Seeing stars – Andy Hayler25 October 2016
Andy Hayler eats out three to six times a week, writing about his experiences on the popular andyhayler.com, and has a strong claim to being the world’s pre-eminent fine dining aficionado. Having first achieved the feat in 2004, by June of this year, he will have eaten in every three-Michelin-starred restaurant on the planet.
This year, I'll have been chronicling my dining experiences for 20 years. It would be a bad idea to actually work out how much I've spent over that time. For some, it's handbags or fast cars; my extravagance is restaurants.
My mother wasn't interested in cooking; a lot of what we ate tended to come from tins. The first meal out I can recall was my cricket club's annual dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I'm sure, in retrospect, it was completely grim, but this was by far the best meal I'd ever eaten. I can even remember the sweet and sour pork. Suddenly, food could be interesting.
It wasn't until I came to London after university, and was earning decent money, that I experienced fine dining. The capital's early '80s restaurant scene was mixed; lots of good ethnic food, but full of overpriced and rather disappointing high-end places. After a series of expensive, ultimately forgettable meals, I was giving up on the idea of fine dining as a worthwhile activity.
Then, I read an article about Jamin in Paris and decided I'd visit, spend a fortune and, when it ended in disappointment, tell people that I'd eaten at the "Best Restaurant in the World" and it wasn't up to much.
My plan backfired. Joël Robuchon was at his peak, and the meal was staggering. I saw what food could be like at its best and, over time, as I started travelling more for work, I'd always be sure to eat at the best restaurants around the world.
In 2004, I realised I'd been to almost every three-Michelin-starred restaurant on Earth. A few trips and I'd complete the set. By mid-2004, I'd done them all.
Back then, there were only 48, and they were exclusively in Europe, but the Michelin Guide soon expanded to New York and Tokyo. In 2008, I caught up again, only for Michelin to grow once more. In 2012, there were 109 three-Michelin-star restaurants. I'd been to all of them. I almost made 2013, all 113, but they sneakily added one out of sequence in Hiroshima. I've been since. It's like spinning plates. I have several more visits to make in order to get up to speed this year, but they are all booked. I should get there by June.
To paraphrase Churchill, Michelin is the worst of restaurant guides, except for all the other ones that have been tried. It's not a science, and you can't prove a certain restaurant is better than another one.
Having said that, I often play a game with my fellow diners where we score each dish and, at the end of the meal, reveal our numbers. We're always within a point of one another. If diners can agree most of the time, it's hard to understand the anomalies one finds with Michelin.
I don't think it's a huge problem within Europe, but Hong Kong is erratic, to put it politely. There is also a trend where chefs who already have stars get them again, almost irrespective of what they're doing.
I visited Ducasse at the Dorchester on the opening night and it was a fiasco. It's better now, and I can live with it being two stars, but certainly not three.
Of the 109 three-Michelin-starred places in 2012, there were two dozen or so that are world class. A similar number seem to be mistakes. The bulk in the middle are good, on balance a bit better than the average two-Michelin-star, but it's a close thing.
Despite these complaints, it's hard to think of a better system than multiple anonymous inspections by people who pay their bills and seek no bribes, advertising or fees. On an international basis, there's nothing else that competes.
I eat out four nights a week; typically two new restaurants and two revisits. There's a plan in place, but not every meal is mapped out months in advance. If I'm at home in London, I can be a little more flexible.
Despite a lot of hype, London is still lacking at the high end. I went to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris a couple of weeks ago and the gulf between that meal and anything I've had in the UK is huge. Okay, so is the price, but the same's true of Guy Savoy, Ledoyen, Astrance and L'Ambroisie. Nothing in London is close to these places.
Paris still has a strong food scene, but if I had to name one restaurant city, it'd be Tokyo - just because of the variety.
If it's your last week on earth, you want two great meals and there's no time to travel, you could do worse than Schloss Berg and Sonnora. In fact, Germany is underrated for high-end dining. You have great three-Michelin-starred restaurants, and wonderful two and one-stars.
I may have become more recognisable, but anonymity can only ever really impact the service. I review purely on the food. If they recognise me, they can show more attention, but they can't go out and hire a better head chef. Food is harder to fiddle.
Interview by Phin Foster