In a sense, winning a Michelin star means everything – and nothing.
The Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland 2015, released today (September 25), is an obsession among professionals in the hospitality business, chefs and restaurant critics included, while it is reviled by legions of others, although critics by far outnumber chefs in this category.
Despite the hype, winning or losing a star cannot make or break a good restaurant but it can catapult, or fatally wound, places that split opinion.
Restaurant watchers, including some nominally influential critics, decry what is perceived as the corrosive influence of the little red book. They point to the anaesthetising influence of the Michelin dining template. They have a point. I recently spoke to a chef who recalled being taken aside by an inspector who had dined at the establishment. The box-ticker offered some advice on what was required to hit the mark with Michelin. One dish, he said, tasted good but was “too simple.”
So does a keen-to-please chef elaborate for elaboration’s sake in order to curry favour with the anonymous degustation-munchers?
Controversially, I think Michelin, by and large, gets it right. On the basis that you can’t please all of the diners (and all of the chefs) all of the time, I think the guide calls it about right.
No star is easily won. Hitting a high level of cooking consistency – and consistency is the key – requires a stamina-shredding commitment allied to skill and imagination. Top chefs aren’t required to perform once or twice a week. They have to hit the mark twice a day, for lunch and dinner, often seven days a week. A flat service, like a flat soufflé, won’t do.
But quite how you do all this while representing your country at the world’s most prestigious, most insane, most high-pressured cooking competition is beyond me. It takes a very special chef. Someone like Adam Bennett.
Bennett is celebrating after winning a star for The Cross at Kenilworth, Warwickshire, in a year.
The former head chef at Michelin-starred Simpsons, in Birmingham, took over the pub last summer but only started putting his stamp on the menu in early autumn. Previously when he cooked at Simpsons, that was Bennett’s sole focus. Now he is responsible for the entire business at The Cross. If the burglar alarm is buggered, it’s Bennett’s responsibility.
At the same time as he started kicking the kitchen into shape, recruited staff, worked on the decor, drew up menus and delivered the food, Bennett also agreed to represent the UK at the Bocuse D’Or for the second time. In his first tilt at the competition – the Olympics of international gastronomy – he posted the UK’s best ever result, finishing fourth.
As he plots his assault on the 2015 final in Lyon, Bennett simultaneously finds himself running The Cross. He will soon return to his second home, the Bocuse D’Or Kitchen at University College Birmingham, as he and his Bocuse commis chef Josh Allen – a Culinary Arts Management student at the university – work on their dishes for the final.
Bennett, who will cringe if he reads this, is a terrific advert for West Midlands industry – for creativity, innovation and an unstinting work ethic. He will be showcasing these attributes on the world stage at the Bocuse D’Or, an event that attracts global media attention.
What a great sponsorship tie up that offers to a canny West Midlands company with a prestigious global brand. Someone like Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin or TNT?
Bennett has a terrific kitchen support network for the Bocuse D’Or, including Matt Nicholls, another UCB-trained chef, but everything is driven by his passion and organisation.
I have seen Bennett turn up at UCB after doing the morning school-run with daughter Asha in Coventry, complete a gruelling all-day prep, run-through and debrief for the Bocuse D’Or then leave Birmingham to get ready for dinner service at The Cross.
His commitment to nurturing the next generation of kitchen stars remains undiminished. Bennett took Kristian Curtis to the Bocuse D’Or in 2012-13 when Curtis was barely out of short trousers. Curtis picked up the award for the competition’s best commis chef and has gone on to discover a new-found cooking maturity – and long trousers – on the back of the experience.
The kitchen at The Cross has become a test-bed for young talent and currently has three – yes, three – apprentices from UCB, working in food preparation and cookery and advanced patisserie. The trainees are being schooled in classic techniques and modern interpretations of polished British cooking, which are the hallmark of dishes at the pub.
Bennett takes a keen interest in the development of the young charges, even as he revamps menus, attracts critical acclaim and has sleepless night about his date with destiny in Lyon.
It is for these reasons that Adam Bennett’s Michelin star, earned entirely off his own back, has got to be the hardest won Michelin star in Britain.
But is Bennett any good? For what it’s worth, people often ask me: “Who’s the best chef in Birmingham?” The truth is, he might not even work in Birmingham any more.
But then he might.