The missing Brighton Michelin Star, by Tom Flint
By Tom Flint,
The Michelin Guide has been around for more than a century, representing the gold standard in culinary excellence. It started as a means to boost car sales, and thus tire sales, in France but quickly grew in popularity due to its extensive restaurant listings and reviews. Initially the guide only covered France, and some still believe it to be overly focussed on its homeland, before being rolled out across the World. A single star system was introduced in 1926, before being expanded to three stars in 1931 and this remains the format to this day. The acquisition of a Michelin star remains the highest accolade that any restaurant can be awarded.
For a city to be considered a culinary destination many will look at how many Michelin starred restaurants it has. Major cities such as London, Paris and Tokyo contain large numbers of starred restaurants, as you would expect, but there are others that might come as more of a surprise; Birmingham has five restaurants who have been awarded one star for example.
With such an exciting local food scene, and one that is gaining in reputation, it comes as a surprised to some that Brighton does not currently have a Michelin starred venue.
This is an interesting viewpoint and one that I have heard discussed many times. Often it is those on the fringes who comment, so we thought it would be interesting to ask the people who could actually make it happen what they think.
Talking to the chefs
I asked some of Brighton’s top chefs their thoughts on why the city is yet to claim a star and what it might take for one of our restaurants to achieve this accolade. I also asked them what they felt about the Michelin system in general and whether it was more important to them to achieve recognition than to focus on their own personal goals and ethos.
Isaac Bartlett-Copeland – Head chef, Isaac At.
Isaac Bartlett-Copeland is one of Brighton’s most exciting chefs. His Sussex fine dining experience, Isaac At, in Gloucester Street has been one of the dining highlights of the past year and received much critical acclaim.
Isaac started his career at the age of 16 working in fine dining and luxury hotel restaurants in Sussex. Since completing his catering qualifications he worked in Michelin starred establishments in London before returning to Brighton.
He created Isaac At as a vessel for his passion for seasonal Sussex produce and clean natural dishes made with innovative and creative techniques. The restaurant re-launched in 2016 as a full fine dining experience offering a choice of set menu options. His butternut squash dish was one of my favourites of last year and it should be an interesting year for Isaac and his team in 2017.
On the Brighton scene and whether he believes it is ready for a Michelin Star
“I don’t think it’s really to do with Brighton having a star or not, because even though the food scene is really exploding at the moment, because it’s an exciting place to be with food, it doesn’t mean that one individual restaurant has managed to get to that standard yet. Maybe they haven’t found a restaurant that meets what they want. But I do feel like it will happen pretty soon.
Restaurants in Brighton don’t really follow the rules, we all kind of do our own thing and there’s no pre-conception of what food should be.
People still don’t quite understand how much work goes into what we do as restaurants, especially when you’re in a fine dining restaurant with the level of service included. There’s such a huge amount of time and work that goes into getting everything right, let alone perfect, which maybe they aren’t aware of.”
“Even if I didn’t know that some of the places I’ve eaten at had a star, I would think they should have one. I was trying to work out how many Michelin star restaurants I’ve eaten in the other day and it’s about 27. I’m lucky enough to have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. I really do understand why some restaurants have them because it’s absolutely immaculate every single time. Everything is absolutely perfect. They are so consistent across all aspects of their restaurant.
Michelin are in touch with the new breed of restaurants, but I don’t think that the restaurants are consistent enough to get to that standard and I don’t think Michelin take anything else into account, in terms of whether it’s an exciting place or so on. I think they take into consideration whether it’s a fantastic restaurant for every single customer, every single service, every single day. That’s what gets you that kind of recognition.
At the end of the day, the customers are who we’re trying to please, so if all the customers are happy, that’s where we want to be. The vision of what we’re wanting to do at the moment – creating a restaurant that really reflects the Sussex coastline and focusing on all the really good local ingredients around here – that is what we’re going for really. If accolades come along the way, then that’s a great bonus, but it’s not what our main focus is at the moment.”
Dan Kenny – Co-Founder and head chef of The Set, at The Artists Residence in Hove
Dan Kenny, alongside co-founder Semone Bonner, opened The Set in March 2015 following a series of successful pop ups in the city. Each brought with them plenty of experience having been head chefs for the Gingerman Restaurant Group. Their aim was to create a flagship restaurant for the city, with its signature set menu style and innovative take on classic dishes and playful interpretations of childhood favourites.
Since opening, The Set, has become one of Brighton’s most critically acclaimed restaurants gaining national recognition. Situated within The Artists Residence hotel and with the adjoining Set Café and Cocktail Shack, it is a real destination venue. The Set could be considered Brighton’s most experimental dining experience, and one that continues to excite and push the culinary boundaries.
