1. What defines a Michelin standard dining experience for you?
A restaurant that produces a meal of equivalent standard to at least a one star Michelin restaurant (scoring 15/20 or 16/20 on my scale) is of Michelin standard as far as I am concerned, whether or not it actually has a star. I do not score service (and I gather that Michelin do not count it either, at least below 3 star level) so for me it is all about the food experience. For me this comes down to: the quality of ingredients, presentation, technical skill and the harmony of the ingredients in the dishes (do the various flavours make sense together).
I do but I am not a chef; however I have dined very widely and have been reviewing restaurants professionally since 1990. Cooking more ambitious dishes every now and again reminds me how difficult high end cooking can be, and makes me appreciate the challenges of cooking at a high level.
3. Do you have a favourite restaurant?
My favourite in the world at the moment is Pres des Eugenie by Michel Guerard, 100 miles south of Bordeaux. It has held 3 stars for 40 years, is set in a pretty village, and the sprightly Michel Guerard is still actively in the kitchen at the age of 83.
4. What is the key to getting a good review from you?
It is all about the food, as described above. If a meal fits the criteria I described above then it will get a good review. I also score value for money, which is just a formula dividing the score by the price. This for me is actually the key as to whether I am likely to return. I omit scoring decor and service, which of course are important but are more a matter of personal taste for decor, with service highly variable based on which waiter you get etc. I do mention particularly good or bad service but it does not change the score either way.
5. Which country has the best cuisine?
For me it would be a toss up between France and Japan, though of course there is lovely food to have in many countries, from Australia to Norway.
6. Do you prefer sweet or savoury?
I like both. I do prefer to finish on a “proper” sweet dessert, rather than the savoury/sweet dishes involving herbs and vegetables that are fashionable at present.
7. Which country produces the best chefs?
This is hard to measure, but some places seem better than others in terms of track records. France is particularly good at pastry chefs, with pastry schools like Lenotre in Paris maintaining a high standard. I also like the long apprenticeships that occur in Japan, which means that chefs learn their trade before becoming head chefs.
8. If you had a restaurant what kind of food would you serve?
Running a restaurant is hard, and fine dining is a difficult business to make money from. I think a high end pizzeria would be a safer bet as a profitable business.
9. Do you think that restaurateurs are scared of you?
Hopefully not. I just try and give an honest, independent view on their food, as a paying customer.
10. Your reviews are rated out of 20 – is this aligned to the Gault Millau rating?
I used to score out of 10 but it confused many people, as a 4/10 would be a very good restaurant but at school a 4/10 sounds pretty bad. The 14/20 I would now score the same place seems to be easier for people to understand.
11. How do you feel about Heston Blumenthal?
He is a hugely talented and inventive chef who has done a lot to improving the image of British food. It is especially good that he has dug into the history of British cuisine, which make in the 18th century had a high reputation.
12. What is the most unusual Michelin meal you’ve had?
Perhaps dining on the edge of a volcano overlooking Lake Toya in Japan (at Michel Bras) was the most intriguing.
13. A celebrity living or dead you would like to dine with?
Richard Feynmann, a Nobel laureate physicist who had a remarkable mind and endearing curiosity about life. For food only, it would be intriguing to meet Ferdinand Point, regarded as the finest chef of his generation.
14. Best and worst things about being a food critic?
Best is being able to enjoy the finest food in the world, often in interesting company. The worst is having to write up the meal afterwards.
15. Martin Wishart in Leith (your score 17/20): Highest rating for a > restaurant featured on La Sélection ResDiary, one of your personal favourites?
He is an excellent chef and for me his food is more in 2-star territory than the one it currently gets.
16. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (your score 16/20): Japanese influenced French cuisine – does it work?
Joel Robuchon is quite influenced by Japan, and the Atelier chain, with its seats around a bar watching the chefs at work, is very much based on the kappo kaiseki style of dining. The food is consistent and the idea of fusing influences from Japan into French cooking is now very common elsewhere. Tokyo has more 3 star Michelin restaurants than Paris, so Japan is a huge influence on many thoughtful chefs.
17. Which is the one restaurant on your bucket list?
Well, I have been lucky enough to be able to get to pretty much anywhere that I wanted to. I was intrigued to visit Damon Baehrel last year, a restaurant in a cabin in the woods of upstate New York that has a one man kitchen and a ten year waiting list.
18. Do you think that Michelin Dining is less formal nowadays?
Certainly. Sushi Saito, until it moved recently, was six bar seats set inside a car park, so could not be accused of formality, yet deservedly has three Michelin stars.
19. What is the funniest alternative name or alias for a restaurant reservation?
I have never thought about this to be honest, though Homer J. Simpson might raise eyebrows.
20. Have you ever got in trouble for leaving a bad review?
I occasionally get abusive email from chefs and owners who disliked what I wrote. This sometimes happens when chefs live in a PR bubble of hype and paid-for shill reviews, where they only hear praise from people they are paying, and it builds up egos in an unhealthy way. I pay for my meals and give honest feedback, and chefs generally appreciate that, even if they do not agree with the results. I get most pleasure from reading feedback from diners that enjoyed restaurants that they travelled to only due to my review. Fortunately I get a lot more of this than the odd grumpy chef.