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The Michelin inspector – an interview with Derek Bulmer

The Michelin inspector – an interview with Derek Bulmer

by Great British Chefs 16 September 2015

Michelin inspector for more than three decades, nobody knows more about the fine dining restaurant scene in Britain than Derek Bulmer. We caught up with him to find out more about life as a restaurant reviewer-turned-consultant.

Derek Bulmer was personnel manager at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair when he spotted an advert for a hotel inspector at Michelin. A life of travelling and eating out appealed to him so he applied thinking that he might do the job for two or three years – thirty-three years later, ten of which were spent as editor of the guide, he retired but as we discovered, he shows no sign of slowing down.

Over the thirty-three years that you were a Michelin inspector, did you ever get bored of eating out?

No! There were, obviously, isolated incidents when I had a particularly busy week so on the odd day I was feeling a bit full and thought I’d rather not be eating out today but I tried to arrange it so that when I was eating out twice a day which I normally did when I travelled, I would eat a lighter lunch and a more serious dinner. It was thirty-three years in total that I did the job, the last thirteen as the editor, during which time I was probably eating out in higher quality restaurants. In the early days, I would have gone anywhere looking for places to put in the guide. Back in the 1970s, it was pretty dire and it was a struggle to find anywhere that was recommendable. Then things took off in the 80s and improved a lot and, as I got more senior, I was eating in the top places much more often so the quality of the meals improved but no, I never got fed up of it. And I’m still not now!

What advice would you give to a chef opening a restaurant today?

I would say one of the most important things is make sure you get a good business partner who can look after everything else apart from the cooking. Too many times, when I was in the job, I saw very talented cooks who were working in big hotels with big support services behind them, allowing them to nurture their talent and be creative in the kitchen. I saw them leave thinking they could do it for themselves and then come unstuck often because they had to worry about the VAT, paying the wages, do I need a work permit for this guy . . . they got distracted and often the cooking suffered. So I would say, if you’re after Michelin stars, make sure you’ve got someone who can look after the other things to allow you to concentrate on what you do best.

This might depend on your mood or the season, but do you have a preference for fine dining or good pub grub?

I like them both. It depends so much on the occasion, if it’s a celebration or a casual night out. I do have a preference for a lack of formality in restaurants but fine dining has gone that way anyway. The sort of restaurants I remember thirty years ago could be a bit stiff and starchy and you could feel a little uncomfortable; they were places you had to whisper in. That seems to be dying out and fine dining has got more relaxed and I think that’s a great thing. I published a pub guide at Michelin, and of course I love pubs too.

Is there really such a thing as anonymity for Michelin inspectors?

For me personally it became more and more difficult the longer I stayed. I was anonymous for many years as a normal inspector, travelling around the British Isles, rotating areas so you were never back in the same county again. So it wasn’t a problem then but it was a problem when I became the editor because everyone wanted to do interviews and take photographs so it was much harder. Having said that, I never found that it made much difference whether I was known or I wasn’t known. When you think about it, what could they do? You’ve booked in a false name so the first moment they recognise you is when you arrive. They can’t go out and buy different ingredients they don’t already have in their kitchen. They can’t learn to cook a dish that isn’t already in their repertoire. All they can do is do the best they can and give the best service. It’s easy to pick out if you are getting special attention on the service side of things and you take that into account but they can’t suddenly turn it on with the food just because they know it’s you. So I never found that it made much difference. Sometimes, I found that it was actually detrimental to restaurants. They got all nervous and made mistakes that they wouldn’t have made for a normal customer.

Did anyone ever try to bribe you?

Well you’d think so wouldn’t you? In thirty-three years, you’d think that someone would have come up with a brown envelope and said, ‘Can you get me a star, Derek?’ but it never happened once. The most I ever got was when people said to me, once I’d paid the bill – you never introduce yourself as an inspector before you’ve paid – they would say, ‘Why don’t you come back with your wife?’. That’s the nearest I ever got to being bribed – come back for a free meal. I never went back for a free meal but there was never a brown envelope with money in, no.

Would you say there is a Michelin style of food?

In my day, certainly in the earlier days, restaurants tended to be more similar in style. I’ve notice in my latter years, and certainly in the five years since I left, everything’s changing; all the barriers are coming down and fine dining can be casual now and stars can be given to casual fine dining restaurants which is great. I did it with the pubs; I introduced stars into pubs and said, look these are the best pubs. The food is good, they may not have the same surroundings, but the food is good. It’s brilliant to see that carrying on. I was so happy just after I retired to see Tom Kerridge get a second star in a pub. Brilliant! It just shows you that things are moving in the right direction.

How do you explain the difference between the number of stars in the UK and the number of stars in France?

I was often asked this as the editor of the guide, so I did a study. I’m going back a decade now. And when I analysed it, it was purely the proportion of what existed in terms of numbers of restaurants. They had ten times more stars because they had ten times more restaurants. It was as straightforward as that. I guess we’re catching up a bit, in terms of numbers and in terms of percentages now that the pubs have been thrown into the equation. There was such a lack of restaurants when I started. Back in the seventies, you would go to serious towns and they wouldn’t have anything of note whereas in France, if you drove round it, every village had a little bistro in it. They just had so many more.

Was there a natural progression into consultancy?

Yes. I haven’t found it very different really. Consultancy is reviewing plus feedback and the only thing I didn’t do so much of was the feedback at Michelin. Most of the work is exactly the same; I go and review the restaurants, I write a similar report. The difference is now I sit down with the chefs and let them read it and talk to them about it and make suggestions on how they can improve. And that’s the new bit I didn’t have before. And I actually feel that that is quite liberating.

Do you have any favourite foodie destinations in the UK and abroad?

I live in East Sussex down on the south coast of England, it’s not a gastronomic part of the country, I’ll be honest with you, but I’ve got a little favourite restaurant, Wingrove House at Alfriston which is down the road from where I live and is very nice. If I was to come to London, I’m a fan of the Wolesey, J. Sheekey’s, the Ivy, anything that Jason Atherton opens, those types of restaurants where I’m happy with the balance between the quality of the food and the ambience. They would be my favourites. A destination outside London, I would have to say New York, for the same reason that London is such a great gastronomic capital, the diversity. People always say but Paris or Tokyo have so many more stars. Maybe they have but they’re all French, they’re all Japanese, they haven’t got the diversity that we’ve got here. And that’s the reason I like New York because it’s got that same diverse melting pot feel that London’s got. Personally I think they’re the two most interesting cities to eat in today.

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The Michelin inspector – an interview with Derek Bulmer


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