Michelin stars - difficult to get, difficult to keep

Ireland's elite chefs had stars in their eyes this week with the publication of the annual Michelin Hotel and Restaurant Guide…

Ireland's elite chefs had stars in their eyes this week with the publication of the annual Michelin Hotel and Restaurant Guide. In Irish terms, the biggest story to emerge from this year's editions is the deletion of the star held by the restaurant at the Park Hotel in Kenmare, Co Kerry.

Apart from a two-year period in the late 1980s, the restaurant has had a star since 1983. Mr John Brennan, the Park's general manager, admits: "We expected to lose it - the Michelin star is awarded to the kitchen and when our head chef left last year, the continuity was broken."

In the past, he says, the restaurant had promoted a sous chef whenever a head chef left and it had managed most years to retain its star status. The Michelin is "the finest guide on the shelf", adding that it is precisely because the Park has lost its star that the guide should be seen to be so good.

Most restaurateurs agree it is better to have had a star and lost it than never to have had one. Mr Michael Fitzgerald, the owner of The Commons on St Stephen's Green, Dublin, which lost its star a year ago, is philosophical.


"We are disappointed this year that we didn't achieve it but it is not the be all and end all . . . although we do miss having the status. On the financial end, having a star didn't make any difference but it gives a great sense of pride within the team. The chefs believe passionately in it."

A spokesman for the Michelin guide - it is not known for being the most forthcoming with information about the rating process - confirmed that a change of personnel can diminish a restaurant's star quality.

"If there is a change in the head chef, the new chef must show that he can sustain the same standard over a certain period but it is possible to retain the star even with a new chef. It just comes down, in the end, to the quality of the food on the plate."

The loss of stars is understood better within the industry than among the public who, says Mr Kevin Thornton, head chef and owner of the one-star Thornton's overlooking the canal at Portobello, Dublin, often believe "a place must be terrible because it lost a star".

"The public put more emphasis on it than anyone else, and it has caused serious damage to some restaurants. People stop going to places that have lost stars, in the same way the public see some wally on TV and flock to his restaurant."

He is in no doubt that the awards are the Oscars of the kitchen but feels it is important not to be consumed by blind ambition for Michelin accolades. "We don't work for Michelin, we work for ourselves and if we get a star, it's a bonus."

He says confidently it is only a matter of time before his restaurant is awarded two stars, "but it is not my main ambition in life".

The absence of transparent, formal criteria for the awarding of stars and the anonymous, often monthly, restaurant visits by highly trained Michelin inspectors has meant the organisation is sometimes viewed as the culinary equivalent of a secret service.

However, Mr Patrick Guilbaud, owner-chef at the only two-star restaurant in Ireland, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud opposite Government Buildings in Dublin, disagrees. "It is not mysterious, or it is only mysterious for people who don't get the star and feel hard done by. It is difficult to get stars and difficult to keep them."

The most gratifying entry in this millennium edition - especially encouraging for high-quality, low-profile restaurants - concerns a 30-seater restaurant and hotel in Ballyconneely, near Clifden, Co Galway, which opens only six months a year.

Erriseask House, run by German brothers Stefan and Christian Matz, has been awarded a star after 10 years in business. "It is a very nice surprise," says Christian, owner-manager, who describes his brother Stefan's cooking style as modern international. "We are feeling great about it. The star is something my brother can be proud of for the rest of his career as a chef."

The guide especially singles out the restaurant's grilled scallops and signature dish, Connemara lamb, but Christian feels their award is also due to the fact that Michelin has recently become "a little less strict on the formal side of things".

While restaurateurs, chefs and food experts concur that a star rating virtually guarantees a stunning restaurant experience, it is worth noting how Michelin translates its own awards. Three stars equal "exceptional cuisine; worth a special journey", two stars stand for "excellent cooking" while one star is the not terribly impressive "very good restaurant in its category".

Bon appetit.