, however a particular skill-set and a set of criteria are required to consistently benchmark restaurants.  We will take feedback from both readers as well as the industry: Two way communication methods are ever expanding, including web, email, social networking platforms and so on that all help us keep up-to-date and take the guide book forward.  This all adds up to making the Rosette scheme robust, consistent and respected.

Tell us about The AA Restaurant Guide on the web?

The Guide is free to access on the web and we will look to improve and enrich the content of this offering over time.  Mobile devices are key to the future and making offerings as mobile friendly as possible.

This means more than merely making the format more mobile device friendly in terms presentation, including for example, providing neat answers to questions like “tell me the 5 nearest points of interest to where I am right now.”

Today, AA Media have 24 apps across seven different platforms including iPhone, android, blackberry, nokia, windows and so on.  There’s currently been over three million downloads of apps across AA Media offerings, which shows it has become a significant distribution stream for content.  The AA Restaurant Guide is, for example, a free to download app.

Any plans to go real time instead of date in time for Rosette Awards?

The current approach works well and we have no plans to change the frequency of the awards process.

Will the paperback guide see a change in format?

We’re very happy with the editorial content and presentation of the guide so no plans to change but as always we will be keeping abreast of the demands of the marketplace.