What it’s really like to be a Michelin star chef

Tommy Banks, Michelin star chef at the Black Swan at Oldstead .
Tommy Banks, Michelin star chef at the Black Swan at Oldstead .
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With one stressed-out French chef handing back his Michelin stars, Sarah Freeman explores the highs and lows of winning a place in the prestigious culinary guide.

A few months ago Tommy Banks was visiting Singapore. On his to do list was a visit to Chan Hon Meng’s street food stall which had made headlines in 2016 when it was awarded a Michelin star.

Frances Atkins outside the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill.

Frances Atkins outside the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill.

For Banks it was a bit of a busman’s holiday. He had won his first star three years ago having helped, along with the rest of the Banks clan, to transform The Black Swan at Oldstead from rundown North Yorkshire boozer into a fine dining restaurant and was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

However, as he stood waiting for Meng’s signature dish of chicken rice and noodle, it was proof that the accolade can be a double-edged sword.

“I’d had a look online before I went,” says Banks, who was just 24 when he received his Michelin star. “There was nothing but terrible reviews, but I still went. The queue was huge and some people were waiting up to three hours for a dish which would cost them £1.40.

“I felt really sorry for the owner. He hadn’t put up his prices, but as a result he he couldn’t keep up with demand and his regular customers were annoyed because they now had to wait. Getting the star hadn’t earned him any more money, but it had created massive expectations which suddenly he was struggling to meet.”

Andrew Pern, who won, lost and regained his Michelin star.

Andrew Pern, who won, lost and regained his Michelin star.

While most chefs covet a Michelin star and a place in the annual guide, widely acknowledged to be the official fine dining bible, the powers that be at Michelin this week took the unprecedented step of allowing one French restaurateur to hand back his three stars.

Sébastien Bras, who runs Le Suquet in the South of France, had made the petition last year, complaining that the pressure of maintaining the very top rating had just become too much. It took Michelin executives, who are more accustomed to chefs demanding to know why they haven’t made the grade, a few months to come to terms with the snub, but earlier this week it was announced Le Suquet and Bras will not feature in its next guide when it is published in October.

“You’re inspected two or three times a year,” said Bras, bemoaning what he described as the “gastronomic rat race”. “You never know when. Every meal that goes out could be inspected. That means that every day one of of the 500 meals that leaves the kitchen could be judged. Perhaps I will be less famous, but I accept that.”

Banks too knows the pressure which comes with trying to keep his Michelin star status. He took over the kitchen from Adam Jackson who had won The Black Swan its first star and had just 12 months to prove he was a worthy successor.

“I became pretty obsessed by it,” he admits. “I didn’t want to let anyone down. The year I won my first star was the year the list was leaked. I first heard the news via Twitter, but I didn’t fully believe it until I had seen my name there on the page in black and white.

“I am much more relaxed about it now, but I know that’s easy to say when I have a star. I know chefs who are desperate for their first and it does become all consuming. They end up spending all their time creating dishes they think will impress the judges when they would be far better concentrating on what their customers want.”

While Banks is a relative newcomer to the Michelin club, Frances Atkins is a one star veteran and something of a pioneer. In 2003, six years after taking over the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill, near Pateley Bridge, with her husband Bill she became the first British female chef to win a star.

“It changes everything,” says Atkins, who remembers being rung up at 6am to be told the news by one of her chefs. “Overnight, the bookings go through the roof and it does catapult you into a whole different level.

“I have always felt that my place is in the kitchen, it is where I am happiest, but once you have a Michelin star you are inundated with offers to do other things. It is flattering and I can see why some chefs have had their heads turned by offers of TV programmes and the like.

“That’s when the pressure begins to build. Running a Michelin star kitchen is more than a full time job in itself and if you start to take on too many other things it can begin to unravel.”

While staying on in the kitchen, Atkins recently sold the Yorke Arms to serial entrepreneur Jonathan Turner and the restaurant is due to shut soon for a three-month refit. When it reopens in May, she is promising a very different kind of menu and knows it won’t be long before the inspectors are back.

“When I was starting out, if you got a man who was suited and booted and carrying a newspaper you knew he was almost certainly from Michelin,” she says. “However, they have got a lot clever and now the inspectors are much harder to spot.

“Day to day I don’t give them much thought, I am too busy, but even now the night before the guide is due out I can feel the adrenaline levels rising and I do get into a bit of a panic. It’s not so much about me, it’s about the rest of the team. We work to exacting standards and the idea of being told that your food isn’t good enough would be heartbreaking.”

Andrew Pern knows what it’s like to suddenly go from hero to zero. In 2002 the the Star at Harome, near Helmsley became only the second pub in the country to muscle its way into the Michelin Guide. Pern wasn’t shy about making the most of the publicity opportunities which came with its inclusion, but nine years later it failed to make the grade.

“I could lie and say I was ok about losing the star, that I knew we would bounce back, but I wasn’t,” he admits. “That one star was worth £250,000 a year to the business, but it was more than just the money. I felt like an outcast.

“When you get a Michelin star you become a member of a little club. When you no longer have it, that membership goes too. I didn’t see it coming. I had set my sights on getting two stars and there suddenly I was with none.

“I still got the invites to all the usual dos, but I didn’t want to go to any of them. I assumed everyone was talking about it.”

It wasn’t complete paranoia. Even in the pub where Pern assumed the regulars might be too polite or embarrassed to mention the omission, the loss of the star was for a while the main topic of conversation.

“When you lose your star there is no feedback fromMichelin. They never tell you why. I thought we were working to exactly the same level as every previous year. Maybe some chefs would have thrown the towel in, but I wanted it back and I knew the only way to do that was work even harder.”

That hard work was repaid in 2014. The Star at Harome was reinstated and Pern regained his Michelin star.

“Can I ever see a point where I would hand it back? No way. It’s still the industry’s biggest accolade. I lost it once, I’m not going to give it away of my own volition. They’d have to wrestle it from me.”