Twenty years ago, when my brother and I were young men about town working and dining out in London and New York and thinking about setting up our own restaurant guide, the culinary landscape was very different. But it is not so much the differences between the two cities in those days that would strike a contemporary restaurant-goer but, paradoxically, their similarity.
Both London and New York were, essentially, parochial. There were none of today’s outposts of great Gallic chefs, say, in either city and certainly no upmarket international “concepts”: Nobu, the pioneer, had not yet been invented, still less gone international.
Now, of course, everything has changed, and London – like New York and Tokyo, Las Vegas and Dubai – is home to some of the most famous chefs in the world (even if they don’t all live or work here). And, as we began to collate the results of a survey conducted for the 18th edition of our guide, published earlier this week, it occurred to me that the current London restaurant scene presents an ideal laboratory in which to examine what benefits, if any, flow from this increased internationalisation at the top end of the restaurant business.
In recent years it has become such a commonplace that top restaurant chefs can be considered celebrities that it is worth pausing to note that cooking, especially at the level of haute cuisine, is intrinsically an odd way of establishing this celebrity.
To judge what makes a particular chef special, we need to taste the food that he or she has cooked. In theory, given the small scale of the establishments involved, this should rather limit the number of people interested in top chefs. Chef celebrity is therefore quite different from, say, sports celebrity: we can appreciate a footballer’s skills, perhaps on the other side of the world, on television. There is no medium, however, through which culinary excellence can effectively be transmitted (let alone recorded for subsequent analysis).
Hence, it might be argued, the importance of restaurant guides. Since most of us lack first-hand comparative experience of the top chefs in the various world centres, the way most people, and certainly the media, keep track of the unfathomable foodie scene worldwide is with a restaurant guide. One particular guide, Michelin, has established coverage, at last count, in 21 countries. Thanks to an inspired marketing idea in 1900, the French tyre company has emerged as the most widely acclaimed arbiter of just which are the best restaurants worldwide, and, by extension, who are the best chefs. Its straightforward, one-two-three star system has proved a gift for anyone trying to work out a league table of the world’s top chefs.
But this combination of convenience and global coverage has an unfortunate side-effect: any chef hungry for fame knows that he or she must set about amassing Michelin stars. And, thus, Michelin stars can sometimes seem an end in themselves rather than a means to attract customers (or as evidence of having particularly pleased them). What did a menacing-looking Gordon Ramsay have inscribed on his knuckles for a photograph on the cover of a foodie magazine last year? Why 12 small stars? How more succinctly to convey Ramsay’s significance? Michelin has become the unique proxy by which leading celebrity restaurant-chefs can convey to the market their special eminence. And if you want admission to the international super-league you just must have at least one restaurant in your empire with three stars.
Of course, not even the energetic Ramsay would claim that he was cooking at all the eight establishments to which the 12 stars related. What his knuckles were telling us was that he was the man in ultimate charge of those restaurants. At this stellar altitude celebrity chefs are not so much chefs as celebrity restaurateurs who began their careers as chefs.
This is not just a matter of semantics. There is an important difference between chefs, who cook, and restaurateurs, whose job – like that of theatrical producers – is to be in charge of the whole show (which includes hiring and firing chefs). It’s a distinction that Paul Bocuse – the Lyonnais chef, born in 1926 and generally considered the patriarch of modern French gastronomy – both emphasised and disdained in his magnificent answer to a question about who did the cooking at one of his restaurants when he was not there. One can almost hear a Gallic shrug accompanying his response: “The same people as when I am.” In other words, Bocuse was saying, “You’ve failed to understand that I’m no longer just a chef; I’m a restaurateur nowadays”.
The distinction matters because in the same way that you may be a brilliant football manager without having been a great footballer, there is no requirement for a good restaurateur to be able to cook. In fact, many of the best restaurateurs in London – among them Chris Corbin and Jeremy King (originally of The Ivy and now of The Wolseley fame); Nigel Platts-Martin (the eminence behind Chez Bruce and the Square); and Alan Yau (Yauatcha, Hakkasan) spring to mind – have never been chefs. Equally, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a good chef will make a good restaurateur.
When Gordon Ramsay says that nobody complains that Giorgio Armani doesn’t sew his own suits, he expresses a point similar to Bocuse’s. But, appealing though the analogy may sound, it is in my view misleading: the restaurant-going experience is dependent upon quality control, which is impossible to impose remotely. A suit, in contrast, can be effectively quality-controlled by inspection at head office wherever and whenever it was made.
Well, who’s right? How does the Bocuse/Ramsay I-am-everywhere-and-nowhere school of running restaurants work out in practice?
By analysing data collected over the years for our Harden’s guides, I think it is possible to arrive at an answer.