Photo credit: The Argus
On Brighton and its potential for a star
“The quality of restaurants hasn’t been good enough, but now it seems to be moving forward. There’s lots of variety and restaurants are being more creative and unique with their menus. I think it would be beneficial to the restaurant scene as a whole, and would drive Brighton’s economy forward. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a star or two knocking about in the next 2/3 years.
Having a happy and progressive restaurant is our main goal. I want staff and customers to enjoy The Set for what it is. Staying true to your goals and ambitions, and constantly trying to improve yourself as a chef, are what’s most important to me. I think accolades should be appreciated if they come along but not chased.”
Ben McKeller – Head chef and co-owner of the Gingerman Group of restaurants
The Ginger Chef, otherwise known as Ben Mckellar, is Owner and Head Chef of Sussex’s award-winning restaurant group, The Gingerman Restaurants.
Ben’s career, more than 15 years strong, flourished in some of the most prestigious, award-winning restaurants across 3 countries. Following training at Brighton City College, Ben secured several roles in France, mastering the techniques of French regional cooking in Michelin Star restaurants. Working alongside celebrity chef John Burton-Race, Ben developed his fervent passion for sourcing local ingredients to develop full-flavoured, beautifully presented, dishes.
Following time in New York Ben returned to Brighton to combine his exceptional culinary skills and industry knowledge to launch the first of his own eateries, with wife and business partner Pamela McKellar, and began the trademark Gingerman Restaurant Group in 1998.
On Brighton and Michelin
“Brighton used to have a Michelin starred restaurant in the late seventies in Kemptown called Le Francais at the old 1 Paston Place site but that closed in the early eighties. I think Brighton hasn’t had one since then because we are much keener on less highbrow establishments that Michelin has traditionally favoured.
The great thing about the Brighton scene is the sheer choice of quality restaurants covering many styles of food. If you add artisan bakers, drinks producers and growers to the mix, the future really is exciting.
I do not think it would be a bad thing [if Brighton had a Michelin starred restaurant] as most truly gastronomic cities have starred restaurants; but I think chefs should go out to create a great restaurant first and then worry about accolades and awards later. I think The Little Fish Market is close to getting a star; other restaurants have the talent but may have to change their style to be successful. With Matt Gillan and Steven Edwards both set to open soon in the City, a star cannot be too far away.”
On what it takes to achieve a star
“A chef should cook for their customers first, second and third and worry about everything else afterwards. As ex three star chef Pierre Koffmann said recently “a full restaurant is more important than a Michelin star”. Chefs who set out to impress Michelin may well close before their dream is realised.
I do not think you can compromise quality or service in order to get a star but you may well have to limit the amount of tables you have or limit the amount of customers you serve. Modern Michelin starred restaurants tend to compromise on the choice the customer is offered to achieve consistency.
It is interesting to me that for every Michelin Starred chef that has been influential in the British food movement there are lots of others who do not seem to get the headlines. To me the most exciting restaurants of the last few years in London will not get a star, think Pitt Cue, Meat Liquor, Bao, Hoppers, Quality Chop House, Hawksmoor, to name only a hand full.”
Michael Bremner – Head chef and owner of 64 Degrees
Few chefs have done as much for the city of Brighton as Michael Bremner. 2016 was a huge year for the Scottish born chef, who represented his native country on TV’s The Great British Menu scoring a perfect 10 for his “Message to the Lode Star” fish dish. His restaurant, 64 Degrees, came 16th in the National Restaurant Awards continues to hold a bib gourmand and two AA rosettes.
Michael has worked in numerous restaurants both in the UK and further afield. He has held positions in London, Melbourne, Sydney and Canada where he worked in the kitchen at the Pan Pacific Hotel, Whistler; a venue that at the time was awarded with the prestigious title of No. 1 Resort in the world by Conde Naste Traveller.
After returning to Brighton he spent five years as head chef at the highly regarded Due South before a brief stint at Food for Friends. He opened 64 Degrees in October 2013 and has not looked back. Widely regarded as Brighton’s top dining experience, Michael has created one of the country’s most exciting and engaging restaurant experiences.
On Brighton restaurants and why there is not currently a Michelin Star
“Honestly, I feel it’s a mixture of things. Firstly, the customer: the words ‘value for money’ are important to diners, but they don’t think about costs of produce, staff, rent, taxes and bills etc. – they want 3 courses for less than £12.50 or an all you can eat buffet for £9.99. You could spend more in KFC.
Then you have the owners that want to make as much money as they can and have no thought to the staff working conditions. I’ve worked in Brighton now on and off for 15 years and I really don’t think any restaurant really wanted a star.
