British and Irish food has come a long way. The home of wholesome and hearty full-cooked breakfasts and Sunday roasts now boasts Michelin-star restaurants, exciting gastropubs and dynamic street food to rival anywhere in Europe. And according to some of Britain’s top chefs, it’s getting better and better.
In the Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland 2017, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck regained its three stars after a year’s sojourn in Melbourne. It joins the Waterside Inn, Gordon Ramsay, and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester as the region’s only restaurants to be awarded Michelin’s top rating.
The importance of one-star restaurants
Yet there were 18 new restaurants awarded one star, and legendary French chef Michel Roux Snr believes that’s great news for British and Irish food. “For me as a consumer, the life of a country’s restaurant scene is the one-star restaurant,” he said. “I’m not saying you don’t need two and three star places, but I like to eat in one-star restaurants that have different backgrounds and different flavours. It could be classic French, or Indian food, or whatever.”
Roux revolutionised the British restaurant scene almost half a century ago, when along with his brother Albert he opened Le Gavroche in London. For him, diversity is the key to a vibrant food offering. “I think it’s extremely important because we don’t want the boring classic French only. The world is moving, but it’s not only a few classic countries who are leading.” Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli first came to work in London some 30 years ago. He opened Locando Locatelli in 2002, and believes London’s global-city status is an important factor in the development of its food.
“Definitely over the last 10 years it’s become much more vibrant with so many different influences coming from all over the world,” he says. “Paris is fantastic, but only for haute cuisine. I think London is much more complete as a scenery.”
It's Not just London
But it’s not just in London where this restaurant renaissance is taking place. James Close’s Raby Hunt restaurant in Darlington was awarded two Michelin stars this year, and some 10 restaurants across the UK and Ireland received one star, including James Sommerin in Penarth, Wales, and Heron & Grey in Dublin.
“I’ve been taking my daughter to university in Bristol and it’s really fantastic food there,” said Locatelli. “One of the best pizzas I had this year was in Bristol — and I’ve been to Naples twice!”
Tom Kerridge, whose The Hand and Flowers pub in Buckinghamshire became the first to win two Michelin stars in 2011, is equally enthusiastic about food in Britain’s regions. “You can travel all over the country now and get some great food. One-star cooking is phenomenal food and it goes across the board. There are Indian restaurants, pubs, and then The Ritz, so it’s such a diverse selection. It’s letting the rest of the world know that there is some really good food here.”
Birmingham is the UK city region with the most Michelin star restaurants outside London, and Peel’s at Hampton Manor is the latest addition to its growing list. Peel’s Head Chef Rob Palmer believes simplicity and a more casual approach to dining is changing the food landscape in Britain. “Things aren’t as formal, but there’s still that drive, consistency and quality,” he said. “My food is about three flavours on a plate, and making those three flavours amazing.”
According to Giorgio Locatelli, simplicity can sometimes be the essence of a restaurant’s appeal. “At one time we had menus with 20-25 dishes, now you go to successful places and they do just one thing. That’s really refreshing, it lifts the standard and cuts the costs.”
Michelin Guide editor Rebecca Burr has seen trends come and go, but she is adamant less formality doesn’t equate to a decline in standards. “Dining as a whole has changed, and we’re just reflecting what’s going on in the industry,” she said. “Our philosophy has always been about good food, but everybody changes. We go out to eat in jeans now.”
Barriers are coming down and fine dining is becoming more democratic, not just in the UK and Ireland, but all over the world. In July, the Singapore Michelin guide awarded stars to two street food vendors. Would the UK guide ever follow suit? “Food trucks are just so temporary. They move on or they go to a different pitch, so I’m not sure we’re at that stage,” said Burr. “I think the comparison we could have with Singapore could be the pubs. And we started awarding stars to pubs a long time ago.”