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Features 3 minutes 20 May 2020

Things I’ve missed

A UK Michelin Inspector wants his old life back

Chefs and the Community Inspectors Michelin Guide

I miss my job and can’t wait to get back to it – because that’ll mean restaurants have reopened and life is returning to normal.

I miss restaurant food; ingredients I can’t get hold of and dishes I can’t make at home. I’m tired of home cooking – I want passionate, committed, talented and practised professionals cooking my dinner.

I miss that feeling of expectation in the morning when I know I’m going somewhere special for lunch. Nothing beats the thrill of anticipation.

I miss my colleagues. There are few jobs where you regularly eat out with the people you work with. Over the course of a long dinner we can’t talk shop all the time and so probably know more secrets about each other than a room full of George Smileys. The blackmail money is proving useful.

I miss people doing strange things in restaurants. In Hong Kong I once witnessed two diners on the next table order a bottle of La Tâche, take a sip, grimace slightly and then pour a little water into their wine glasses. I’m not sure if they noticed me sobbing.

I miss the goosebumps that spectacular dishes give me while I’m eating them.

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I miss the noise, the buzz, the hum, the rhythm and the air of expectation you find in established restaurants.

I miss driving and listening to Tom Waits in my car without anyone making rude comments about his voice. I even miss airports – and sitting on a plane wondering why on earth everyone jumps up the second it reaches the gate – and don’t get me started on the clapping. I miss getting a window seat and every time remembering that old Morecombe & Wise gag…Ernie: "Look at those people down there. They look like ants". Eric: "They ARE ants. We haven't taken off yet".

I miss those few seconds where I simply stare at the dish in front of me before picking up my knife and fork.

I miss intimate restaurants where diners can chat together. Like the time I was in a remote restaurant in the Faroe Islands and one of my fellow diners turned to me and said “this place is so far off the beaten track, do you think Michelin will ever come here?”

I miss seeing famous actors in restaurants and marvelling at just how short many of them are when they stand up. Oh no, Willem Dafoe – you as well? As for the night Kate Hudson was on the next table and she caught me staring at her like a deranged stalker – I’m so sorry, Kate.

I miss that feeling of dread when I’m struggling through an overly ambitious dinner and realise I have another eight courses to go.

I miss standing outside restaurants and scrolling desperately through my various email accounts to remember which name I used for my reservation. I once went through a period of using the names of great Welsh rugby players, until the day I was asked to spell the name ‘Llewellyn’ over the phone and the receptionist hung up on me. A colleague once booked our table in the name of Ogden. “As in Nash?”, I asked. “No, as in Hilda.”

I miss good service and feeling the love; I miss comically inept service and feeling the apathy.

I miss chefs. I miss playing tattoo bingo when there’s an open kitchen and I’m sitting at the counter. I miss seeing that fierce look of concentration on their faces knowing that I’m about to be a recipient of something created out of that intensity.

I miss eating out with friends and having funny, loud conversations in the flesh, instead of cyber chats with wobbly Wi-Fi and Pinter-esque pauses.

Photo by Louis Hansel
Photo by Louis Hansel

I miss the excitement of arriving in a new city in a new country and teaming up with the local inspectors and getting to know them over a few weeks. I miss nipping into art galleries in foreign cities – I’d rather be staring at an Edward Hopper painting than living in one.

I miss marriage proposals in restaurants – I’ve witnessed loads over the years. My advice for those determined to go through with it in a restaurant would be to at least pre-warn the venue as the couple are usually interrupted by a waiter appearing at the precise “Will you?” moment with two plates and a “who ordered the fishcake?” I saw one proposal turned down; she hurriedly left but her jilted boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend, as I assumed he became at that precise moment) bravely ploughed on through his meal while the whole restaurant pretended not to have noticed a thing.

I miss that day in New York when I thought I was Don Draper and ordered a martini at lunchtime – and subsequently realised I would never have made it on Madison Avenue.

I miss the years spent travelling to every part of the UK and Ireland before I ever got sent abroad. Spectacular scenery one day, a town no tourist guide would venture into the next. Different geography and topography, accents and attitudes; from the majestic to the misbegotten – I loved it all.

I miss eating my favourite local ingredients – in an international way: crab in Devon; venison in Scotland; sea urchin in Hokkaido; pork in Hong Kong and herring in Norway. I miss ordering specialities in their home of origin, like cacio e pepe in Rome; baeckeoffe in Alsace; khao soi in Chiang Mai; seolleongtang in Seoul; and chilli crab in Singapore.

I miss walking around a city searching out its hidden restaurants. I’ve even forgiven Google Maps for the shortcut it suggested when I was in Queens in NYC tracking down a new noodle bar. As I handed over my wallet to the mugger I actually found myself wondering if I could legitimately claim this on my expenses.

I miss eating things I’ve never had before and the lasting impression they made – like the first time I had the yakitori delicacy chochin in Tokyo.

I miss the thrill of having an unexpectedly fantastic meal in a very unpromising looking restaurant.

I miss being asked by friends “How did you get this job?” – even though it sometimes came out as “How did YOU get this job?” That question was usually followed up with “Why aren’t you bigger?” Well, it used to be; these days, not so much.

I live near Abbey Road and would curse the tourists holding up the traffic as they slowly walked over the ‘Beatles’ zebra crossing to get their photos taken. The crossing has been empty for weeks now and I even miss them.

Oh, and I miss wearing shoes.

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