For the avid restaurant reviewer, January is the most exciting time; along with sitting down in a newly found eaterie for the first time. For why? One word: Michelin. The latest guide is due out in the coming week. This bible of all that is hot in the world of the professional kitchen will pass judgement on the performance of those that wore the toque in 2007.
Who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down: the premier league of chefs get delivered their end of season report and this will have a major bearing on those all important earnings for the year to come. For instance, has the new team at the Hare in Lambourn done enough to keep theirs?
A recent re-visit to the Yew Tree Inn, which boasts the name of the lifetime starred Marco Pierre White, has shown that a popular TV show can also help pull in the punters. The menu had changed little since our previous foray into the northern fringes of Hampshire, but was none the worse for that. What had changed though was the clientèle: there were loads of them. Tables didn't stay empty for long, as new occupants replaced old, eager to sample a slice of Hell's Kitchen. This wasn't H.K. food, or Michelin food, but the place had a buzz, an atmosphere, generated by people in search of a decent meal., which is exactly what they got.
Some people criticise the guide for concentrating on poncy nosh that real people would rarely eat, but having dined at and reported on a few that have earned themselves a coveted star or two, I can vouch that these chefs definitely try that little bit harder. A Michelin chef can produce a dish that transports you to another place - they bring out flavour that inferior cooks leave behind in the pan or indeed the field.
You can be sure of top quality ingredients which, in these post Big Food Fight days, Joe Public knows are really important. You can be sure that they have been treated with reverence. You can be sure that they have been lovingly combined with one aim: pure pleasure on the plate and on your palate.
Michelin chefs demand high standards in the kitchen, just as you should demand high standards in your chosen dining establishment, starred or nay. As Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have done for the supermarket chicken, you with your purchasing power can do for the humble restaurant meal. By voting with your fork, you can help drive up the quality of British food. We don't want to be a nation of culinary low achievers, so the next time I hear someone criticising the Guide, I will shed a tear for the poverty of aspiration that misguided soul represents.
We all have a choice as to where to spend our hard-earned loot. Please don't lavish it on junk.