It’s a well known saying in business – and in life – that you can only really appreciate success when you have been through disappointments and knock backs along the way. For Roger and Sue Jones, and their award winning team at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, this week has been one of those that certainly fit into the knock back category. For after 12 years they lost their Michelin star. After the initial disappointment, Roger Jones reflects on what might have been the reasons for Michelin’s decision, and, in this frank, honest and brave account, looks ahead for what could be in store for him, his wife and business partner, Sue, and their team as they looks to expand and grow into new areas, take on different projects and prove there is very much life without a Michelin star.
Roger Jones was not alone this week in losing a Michelin star with famous chefs such as Marcus Wareing (from two to one) being amongst the 18 restaurants to see their stars knocked back in the 2019 guide. But although clearly a blow it has also acted as a spur to kick on and develop new projects for himself and the The Harrow at Little Bedwyn.
You found out this week that you have lost your Michelin star after 12 years, excuse the cliche, but how has it been for you, your wife Sue, and the rest of the team?
There is no denying that this is a massive loss, there are just over 150 chefs in the UK with a Michelin star, that puts them at the very top of their profession. To be thrown out of this exclusive cloak and dagger society is not only a big kick in the face for me personally (Michelin stars are handed to individuals not restaurants), but to the whole team back at The Harrow.
We are a small team, just the two chefs and myself in the kitchen plus a kitchen porter/manager. Once you are out, you are out. There is no more using the Michelin name, logo or referring to it. This affects so many things from social media, to business dards, Harrow’s website to our Michelin Star Vouchers. All these need to have the Michelin name removed.
Unlike a Master of Wine where you can hold the MW for life, the Michelin star is handed out for one year only and has to be re won every year.
Do you get any feedback on why you have lost the start. A case of unlucky 13 or do they go into any detail?
As I said it is a bit “cloak and dagger” and we do not know when they visit as they come and pay fully, sometimes by themselves but often in pairs. We even had a foursome one year. Sometimes they announce they have been after paying the bill, but are always tight lipped.
So no feedback is given, however, I would say that it has been a very huge privilege to have held a star for 12 years and I did write to the head of The Michelin Guide on Monday night apologising for letting The Michelin ethos down. Times are changing and there are so many young chefs who are banging on the Michelin door, guys who live and breath cooking 24 hours a day where, I have to be fair, split my life between cooking and wine.
Possibly the many sightings of me on social media whether in Cape Town, New Zealand, California, Australia or some impressive vineyard in Europe may have rattled their cage, and I personally have not spoken to a Michelin inspector for over three years.
There has been a phenomenal response and great support on social media since the news broke. That must be good for you, Sue and the team?
The support has been just amazing especially from the wine industry, but also from fellow Michelin star chefs. These messages have been fabulous for the team, it was also important to stress to our young front of house team that the Michelin is only about food, nothing else so they can all hold their heads high.
What has been the initial hardest part of losing the star?
Telling my parents who are in their late eighties, and who think the sun shines from my backside, who of course are devastated. Telling the wife, who does not think the sun shines…
I was also very concerned that the numerous charities that I work with will lose out. I again on Monday night, after the announcement, contacted all the charities that I work with and explained the situation and to try and fulfil these in the best way forward as, of course, the value of a Michelin star chef gets a much bigger auction bid.
Luckily all of these charities came back saying it would not make a difference. I even got a note from Sam Warburton, the Wales and British Lions captain, confirming this and saying what an honour it was for him to dine at The Harrow. Charities that I work or have worked for include: Ty Hafan for Life Limited Children, through Chefs Night Out Cardif; NSPCC Wales and Velindre through Sam Warburton’s testimonial year; The Welsh Guards through Ryan Jones’s testimonial tear; SCOPE; and The Benevolent. So if you see any of my auctions up for bids in the future please dig deep even though I am no longer a Michelin star.
Looking back on 12 years of Michelin stars how has the restaurant changed and the style of food and wine you serve adapted and moved on?
