You don’t have to travel to London for Michelin star food! Join us on a tour of the UK’s top culinary hotspots.
The Michelin critics must have returned home a little peckish after their first visit to these shores. In fact, to judge by that 1974 edition of what was conceived as a companion for motoring tourists, they’d plainly felt little inclination to leave their car – a paltry 25 stars (all single) came the UK’s way. Nowadays, take a foodie tour of the UK and you’ll barely be out of second gear before making another stop.
The most recent list saw 162 restaurants awarded stars, with the 20 two-star restaurants among them representing a doubling at that level in a decade. We’re now running Spain and Italy surprisingly close.
The processes that led to our gastronomically barren mid 20th-century landscape are still debated. Industrialisation and urbanisation, lengthy rationing during and after the World Wars, and even the demise of the aristocracy (making their kitchen staffs’ knowledge redundant) have been blamed. It was a long time coming, but we’re getting over this succession of blows.
Even if we’re not yet true Michelin rivals to France or Germany, we attract more than our fair share of top chefs from abroad thanks to the diversity of our culinary culture. That’s one characteristic of the scene that we have over our continental neighbours, and it’s not a fad, because foreign flavours laid the groundwork for where we are today. Now we’re proud enough of our chefs and restaurants that Michelin mystique is just about the only scrap left of our inferiority complex around the French.
After years of aping their sophisticated approach (which some say evolved to mask inferior ingredients), British chefs are proud to be just that, and what we appear to have settled on is simplicity and rejoicing in the ingredient. We have graduated from pork scratchings to pork belly. This is now ‘Modern British’.
Modern British’ recalls wise, peasant cooking born of traditions honed down the years. It’s about making an ingredient sing, not submit. What’s fascinating is that we ‘relearnt’ the simple ways with food not through a study of our own traditions, but through those of others. The ‘Modern British’ of today owes a debt to the pared-back Mediterranean lessons of Elizabeth David. Her cookbooks from 1950 onwards chimed with the mind sets of Brits returning from the first wave of package holidays.
Even if some would have avoided ‘foreign muck’, others will have been reminded of something elemental by unadorned dishes of Italian, Spanish or Corsican food, where a few ingredients came together to form something much more than the sum of their parts.
Consider Fergus Henderson’s ‘nose-to-tail eating’ – his championing of gutsy cuts is the ultimate foregrounding of the ingredient. The 2012 award of a star to Henderson’s St John Hotel (no longer part of the St John group), backing up the 2009 star bestowed on his Clerkenwell restaurant represents the coming-of-age of this philosophy. In the UK, this gutsy, embracethe-entire-animal approach (with the assumption that we are no longer at ignorant arm’s length from our ingredients) is evidenced in everything from the ubiquity of pork belly to the current profusion of chicken skin.
Also, Henderson’s is the trend for restaurant menus, describing dishes as a simple list of ingredients (pigeon & beetroot, salsify, leeks & watercress) – you can trust us now, it says. Another chef was a trailblazer for a different, but related kind of simplicity, and by moving away from the kitchens as gastronomic laboratories of London to Padstow in Cornwall, Rick Stein also embraced regionality and seasonality: two factors that are the darlings of UK foodies to this day, and of David back in the 1950s and ’60s.
If the modern scene is all about re-forging that line in our imaginations that runs from terroir to plate, and about foregrounding and showcasing the inherent qualities of the ingredient, then Stein’s work has been round-breaking. Or perhaps ‘sea-breaking’ – for it was his boat-to-plate approach that seemed electrifyingly fresh and vital at the time. Really, though, it was hunter-gatherer without the mess. Of course, if you order the tasting menu, you don’t pay peasant prices. But there are now four Stein venues at different price points in the little town; at his takeaway, fish & chips starts at £7.25. Just as the UK was open to the flavours of its immigrant community, Stein’s wide-ranging travels have seen international flavours allied to the Cornish fish. The result is quay-fresh ingredients cooked either with classic treatments, or in international recipes.
It’s possible to make your way through the menu by eating dishes as unadorned and bracing as a sea dip. Stein’s move also showed that top chefs could set up away from London and not suffer a slow death by indifference. The service you receive at Stein’s encapsulates why – casual, friendly staff are charged with evoking a summer holiday feel, a world away from the capital and its hellish kitchens.
And so to Cornwall they have come, adding a little bells-and-whistles flair that has drawn Michelin. Nathan Outlaw kept his pair of stars in the 2013 list; Driftwood retained its lone-star status; Paul Ainsworth’s No.6 – a Padstow neighbour to Stein – was awarded one. “Making a splash in London would have cost millions,” he says. “But with Rick Stein here in Cornwall for 20 years there was a good customer base of people wanting fantastic food. As much as people would like to think there’s some sort of rivalry, my goal was to complement what Rick Stein had made up in Padstow, not to compete.”
A great base of discerning foodies in Cornwall is drawing great chefs like Paul Ainsworth. His sea bass demonstrates how the ingredient is king.
There are clued-up foodies lurking everywhere in the UK now, and the expanding constellation of starred restaurants is catering for them. In England they reach north to south from Ainsworth’s No.6 up to the Raby Hunt Restaurant near Darlington, where chef, James Close – whose lack of training has made his starring a surprise to some – creates menus using local meat and fish that focus on simple flavours.
Midway between them, in-the-know gastronomes were delighted by the award of a star to Mark Poynton at the Alimentum restaurant in Cambridge, where he allies slow-cooking methods to serious flair – meaning he may well not stop at one.
Poynton joined Alimentum from two-starred Midsummer House, also in Cambridge, and the only two-star restaurant in East Anglia.
Another well-loved chef is Michael Wignall at The Latymer in Surrey, who came here having cut his teeth further north – nowadays, it’s not all London-generated.
Another who has graduated to the two-star realm is Simon Rogan at L’Enclume in Cumbria, where the surroundings alone are worth the trip with produce grown on six acres of the restaurant’s own land.
Rogan’s consultant chef role at The French restaurant in Manchester, one of those honoured in that 1974 guide but starless for decades since, could soon bring the city its first Michelin star in almost 40 years.
Thanks to Sat Bains, Nottingham has held two stars since the 2012 list, though many felt it should have received this status much earlier.
But it’s another two-star venue that is most telling about the state of the industry. As well as a raft of new one-star pubs (including Blumenthal’s Hinds Head), the Hand & Flowers in Marlow retained its two stars in the 2013 list – unparalleled for a pub. “We still regard it as a pub,” says chef/owner Tom Kerridge. “I
n fact, we’re expanding by a third to allow more drinking space. I want to encourage an interest in real ales and gins.” Does he think a pub could attain three stars? “
The best chefs in this country cook food that they like. It’s with their heart and soul – all about flavour profile: beef should taste of beef. If you look at the best Michelin restaurants in France, they’re actually simple. They do the perfect butter sauce or the perfect fillet of beef. And the three-star places in Tokyo are all about cleanliness and simplicity. I don’t see any reason why someone couldn’t achieve that in a pub.” Maybe Kerridge will, and while he credits his debt to the French, what could be more British – both ancient and modern – than locally sourced ingredients served within the rough timber-framed walls of the Hand & Flowers?