The Road to Michelin: London's top chefs chat Michelin Stars
12 November 2018
What does perfection taste like? Each year in the restaurant world, The Michelin Guide awards stars to establishments that their anonymous inspectors deem to be of the best in the world. Competition is high, with new challengers joining every year and current star holders perpetually running the risk of falling off, should their food miss the mark.
So what does it take to make it to the top, and more importantly, how do you make sure you stay there? We speak to three of London’s Michelin-starred veterans who run some of the city’s top restaurants and ask them about the fateful connections that have led them to where they are today. And ultimately, how to withstand the pressure and competition that comes with keeping that coveted Michelin star. 
Elystan Street: A Michelin Veteran Starts Anew
“Quality and consistency - nothing more complicated than that!” says Chef Phil Howard of Elystan Street when asked about what he thinks it takes to earn a Michelin star. No-one could  ever doubt Chef Howard on this. Aside from being one of London’s most acclaimed chefs, having spent time in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White and Simon Hopkinson, he also opened The Square in 1991 where he held two Michelin stars for an astonishing 17 years.
Based in the heart of Chelsea, Howard’s newest venture, Elystan Street, is a welcoming neighbourhood restaurant that currently holds one Michelin star. It is a place that doesn’t feel the need to prove itself and has a menu that reflects the vision of a chef who is secure in his ability to serve flavourful dishes without all the unnecessary pomp and circumstance. The emphasis on vegetable dishes like chargrilled sprouting broccoli with Stracciatella, scorched red onions, and a red wine anchovy and garlic dressing; show Howard’s respect for his ingredients and their seasonality. “We aim to ensure our guests leave having had some wonderful food and an enjoyable and relaxing time. There is an honesty in what we do — it’s about genuine hospitality and pleasure-giving seasonal cooking,” explains Howard.
In an industry where foams and smokes can cloud a young chef’s vision, Howard insists that simplicity and seasonal ingredients outshine any ostentatious gimmicks. “We are not out to reinvent the wheel or make people think. Urban life is fast-paced and challenging. Some calm and respite coupled with bloody good food and a few genuine smiles is far from the day-to-day ordinary!” 
Changing of the Guard: The Square 
When Howard left The Square after 25 years, questions arose about the fate of one of the capital’s most dependable restaurants. Enter Chef Clément Leroy, who was introduced as The Square’s new executive chef at their reopening in Mayfair last year.  Leroy grew up in the Rhone Valley in France and has a passion for produce, ingredients, and wine. “The most important parts of our cuisine are the sauces and premium quality of the main ingredients. We love travelling and discovering new restaurants that inspire us. By understanding different cultures and how dishes are made by locals; you can make them much more authentic”.
Leroy describes his style as French with a twist. Dishes like sweetbreads with squid, black truffle, and the Lincolnshire eel with caviar clearly won over the inspectors as The Square was awarded a Michelin star just a year after its reopening. “It’s now the third time that I am honoured with a star. Each occasion is an honour, but the most important thing is the positive feedback we receive from guests everyday. The awards follow, but that’s not our focus,” he says. The Square’s impeccable standards has had them churning out not just Michelin star dishes, but also some of the most progressive and creative chefs working behind the scenes. 
Aquavit: Home cooking in a foreign land
Chef Henrik Ritzen grew up on the north-west coast of Sweden and always had dreams of working in the culinary industry. He moved to London 20 years ago and began cooking in the kitchens of some of the city’s top restaurants, one of which was The Square with Phil Howard.
Ritzen moved back to Sweden for a bit, but the opportunities that lay in London lured him back. He joined the team at Aquavit where he paved the way to their first Michelin star. “It’s a wonderful feeling for all of us working here at Aquavit. It’s a massive achievement and is mostly down to all the hard work and dedication that the team puts in every day.”
The Aquavit menu features a section called Smörgåsbord, which is a collection of small plates that can be paired with their selection of aquavit. Other notable items include crab on rye brioche with fennel; and the duck breast with beetroots, black berries, and liquorice. “Our ethos is to be a lighthearted, unstuffy restaurant serving top quality Nordic-influenced food using as much locally sourced ingredients as possible…I’m pretty interested in fermenting processes. We have a long way to go, but it’s fun to experiment,” he adds.
So what does perfection taste like? I’d say it tastes like simple, seasonal ingredients that turn the flavours of your childhood into incredible masterpieces. It’s about coming home and traveling far away at the very same time. It’s a delicate mix of consistency, precision, quality, and, as Chef Howard said, it’s about bloody good food. 
Words by Ina Yulo 

Check out our other food stories on APLO

In London’s cut-throat culinary scene, getting a Michelin star is an honour regardless if you’re a newbie or a seasoned veteran. But no matter how competitive the scene gets; there’s a lovely cosmic poetry to the seemingly connections made within London’s restaurant community. Chefs Phil Howard, Clément Leroy, and Henrik Ritzen’s paths have intertwined — showing that regardless if its 1991 or 2018, quality, consistency, and bloody good food never lose their value. 


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