Ireland's top chefs on the allure and danger of Michelin stars

A Michelin star is the pinnacle for many chefs – but often there is a price to be paid

 

The morning after being awarded a Michelin star for their Dublin restaurant, Heron and Grey, chef Damien Grey and front of house manager Andrew Heron, were back on duty, fine-tuning this week’s menu and dealing with the rush of reservation requests that followed their surprise elevation to the upper echelons of the restaurant world.

There was no time for celebrations. Winning a Michelin star is the pinnacle of ambition for many chefs. For some, the pursuit, and even more so the retention of the accolade, is their life’s work. Kevin Thornton, whose restaurant lost its long-held star last year and is due to close later this month, described losing the award as being “like a stab in the heart”.

Chef Derry Clarke, whose L’Ecrivain restaurant in Dublin has had one Michelin star since 2003, said he was nervous waiting for Monday’s s announcement and had a contingency plan in place if he had received bad news.

“Winning it initially is the best part of it. And then after that, you’re always, at the back of your mind, worried about losing it. People get jittery. I was jittery the last few days. You just never know.

“I do have a plan of action if I lose the star. I always have that there. I’d have to change the restaurant, change everything around. You wouldn’t have as many staff, simpler food, less courses, that kind of stuff.”

‘Nothing mattered more’

Chef Oliver Dunne held a star for nine years for Bon Appetit, his restaurant in Malahide, Co Dublin, before effectively ruling himself out of the race last year by changing the style of the restaurant, making it more casual.

“I’m a bit apprehensive about it but only time will tell whether it was a wise decision for me on a personal level,” he said at the time. Now, he is sure it was the right decision. “Business is brilliant. 2015 was our best year ever in Bon Appetit,” said Mr Dunne, who also runs Cleaver East and Beef & Lobster in Dublin city centre.

“Most people don’t know anything about Michelin stars. Not a single customer ever mentioned to me about us not having a Michelin star. From the time I first won the star, nothing mattered more, and I mean absolutely nothing. And now, 10 years later, I look back in amazement. It is now so irrelevant and unimportant to me. It’s like two different people, like I don’t know who that Oliver Dunne was.”

It’s a sentiment that is not shared by chef Dylan McGrath, who earned a star for Mint in Ranelagh in 2008, before the restaurant fell victim to the economic downturn.

“Ireland has moved forward a lot and there are so many Michelin restaurants serving different styles of food. I think it is fantastic for the country, for the food industry and for customers alike,” said Mr McGrath, who has more recently developed mid-price restaurants such as Rustic Stone and Fade Street Social.

“You have to make up your mind, do you want a livelihood out of something or do you want to do more and build more. The last couple of years, I’ve focused in a different direction – much more in tune with business. But I probably will return, in time, to that more artistic and intricate work.”

“Relief”

Danni Barry retained the Michelin star she won last year for her cooking at EIPIC, one of a group of restaurants in Belfast owned by chef Michael Deane.

“This year, it was more nerve wracking. Last year, it was a surprise and I was just delighted and thrilled. The feeling was different this year – you have that pressure to retain it. It was more relief than anything,” she said.

For Patrick Guilbaud, Stepháne Robin and Guillaume Lebrun, the trio behind Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Ireland’s only two Michelin star restaurant, the stakes were even higher.

“You work hard, you do something you believe in... but it is their judgment at the end of the day,” said Mr Robin. “I wouldn’t say we were praying... but it’s always an anxious time. It is important to be represented in the guide. Michelin is important, it is synonymous with quality, and it can bring you clients. People travel with the guide, not all people, but a lot of people.”

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