Apart from the Gingerman, who has been at the top of the list in Brighton since it opened, the food has only really gone up in the rest of the city in the last 5 years and I truly feel that it is an exciting time for Brighton.
What’s amazing for me is the quality and the variety of restaurants, there really is something for everyone. And I feel that there are a few great restaurants that are pushing themselves to improve, which will only bring great things to Brighton.”
On Michelin star in Brighton
“I think it would be beneficial, both to the food scene and to the city as a whole. Brighton has a certain identity as a fun place to be and is quite unique – there’s always a lot of diverse, cultural stuff going on, so to add to this with quality food offerings can only be a good thing. I would hope that Brighton would get a star sooner rather than later.
It’s a tough one because restaurant styles and concepts are constantly evolving, so it must be tough in that sense for Michelin to keep up. There are a lot of restaurants with a star who have held it for a long time and have stuck to that classical approach. On the flip side, we’re seeing more and more restaurants who have taken a more modern approach getting one.
What this shows to me is that it’s not the concept that gets you the recognition, but the quality. The most important thing to me in my role is my team, then the customer; without these two things you will have nothing. There is no point having a star if you are not busy enough to pay the bills. If these fall in line then that’s where the recognition comes from. You always should stay true to your beliefs.”
Matt Gillan – Head chef Pike and Pine due to open in early 2017. Former head chef of Michelin starred, The Pass at South Lodge
Matt Gillan is a chef who knows what it is like to hold a star, having done so whilst head chef at The Pass restaurant at South Lodge. Following this success Matt then gained national recognition through his appearance’s on Great British Menu, having a dish presented at the final banquet.
Since leaving The Pass in April 2016 Matt has been focussing on his own dining concept. Following a number of successful pop ups in Brighton he has recently announced that he will be opening his own restaurant, Pike and Pine, on the Red Rooster site on St James Street.
Matt trained under some of the UK’s top chefs, such as Daniel Clifford, Gordon Ramsey and John Campbell, before taking up his position at South Lodge in 2006. He took control of The Pass in 2008 gaining his star in 2011 along with 4 AA rosettes and a 7/10 in the Good Food Guide.
“Brighton had a Michelin star many years ago. Since then, I think Brighton has changed a bit. Michelin was very much focused on formal restaurants, but Brighton is somewhere that doesn’t conform. It doesn’t want to be formal. Anything that worked well elsewhere doesn’t seem to do as well in Brighton. The success of a restaurant lies in the repeat custom. If a restaurant is only serving food at a price to tick a certain box it won’t work, and without longevity Michelin won’t award a star.
Brighton is interesting at the moment because there is the sense that something is bubbling just under the surface. A few restaurants have gained national recognition and that’s exciting. It’s the beginning of the food movement. The thing I love about the Brighton scene is that everyone talks to each other. No one is looking to step on each other’s toes. The top end all have a different offer, ethos and personality and this works really well in helping to support each other and share what’s working and what’s not. There’s no egos, it’s all passion and looking to make the city and destination for a dining experience.
If one restaurant were to be awarded a star, I don’t think it will impact Brighton at all. It would be beneficial locally, and specifically to that business, but it won’t drive hordes of people to the city. If a number of establishments were awarded the accolade that would be different. That is a movement, a collaboration of minds working together to make Brighton a food destination. I believe it is happening.”
On gaining a Star
“For me I had a goal to achieve a Michelin Star. I placed myself in those types of establishments and learnt as much as I could. That was the natural goal. The goal was never for National recognition; it was more to achieve one of the most amazing benchmarks within our industry.
As you move through the ranks and your career you learn more of Michelin; especially when they are coming to inspect your food. What they tell you is, stay true to yourself. They go hand in hand and if you want recognition, stay true to your ethos. If you look at all the 2/3 star restaurants around the world, they are all individual, propelled by doing something unique and constantly wanting to better it. Not because of the next accolade, but because they are obsessed with what they do and how they do it.
If you try copying others at that level, you’ll certainly get recognition, but not for the right reasons.”
“I believe that all industries should have something to strive towards and I absolutely believe Michelin is good for the industry. It may be an ego thing but how do you compare yourself to other restaurants? What would be the reason to better yourself and your offer? And if these guides weren’t around, how would you know you were getting better. What would be the reason to travel to the restaurant or area if you didn’t know how good it is?
The guides also help with recruitment (to a point) and opens up so many avenues. It’s not for everyone, diner or chef, but the guides do have their place.
Michelin are constantly looking at everything. The abundance of social media means they can hear the noise as it is happening. The addition of pubs being awarded stars shows that they aren’t still focused on the traditional style. The range of restaurants at one star backs up the variety that Michelin look to include in the guide.”