Back in 1991, when we launched our first guide, we made it our mission to determine what was happening in London’s restaurants by reference to a survey of regular restaurants-goers, and this was more than a decade before the publication of James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.
For our most recent guide, for example, more than 8,000 people took part, with some restaurants attracting several hundred reports apiece. Our chief measure is the average (mean) rating, on a one-to-five scale, of all the reports on a particular restaurant. Though we can, and do, calculate these ratings for various aspects of the restaurant-going experience (including service and ambiance), to keep it simple I’ve restricted the analysis to the food ratings. On this basis I’ve ranked the £80-plus a head restaurants in London, of which there are 33.
|According to Harden’s survey|
|1||Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley||**|
|2||Gordon Ramsay, Chelsea||***|
|5||Pied à Terre||**|
|6||Rasoi Vineet Bhatia||*|
|8||L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon||*|
|24||Galvin at Windows|
|25||Rhodes W1 Restaurant||*|
|26||Rib Room & Oyster Bar|
|27||Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s||*|
|29||Asia de Cuba|
|30||Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester|
|31||1 Lombard Street||*|
|32||Sketch, Lecture Room*||*|
|We have anticipated the renaming of Pétrus restaurant (chef Marcus Wareing) with the name it will bear from 10 September|
First conclusion? We don’t need to be distracted by any debate as to which are the best restaurants in London: to an uncanny degree, the conclusions of Michelin’s (paid) inspectors and the Harden’s (amateur) reporters cross-check.
Michelin’s top six establishments in London are to be found in our top seven. Crowds do know something.
Looking at this top-of-the-league-table, therefore, what is immediately apparent is that only two of the top 10 establishments (Gordon Ramsay, Chelsea, and l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon) are part of international celebrity-branded empires, but that seven are clearly not. Number one is a special case: though still (until September 10) technically part of the Ramsay empire, Marcus Wareing effectively declared independence long ago, and I believe that his restaurant’s eminence reflects his personal presence at the restaurant concerned. So make that eight out of 10 for the independents.
Now let’s look at the other end of the table of the top 33 haute cuisine restaurants. Oh dear! Three of the names associated with establishments at this end of the table – Ramsay, Ducasse and Gagnaire – are, respectively, the third, second and fifth most Michelin-starred chefs in the world. (Note also, incidentally, how the judgments of crowd and Michelin now diverge: Michelin seems to see particular virtues in the diffusion outposts of their super-starry chefs which are not apparent to our reporters.)
Obviously, we are talking about a small field – Harden’s 33 £80-plus a head restaurants in London – but the fact there are more super-starry chefs (three) at the bottom end of the table than at the top (two) does suggest to me that there is no positive correlation between the international celebrity of the chef involved and the quality of the food at his London operations. Indeed, I am tempted to argue that the more internationally famous the name, the worse a restaurant associated with that name is likely to be!
The obvious question is: why? My answer, too, is obvious: customers instinctively feel that the more personal an establishment is, the better it is likely to be. They would seem to be right. There is a host of possible supporting explanations. One is that, as I have mentioned above, there is no reason to expect that even the greatest of chefs have what it takes to make particularly great restaurateurs.
And even if they do achieve the transition, history suggests that one of the greatest skills for a restaurateur – as it is for the chief executive of any international enterprise employing hundreds of people – is to be realistic as to what can be achieved, and over what area. Overreach is an ever-present danger to empire-building chefs: the wider-ranging and more diverse the ambitions of the individual chef/restaurateur may be, the greater the fears that he or she may lack the business insight necessary to fulfil them.
Another possible explanation of the underperformance by these imperial outposts? To put it crudely: because they can. If it’s some sort of cult-worship that’s drawing in the punters, what is the business case, in the short term at least, of putting more resources into improving the product?
I don’t know, of course, the extent to which these findings would be the same if the exercise were replicated in, say, New York, though anecdotal evidence suggests a similar picture. But, even with this reservation in mind, I can suggest a couple of practical rules for choosing top-end restaurants, which I suspect are of universal application.
The first general rule is: big international names are for suckers. Don’t follow them in the belief that they will, ipso facto, be likely to give you better quality than the home-grown, stand-alone operations.
The second rule, however, is: if you are going to follow the names, do it properly. Don’t settle for second best.
Pay the extra, wait longer for that table, and seek out Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road, say, or Ducasse in Paris or Monte Carlo. It’s not that you’re likely to find either of the relevant gentlemen in residence but, if you visit one of the three-star flagships, you may be confident that it is an overriding objective of the businesses concerned that your meal is realised to the standards on which a whole empire’s international credibility ultimately depends. After all, for all they know, you might be from Michelin.
‘Harden’s London Restaurants 2009’ is available from ft.com/bookshop (tel: 44 (0) 870 429 5884) at the special price of £8.99 (RRP £11.99)