Interview: Michelin Editor, Rebecca Burr (October 2011)

Posted on: November 7th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Rebecca Burr has just completed her first year as editor of the industry’s leading guide – The Michelin Red Guide to Great Britain & Ireland. She also maintains responsibility for the London Guide, The Eating Out in Pubs Guide and The Main Cities of Europe Guide. Rebecca found time to meet with fine-dining-guide for an in-depth interview, which took place in early October in the lounge of The Grosvenor Hotel, London. Interview by Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood

Congratulations on completing your first year! Has it been an exciting roller-coaster ride?

Thank you. Well it’s actually been a really smooth transition, there’s an experienced, high quality team in place and it’s been a professionally exciting, busy and enjoyable year.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I’ve been with Michelin twelve years as an inspector and have just completed my first year as editor. Originally, like the majority of my colleagues, I went to Hotel school for three years and trained as a chef. I worked as a private chef to various people; work which took me travelling around the world. This mix has stood me in good stead in my work with Michelin, not just in the traditional sense but also in terms of the dynamic nature of the world in which we live today!

What are your exact roles and responsibilities?

I have assumed responsibility for Michelin GB&I Hotel and Restaurant Guide, The Eating out in Pubs Guide, The London Restaurant Guide and The Main Cities of Europe Guide. In this regard the roles and responsibilities are a direct transition from my predecessor Derek Bulmer.

What is your summary of restaurant trends reflected by the Michelin 2012 Guide GB&I?

Firstly, the restaurants and the chefs set the trends and the guide is merely an observer. I would say that the fact that there are twenty-eight new bib gourmands with thirteen of those based in London says there’s a lot of exciting food in many establishments that have moderate prices. This may be from no bookings with small plates of Italian food through the diversity of restaurant offerings that reflects Britain so well. In fact the Guides are proud to reflect the cultural diversity of establishments in Britain and indeed equally so in all those locations around the world where Michelin offer a Guide.

Restaurants in certain parts of the country are possibly feeling the economic times more than others, although our inspectors have come back from some restaurants impressed with the number of covers achieved where restaurants are beating their numbers year on year and still exceeding their expectations of business.

What do you make of the ‘foraged, organic and sustainable’ trends in fine dining?

I think these establishments are great and rightfully have their place in modern fine dining. If you look at foraging in particular, this can lead to some fascinating creations and the guide is supportive of restaurants that employ these methods.

As with all restaurants, it comes down to the chef and creating something that has an eye on the end product at a given price point. Perhaps in some cases (where foraging is concerned) chefs have to watch that they’re creating something that the customer wants rather than being self-fulfilling – having said this, those that do it well do it very well indeed.

What is your view of the (for want of better descriptors) ‘brasserie/bistrot’ culture in London new openings, do they have a role to play in Michelin for the future?

Just as there’s room for new restaurants of all kinds in the London scene, so there is too in the Michelin Guide. We have a number of categories that go beyond the stars – including bib gourmand. Having said that I can think of several examples of these kinds of restaurants that are starred in the 2012 GB&I Guide and so long as that trend continues (in terms of restaurants delivering good food) then long may Michelin continue reflecting that back to our readers.

Can you explain the star awarding process?

We certainly don’t have a piece of paper to hand over to the chef that says ‘this is how you do it.’ Each establishment will be viewed on its own merits.

Once a restaurant is visited, should there be potential for a star or a promotion it will mean subsequent visits by a team of inspectors.

These inspectors are drawn from an international pool from all around the world (there are seventy across Europe, ten in Asia and ten in the United States; for example I have one over from Germany working with GB&I at the moment and we have one currently working in Tokyo). These visits will take place over a period of time and cover a cross section of the menu, including perhaps lunch and dinner, so as to reassure ourselves of a certain required level of consistency.

Consistency remains the watchword of the Guide and is so important to our readers.

There will always be one announced visit during a star awarding process. Essentially though, our job is to go in undetected and make our own decisions on behalf of our readers. As editor I will visit any restaurant proposed for a star, the review process is ongoing during the year but there is a star review meeting held annually.

Naturally the input from our readers is important to us and is taken into account (hidden gems are, for example, often uncovered thanks to some of our loyal readers). However, it must be stressed that the star awarding process is exclusively conducted by a team of professional inspectors.

This year there were no ‘rising stars’ awarded. There is no hard and fast rule about this sub category. Sometimes it is appropriate to share our thoughts on a restaurant that is standing out in its category sometimes not – this feature of the guide is open to returning in future years.

Can you reassure chefs that in these difficult economic times, Michelin is still focused on the entire menu and not just set meals?

If a menu is there, it is there to be tried by customers, therefore it is there to be tried by Michelin. In some ways the set menu is an opportunity for the chef to be creative. If a star award or demotion is a possibility then Michelin will visit as many times as required (in a rigorous manner) to ensure consistency across the menu and to be certain of our decision.

Tell us about Bib Gourmand and what it means to restaurants and readers?

It is the Michelin emblem and dear to Michelin and to our readers. It is awarded for quality food at moderate prices, where the term moderate has been set at £28 for three courses. Michelin have remained with that formula for some years and it works very well.

We know that many of our readers invest in the Michelin Guide specifically for this category and it remains fundamental to the Guide. There are 129 Bib Gourmands this year offering a breadth of style and choice to our readers.

What is your view of the rise of the internet and constant ‘real time’ reviews of restaurants?

Anything that promotes any interest in this industry is to be applauded and as such Michelin welcome the social networking discussions, the blogs and the sites on the web. Like any web reader, the challenge is to sift through a welter of information and separate the good from the bad from the indifferent. In general, the Michelin Guide offers our readers something different – through long established, professional inspectors (that have seen a wealth of places over many years) offering a benchmarked review system, which we endeavor to have a stamp of reassured quality.

What are the plans for the Main Cities of Europe Guide (Expansion)?

In recent years Michelin has expanded in America and Asia. We’re delivering expansion further in Asia this year. In Europe, for example, Budapest now has two Michelin one Star restaurants. In general, the Main Cities of Europe Guide remains vitally important.

The internet is about ‘real time’, paper publications are ‘date in time’ is there any plan to take advantage of the information age?

Yes there are exciting times ahead. While it is appreciated that print media is under pressure from digital media, the annual paper Guide is still a strong selling presence in the market. So while we wish to embrace change and deliver new projects (and there are projects underway), Michelin will consider its heritage very carefully as steps forward are taken…