Three years after he was dropped from the Michelin guide, The Star at Harome’s Andrew Pern tells Sarah Freeman how he finally won his star back. Pictures by James Hardisty.
When Andrew Pern lost his Michelin star he thought regulars at the Star Inn at Harome might be too polite or embarrassed to mention it. In fact they could talk about nothing else.
“Yep, it was the main topic of conversation in the restaurant for a while, although perhaps that was better than it being the elephant in the room. The truth is, everyone was really supportive.In fact I think our regulars probably ate here more after we lost the star than they did beforehand. It was their way of showing they weren’t going to abandon us, but personally I took it badly.
“I’d had my sights set on two stars and there I was with none. I really didn’t see it coming. When you have a star you feel part of a club. I still got invited to the same events as the other Michelin star chefs, but I turned them all down. I just didn’t feel like I belonged any more.”
We’re sat in the main dining room at the historic pub and restaurant near Helmsley. It’s a couple of hours before lunch and as the front of house and kitchen staff prepare for another busy service, the evidence of just how much Andrew has invested in the place is everywhere.
Ever since the summer of 1996 when he and his first wife Jacquie took on what was then a rundown boozer and began turning it into one of Yorkshire’s best restaurants, The Star has always been more than a business. It’s been his life.
Packed with personal memorabilia, family photographs hang on the walls and in one corner there’s a model of the famous Michelin man, which he bought after winning his first star in 2002. He may or may not be joking when he says it got kicked around the car park after the restaurant was pulled from the guide in 2011, but until recently it was a bitter reminder of what had been.
“When you lose your star, there’s no feedback. They never tell you why. We thought we were working to exactly the same level as every previous year. We certainly didn’t think that we had taken our eye off the ball. I wanted it back and the only way to do that was to work even harder.”
Andrew says the team, including head chef Steve Smith, were bruised by the experience which came at a particularly bad time. Two years before, the restaurant had been forced to close temporarily after 80 guests fell ill with the norovirus. The outbreak cost the business £120,000, but there was worse to come.
Ten months after he lost the Michelin star his marriage to Jacquie, with whom he has four children, broke down. Overnight Andrew’s personal life appeared to be unravelling along with his foodie empire, which, as well as the Star, included The Pheasant and a delicatessen in Helmsley and another shop in Harome.
“Honestly, it was like the perfect storm. I was looking down to the depths of hell, but we had to sort things out for the sake of the children.”
Dividing up the business – Jacquie now runs the Pheasant – Pernshire was scaled back with both the deli and the shop closing. It was inevitably a painful time, but Andrew is nothing if not resilient.
He’s now settled with new partner, Francesca, the couple have a 22-month-old son and not content with being a father of five, last year Andrew decided to launch The Star Inn the City. The brand new restaurant on the banks of the River Ouse in York is a much bigger affair than at Harome, but while it occupied much of his time, he still always had one eye on Michelin. Last year he was convinced the Star at Harome would be back in the same company as the Box Tree at Ilkley and the Pipe and Glass, near Beverley, which is run by his former head chef James MacKenzie, but again there was disappointment.
“When the inspectors come they introduce themselves and at the end of the meal, which they will always say was fine, they ask just one question – ‘Are you planning on leaving within the next six months?’ They don’t want the guide to be out of date when it comes out and last year when they asked me I told them that I was planning open another restaurant in York.
“I don’t know whether they thought I might jump ship altogether or whether that influenced their decision in any way, but yes, I was disappointed because I didn’t think we could do any better.”
Few restaurants which lose their star ever get it back, but a few weeks ago – after three long years – Andrew and his team were finally welcomed back into the Michelin fold.
“They don’t write to you or let you know in advance, you just have to look on the website along with everyone else. The internet is not brilliant here and funnily enough the friend who rang to say we’d lost the star was the first one to call to say we’d got it back. Chefs are pretty good at finding a reason for celebrating, but let’s just say that night we didn’t need any excuse.”
Andrew says his love of food was born from his childhood on a farm in the Esk Valley, a few miles north of Whitby.
“People would come onto our land to shoot and instead of paying they would bring food. I’d often come home to find a lobster in the bath or the fridge packed with the most incredible pies.”
His mother was a talented cook, but after she being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Andrew was just nine-years-old she began to struggle in the kitchen and dinners were left to his father.
“We went from having lasagne, which was incredibly exotic back then to Frey Bentos pies, lots of braised steak and fry ups. Dad was doing his best, but I thought I could probably help out. I discovered Robert Carrier cookbooks and while I was still at primary school I began making woodcock terrine, stroganoffs and pates.”
Andrew admits he didn’t excel academically and, after leaving school aged 15 with just one O-level, even plans to join the Army Catering Corps looked ambitious. Instead he enrolled on a City and Guilds at Scarborough College.
“Straight away I felt at home. We were taught the classical foundations of cooking, but we were also given the opportunity to go to France. I’ll never forget being in Paris and standing in the middle of the world’s biggest wholesale market. It just opened my eyes to what was possible.”
By 22 he was head chef of the Milburn Arms at Rosedale. It was there he met Jacquie and together they invested everything they had in the Star.
“The first ever dish on the menu was smoked haddock with grain mustard veloute and a poached hen’s egg. In those early days, people would sometimes have to wait a couple of hours for their main course, but no-one seemed to mind.
“We were incredibly naive, but perhaps you need to be to open your own restaurant. If you knew all the problems you’d face you’d probably never do it.”
It was at the Star where Andrew perfected his now famous ‘rich man, poor man’ dishes, bringing together cheap and expensive ingredients in a perfect culinary marriage. Foie gras and black pudding has been the pub’s signature dish from the early days and it’s still on the menu today.
“We once replaced it for a dish involving watercress puree. Honestly there was uproar. People hated it, plus it was 10 times more difficult to make so we went back to what we knew worked.
“People want great ingredients cooked well and that’s what we do.”
While his heart may lay in the kitchen, Andrew has been tempted onto the small screen and for a while was a regular on the Great British Menu.
“I don’t think i would go back again. It’s too staged. They get you down for a screen test and tell you to be yourself, but actually when it comes to filming they feed you the lines. There were a few times when I did turn to them and say, ‘Really, you want me to say that?’”
After a turbulent few years, he says life is good. While Jay Rayner recently wrote a pretty damning review of the Star Inn the City in the Observer – he hated everything from the flat caps used to serve the bread to the wipe clean menu – the restaurant, which is about to celebrate its first anniversary, has been a financial success.
“That review did feel a bit personal, particularly because he has never once reviewed the Star at Harome. It doesn’t bother me, but I felt frustrated for the team because they felt they had let me down. As I told them, ‘Don’t worry, I bought both copies of the Observer in Helmsley and I tried to set fire to them, but they don’t even burn well’.
“Here will alway be the mother ship this is where the ideas come from, but it’s a 14th century building which eats money and having the place in York has made finances a bit easier. For the first time, it means we can go on big family holidays.”
The Perns went to Caribbean earlier this year and are planning a return visit soon, but Andrew admits he’s not particularly good at relaxing. At the moment what little spare time he has is filled with writing a children’s book. He’s not quite decided on a title yet, but it features characters like Ginger Parkin, Tom Kedgeree and Egon Toast and with York artist Tim Bulmer doing the illustrations he hopes it will be out some time next year.
There’s also something else occupying his thoughts. “I know people will think I’m mad, but I still want a second Michelin star. I guess that’s just the way I’m made.”