Original Michelin Internet Interview: Derek Bulmer (2005)

Posted on: January 30th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Michelin Guides 2005

The Guides Edited by Derek Bulmer in 2005

Derek Bulmer has been in the Hotel & Restaurant industry all his working life. He joined Michelin in 1977 and worked as an inspector for many years before becoming deputy editor to Derek Brown.

For the last eight years Mr Bulmer has had editorial responsibility for the GB & Ireland Michelin Guide to Hotels & Restaurants, The Main Cities of Europe Guide and more recently the launch of the new publication: Eating out in Pubs.

On 14th January 2005, Simon Carter met with Derek Bulmer at the offices of Michelin UK:-

The Eating out in Pubs Guide is a new venture, what prompted that move?

Over the last decade, Michelin has seen the rise of Pubs where you can eat well. As an example, a decade ago gastropubs started to appear throughout London and in recognition of that early trend we introduced a new symbol – a tankard with a fork to distinguish them as pubs where you can eat well. In recent years the acceleration of the gastropub ‘revolution’ has created a need and provided the opportunity for a new publication of 500 of the top food pubs. We’ve been pleased with the feedback regarding the new format used; being designed for a wider audience with written summaries and colour photography. It looks like this will become an annual publication.

Were Pubs inspected using the same principles as the Michelin (Red) Guide?

The process was identical. We had 350 addresses in the GB & Ireland Michelin Guide and researched a further 150-200 specifically for the Eating out in Pubs Guide. Exactly the same inspectors were involved in producing this publication which means that it has been made to the same exacting standards as the main Guide.

The Main Cities of Europe Guide has been around for over 20 years now?

Yes, it is essentially a compilation of extracts from the eight existing Michelin Guides supplemented by additional cities in Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe. This is primarily aimed at the international businessman who may be in Barcelona one day, Milan the next and Frankfurt the day after. This book would cover the best hotels and restaurants in those cities in one easy guide and has proved successful on that basis.

www.viamichelin.com, tell us about that?

They are a sister company and we have a strong flow of information between the two companies. I’m very pleased with the way the site has improved over the last year and the feedback is improving. We also have the facility to receive reports from the public through that site which is also important. In fact we’re becoming increasingly ‘internet aware’ and it’s good to see sites like www.toptable.co.uk, www.london-eating.co.uk, www.birminghamplus.com and www.egullet.org springing up. Diners in Britain are clearly enthusiastic, knowledgeable and excited about sharing information on their dining experiences. In fact I’m pleased to be doing a Q&A session with www.egullet.org throughout the week immediately after publication.

There’s so much more to the Michelin Guide that the stars, what else can the customer take from the guide?

We have around 5,500 establishments listed in the GB & Ireland Guide of which approximately two thirds are accommodation addresses and one third restaurants, including pubs. We aim to give our readers the choice at every different price level wherever they are – so from three bedroom B&B right up to the most luxurious hotels and, on the eating side, from Pubs right up to the most elegant and smart restaurants. The object is to give readers who travel extensively a clear choice to suit their needs. For example there are at least 1100 guesthouses cum small private hotels that are little gems, much appreciated by our readers. It’s another rich vein of information and some of these small out of the away addresses have been well researched and reward our customers accordingly.

The Bib Gourmand, what are the criteria behind this award?

This is a matter of price to quality ratios where we point out to our readers certain restaurants where one can eat particularly well at reasonable prices. These restaurants use well sourced ingredients for relatively simple dishes that are prepared with care and provide good value for money. The price limit is £25 for three courses throughout the UK and 36 euro in the Republic of Ireland. We feel these restaurants stand out in the mid-market as a benchmark to the benefit of our customers.

What is the coverage model for inspectors of the Michelin (Red) Guide?

We have around 75 full time inspectors throughout Europe. These inspectors will have a responsibility for different areas throughout their country (which are rotated annually) plus they may also be expected to inspect establishments internationally.

This ensures that inspections are made where needed and in addition enriches (and promotes consistency in) the benchmark we use for our measurement systems across Europe.

How many inspections might a restaurant expect in a year?

All establishments listed in the guide are visited on average every 18 months and as a general rule the higher up the tree you go the more inspections are carried out. For example, there are only three restaurants in Great Britain with three stars at the moment and if we don’t get those addresses absolutely right then our readers would soon tell us about it.

Is there a process for promotions to One Star, or from One to Two or Two to Three?

Yes there is. The inspector designated with responsibility for that particular area would propose candidates for promotion. Another inspector would then be sent to those restaurants for a second opinion. If the second meal was equally as good then we would arrange a further series of inspections to test the consistency. There would be a guaranteed minimum of three very strong visits to make a first star and at the other end of the spectrum we’ve been known to visit eight, nine or even ten times in a year. At the end of our working year we discuss all the candidates as a team and a unanimous decision is taken to ensure absolute rigour. If an element of doubt remained we would hold back until further inspections the following year.

