insight - Derek Bulmer
Written by Mike MacEacheran
Occupation - Michelin Inspector
In 1900 the Michelin brothers André and édouard changed the face of gourmet cuisine forever. The age of mobility was upon them and as pioneers of the tyre trade they wanted to make travelling more gratifying.
In a bid to woo their affluent motoring clients, the brothers kept a list of their favourite restaurants and hotels across France and turned their notes and scribbles into a free guidebook for chauffeurs and motorists. The celebrated Michelin Guide was born.
?In truth, though, it is a story more in keeping with forks in the road rather than polished silver service forks, Derek Bulmer, editor of the Michelin Guide to Great Britain and Ireland, still drives tirelessly – albeit on tyres! – thousands of kilometres every year in search of culinary heaven – or hell. After all, for millions of chefs and foodies, the Michelin Guide is still the established arbiter of gastronomic fashion.
?“I’m very passionate about food but I have to be because I am constantly eating out,” says Bulmer. “Inspectors need to be motivated to work on their own and be very observant – an appreciation for the finer side of life makes my job much easier. This really is my dream job.” Having been a Michelin critic for 33 years, Bulmer certainly knows his way around a 5-star kitchen.
?As one of the guide’s infamous anonymous critics, Bulmer eats in more than 220 restaurants every year across the globe. Some of his colleagues even eat in up to nine haute cuisine restaurants each week; it’s a full-time job filled with degustation, amuse bouches, appetisers, palate cleansers, la carte mains, and a smorgasbord of desserts.
Though Bulmer suppresses the need for a fake moustache and spectacles, he discreetly flits to New York, Paris, and Tokyo for some of the world’s most refined dining experiences. Be it eating pickled Japanese sea-slugs and horseradish chocolates or grazing on Sardinian fregola sarda (toasted breadcrumb-like pasta) with grated botargo (cured fish roe), the critic is never happier than when he’s back in the UK seeking out new flavours and tastes.
“We don’t have a really strong national gastronomy in the same way that the French or the Italians do,” explains the notoriously shy critic. “What we have instead is we have imported all these fabulous cuisines, so in Britain and Ireland there is a greater diversity and variety; London has more to offer than anywhere else, with the exception of New York.” Bulmer singles out Cornwall and the West Country, Ludlow in Shropshire, and Leith in Edinburgh – all with impressive four Michelin-starred eateries – as being worthy of special mention as the up-and-coming haute cuisine centres of the British and Irish dining scenes. It is a geographical spread worthy of any picnic.
?“We have this unusual system where a small town like Ludlow, population 10,000, has four Michelin-star restaurants, but a huge city like Birmingham with a population of over one million has none,” he explains. “Good food and great chefs seem to have a huge influence over one another, where it becomes an inspiration. London chefs, on the other hand, are so dominant; there are 140 Michelin-starred restaurants in Great Britain and Ireland and 50 of these are in London.
“This is more than a third, which probably wouldn’t be true for any other commercial industry.”?With the power to dispense and take away the heralded Michelin star from a chef or restaurant – famed chefs Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, and Michel Roux have all endured lengthy critiques – it is a position that Bulmer takes very seriously. The success of the Red Guide covers 23 countries ranging from the USA, across Europe, to China and Japan – and last year more than 1.2 million copies of the guide were sold in approximately 100 countries. A bad review can ruin a restaurant, while the awarding of a hallowed star can thrust a chef into the celebrity spotlight. So what does Bulmer look for when awarding a sought-after Michelin star?
?“I’m working for my readers and not for the food industry,” he insists. “I need to be honest with them so I take careful consideration over every review. The most important thing I look for is consistency – when I recommend a restaurant with three stars I would hope that it always provides the same service and excellence for every customer. Then I look for skill in preparation and product. I need to judge the flavour, the combination of flavours, and the level of a chef’s creativity. Are they doing something different to everybody else?”
?Before awarding a new star to a chef or increasing a restaurant’s Michelin rating, Bulmer and his team must then complete several exhaustive reviews and visits. On average he will eat at a restaurant 12 times, choosing from a variety of la carte, lunch, and degustation menus before making a decision. And above all, he has to ensure his anonymity remains intact. “Chefs get nervous and perform worse when they know or guess who I am, so it’s crucial I book under a pseudonym,” he adds. “The higher up the scale to three stars I go, I then look at bringing in critics from other countries for second and third opinions, which gives the review more scrutiny and status.”
However, despite Michelin’s rigorous epicurean evaluations, it is not a profession without its detractors. Recently criticised by a number of respected chefs – in particular French maestro Jo?l Robuchon, the most vitriolic Michelin cynic (yet ironically the chef with the most stars) – Michelin Guide inspectors are doing their utmost to dispel notions of elitism. Observing a trend over the past few years towards informality and flexibility in consumer dining, Bulmer has been keen to recognise the gastro-pub phenomenon. “At the lower level of the Michelin scale we now have ten pubs in the UK with one Michelin star,” he adds.
“Anything that makes food more accessible and promotes gastronomy is a good thing.”?Despite his globetrotting lifestyle and ability to secure reservations at the world’s best hotels and restaurants, the Michelin inspector admits his lifestyle is not one that would appeal to everyone. “I lead a very nomadic life, which can get lonely at times,” he concludes. “It might seem very glamorous but I travel a great deal and sometimes the loneliness of the job is hard. Even my family don’t know where I am going to next.” At least he knows he’s going to get fed well.
Top 3-2-1 tables
The Dorchester, London, UK
?Classic dishes: Shrimp and lobster ravioli with spicy ginger consommé; braised halibut ‘Florentine’ style with sautéed shrimps and Arbois wine sauce; lime soufflé with white cheese; and Sichuan pepper sorbet.?
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Dublin, Ireland
?Classic dishes: Red king crab cannelloni with pineapple, pickled ginger, baby herbs, and wasabi cr?me fraiche; fillet of Irish beef and roast foie gras with Madeira and truffle jus; squab pigeon from Touraine with sauce soubise, ‘Chou Farci’, dragée almonds, and elderflower jus.?
21212, Edinburgh, UK
?Classic dishes: Chinese-style fish with warm olive oil, poached baby turbot, saffron pancake, bean sprouts, aubergine, plum and yoghurt purée; 21212 lamb curry with assiette of best end braised flank, kebab, merguez sausage, and banana and cucumber confit; layered pears and white chocolate with ginger sponge, pistachios, yoghurt, and cottage cheese.
LET THEM EAT CAKE
Recession dining was in vogue last year – but Michelin ensured it kept in shape despite the reverse culinary trend. Its guide Les Bonnes Petites Tables, focusing on Bib Gourmand-awarded restaurants – a sure-fire sign of value for money and credit crunch bite – capitalised on a renewed appetite for cheap eats. This year, its new guide for France continued this feast-or-famine trend by including more than 100 newly designated Bib Gourmand restaurants. Marie Antoinette would be pleased.