We have always believed in buying the best quality free range natural, not organic, day boat fish (so the boat is out a maximum 24 hours) line caught, never netted, diver caught scallops, never dredged. All these were new and bold 10 years ago, but now it’s the norm. I personally see wine as a much bigger part of dining out now, and believe great unstuffy service is what we need.
Like wine, food has got lighter and I believe The Harrow were at the forefront in pushing this, no creamy sauces, very little butter, no alcohol in sauces.
How would you describe yourself as a chef now compared to 12 years ago?
Twelve years ago I was on top the world having gained my first Michelin star, having worked some six days a week for five years without a break to fulfil that dream. Now I realise there are other things like sharing a magnum of Dom Perignon P2 1998 with the great Richard Geoffrey over dinner. Taking my son to away rugby internationals, finding small wineries such as Restless River from Hemel En Aarde in South Africa and getting them established in the UK. Getting on the Decanter World Wine Awards judging 10 years ago (and they have not dropped me for 2019), and working, of course ,with you, chief, and Peter on The Buyer.
So I am no longer a chef more of a “Jack of all Trades.” But I still have the passion to deliver perfect food every time I cook.
You clearly have concentrated a great deal on the wine side of the business in recent years. Do you think that has been good for your customers and profile in the wine industry, but perhaps not so in the eyes of a food first Michelin critic?
Possibly, but The Michelin did buy major shares in The Wine Advocate – actually that could be the reason they dropped me as I was seen having too many lunches with Neal Martin who jumped ship to Vinous earlier this year! Seriously though, there is no question for the restaurant, wine has been a huge benefit and in recent years we have seen a marked increase in wine lovers coming to The Harrow. We specialise in ageing New World wines which is profitable and still gives the punter excellent value.
It’s early days but how do you see the restaurant and your offer developing from here?
The emails have gone into mad mode, with so many offers to work on different projects, including the launch of a new drink with a reality TV star, or working with an English sparkling wine company. In the next week, for example, I am working for Decanter on a tasting panel, cooking for MMD at the West London Shooting School, matching lunch with Domaine Faively, sitting on a panel for New Zealand Winegrowers, and finalising the wines for the South Africa v Chile Tri Nations dinner I am hosting in Cape Town on January 11.
Last year Tom Stevenson asked me to join the Champagne Sparkling World Wine Championships as an ambassador, with the responsibility of getting more New World sparklers on board and this is another project that I love working on. I also have had the privilege through Gerard Basset MS MW to judge on The Taittinger (previously Moët) Sommelier of The Year Competition for the last five years.
And on the wine side – is this more of an opportunity to further define yourself as the leading wine restaurant in the country?
I hope so. We also now make our wine and have two wines from South Africa so far, with more coming on board. South Africa, in particular, is a country that has so many attributes on the wine side and we have been spreading the word for the last five years.
We will be looking to build up our food and wine festivals that we host in July and September every year. This is when we put up a marquee for two weeks and host events with a far reaching array of wine and food themes, with up to 80 guests dining at a time.
This July we persuaded five Greek winemakers over and in September had nine Mornington Peninsula winemakers. Our customers love these events as they get close to the real action talking to the actual winemakers. We also host The Mamba Riedel Decanter Awards promoting the finest varieties from Australia, picking two grape styles each year as well as our Tri Nations Wine Challenges which we take around the world.
We were delighted to win The AA Wine Award for the second time this year as well as getting a Highly Commended in the International Wine Challenge.
What is the best way for a wine supplier/distributor to contact you about any wines they might want to show you?
Email. Please don’t ring.
What would be your definition of a good wine supplier?
Liberty, Swig, MMD, Hallgarten, Richard Kelley.
What would be your definition of a bad wine supplier?
Someone who gets excited afterI hand their wine a high score in Decanter or in a write up on The Buyer and ring me up and pester me on how many cases I want. That’s the only draw back being a wine writer and a judge and owning your own restaurant. Even though we list over 1,000 wines I really cannot list every single wine I award a good score to.
Do you want to win the Michelin star back?
What I want to do is assure all our customers that year on year we try and improve everything that we do, one can never reach perfection, but you can always try harder. Do I want to win the star back? No, I would have to give up all my other projects, but we will endeavour to produce even better food matched with great wines.