The reason for this is the Michelin byword of consistency. We would want to ensure that if we’re telling our readers that they will eat well then it is not just the fish on the set menu on a Wednesday lunch time. We visit mid-week, weekends, at lunch and at dinner and we try the carte as well as the set menu. This all helps us judge the consistency of the operation.

As well as consistency, what other criteria do Michelin Inspectors use when assessing a restaurant for Stars?

The inspection process covers most things that a typical discerning diner would look for, even if only subconsciously. We just put a more structured approach. First and foremost we look at quality of product. If for example you take poor quality scallops or langoustine you can’t suddenly turn that around into a great dish further down the cooking process. Then comes the technical skill and flair in preparation; technical skill has the meat been properly butchered, trimmed and hung so it is tender; flair is more difficult – we’re looking for the talent of the individual. The best way I can describe it is the individual interpretationof a dish; natural artistry and ability. If you gave two chefs of similar ability the same ingredients, the same equipment and the same recipe, the resulting dishes would not be identical. The differences would result from their individual experience, ability and imagination. That is what we are trying to judge. We then look at the combination of ingredients used in a dish – do they work well with natural balancing and does the combination enhance the overall enjoyment of the dish. Then flavours; we consider whether the natural flavours of the ingredients have an opportunity to demonstrate themselves and whether the dish actually tastes of what it is supposed to. We will also look at the balance of the menu to ensure there is a broad choice for customers rather than being heavily weighted in one particular area. Finally, value for money; this does not mean inexpensive but that price appropriately reflects quality.

What about originality?

This becomes important at the Two and Three Star level. At One Star level it is possible to be a good reproducer of dishes. You may find a set of restaurants where there is broad similarity between the dishes produced because the chefs involved have all been trained to a very high standard under one particular chef at a flagship restaurant. At the Two and Three star level we expect originality and innovation – a personal signature if you like.

What are you looking for from the wine list?

When you get to One Star level we look for the same level of care and thought being put into the wines in order to complement the food. A well researched house wine/wines is considered particularly important.

What role does front of house play?

Oh yes, in The Michelin Guide, the knives and forks are used to indicate the comfort and style of the establishment. For example, one knife and fork (couvert) would imply a simple bistro and five couvert a luxurious restaurant. We award them as black or red, where the red will be considered particularly pleasant in it’s category; this may be due to the setting by a river or the opulence or the warmth of welcome. People often confuse the award of knives and forks with the quality of the food.

What about front of house in the awarding of Michelin Stars?

At the one and two star level it is solely about the food on the plate and we make a particular point of stating in the guide “beware of comparing the star given to an expensive <de luxe> establishment to that of a simple restaurant where you can appreciate fine cooking at a reasonable price – The knives and forks will reflect the comfort or style of the restaurant. Our definition of three stars remains inclusive of the words “fine wines, faultless service, elegant surroundings.” which indicates that at this level we look for all round excellence.

When inspectors of the GB & Ireland Michelin Guide visit a restaurant do they always present themselves or are they anonymous?

Some inspections are anonymous and some are announced after we have paid our bill. We only announce ourselves once a year. We may want to inspect a particular restaurant four or five times in a given year – particularly if they are being considered for a star. As I say, we will only show our hand once and this will be because we need a certain amount of information; to see behind the scenes, in the kitchen and so on. As a general rule we don’t tend to give feedback, we’re not consultants to the industry, the Guide is made for the benefit of our readers.

We touched on the rise of The Gastro Pub, have you noticed any other trends in fine dining over the last decade?

On that theme there’s perhaps a move towards flexibility and informality. People want to eat out more often but with more flexibility and less formality. I’m not saying the demand for fine dining restaurants is in decline, quite the opposite, it’s just that we’re eating out more as a nation. The major cities outside London have all experienced a resurgence in the number of fine restaurants and hotels – Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Indeed the same thing is happening in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin. To take the second city of England as an example, it is refreshing to see Birmingham, and indeed the Midlands as a whole, develop a good stock of gastronomic restaurants.

Can a restaurant take their star with them in the event of a move?

Each case is individual and is therefore measured on its own merits. You may find that a star moves with a chef and the restaurant he leaves loses the star, or equally the reverse may be true. A chef’s move may also spawn a new star in the new establishment with the star also remaining in the original restaurant. And again neither restaurant may be awarded a star.

Can restaurants advertise Michelin recognition in their literature?

Our current policy is that we ask establishments not to mention Michelin in any of their literature. Having said that, we recently sent a questionnaire to featured addresses seeking feedback on a number of issues and this is one area under consideration as a result. All I can say at the moment is watch this space.

The 2005 Edition of The Michelin (Red) Guide is published next week?

Next Friday, 21st January. However, the press release and all information on new awards etc will be generally available from www.michelin.co.uk from Thursday morning. We’ve put together a much bigger press release than normal this year including more information on how we work and the history of the star awards. We hope this demonstrates that The Michelin Guide is moving towards a more open and transparent philosophy.