The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, has retained its Michelin star since 2008 and is celebrated in The Michelin Guide for its “assured and satisfying cooking” that marries seamless flavour combinations with an understated level of complexity.
But what is it, according to the renowned gastropub’s head chef Stephen Harris, that makes a Michelin-rated gastropub stand out of the crowd?
“Great flavours and consistency,” says the rock musician-turned-chef. It’s all well and good posting perfect pictures of your dishes to Instagram, but it has to look as good when you serve it, and it has to be exactly the same on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, he adds.
“But it’s not good being consistently average,” according to Harris, “you’ve got to be consistently very good”. This comes down to the culture in the kitchen with all chefs operating at high standards.
In a Michelin meal you also want the odd ‘wow’ moment where something just blows you away, Harris adds. He explains: “It’s just hard work but with a purpose serving extraordinarily good dishes consistently. There’s no magic thing as far as I know”.
This is something echoed by the co-owner of the White Swan at Fence in Lancashire, which was one of only two pubs to bag a Michelin star in 2019.
The White Swan offers just one set menu which is what makes the pub stand out, according to the pub’s co-owner Gareth Ostick, as it means head chef Tom Parker can focus on the quality of the dishes, making their standard higher.
He adds: “Some people might think that’s a negative, the fact there’s no choice, but for us it isn’t as long as the customer is prepared not to experiment, but to trust us”.
Ostick says he can’t pinpoint a difference between excellent gastropubs with Michelin stars and those without. “It is subjective,” he says. However, he does think a star is awarded not just for the quality of the food but for the consistency of the quality of the food. That’s why he thinks the Swan at Fence has bagged its star.
The Michelin Guide describes this gastropub as a small yet lively local pub serving great food, great wine and Timothy Taylors award-winning real ales.
Wit surrounds an elegant menu and interior at the White Swan, which is apparent from the pub’s website that describes chef Parker thus: “This is Tom. Among other things, Tom is very good at chopping chives. Tom cooks your food. Be like Tom.”
According to the Coach’s Sarah Hayward, there isn’t much that separates an excellent gastropub from its Michelin-starred siblings.
Tom Kerridge’s second pub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, was awarded its first Michelin star on 2 October 2017. Its menu has included dishes such as crispy pig’s head with garlic sausage, pineapple salsa & chorizo mayonnaise, and cider & onion soup with cheese scone and ham hock butter.
She says: “Everyone works really hard to create tasty dishes with big flavours, some have hit Michelin’s radar and others probably will in the future.”
This is an opinion shared by Tom De Keyser, head chef at the only two Michelin-starred gastropub, the Hand & Flowers. He adds: “In the current exceptionally difficult climate, everyone is cooking their hearts out and working hard in the industry, I don’t think there’s a ‘separation’ as such, I just think some gastropubs aren’t quite there yet, but will be soon.”
The à la carte menu, priced at £175 per head, has featured west country chicken, mushroom, hazelnut & pistachio ‘pie’ with Scottish girolles, baby onions bacon & sauce vin jaune, as well as ‘fish du jour’ with Chablis braised squid, sourdough ink cracker, sweet grapes & roasted bone butter sauce.
De Keyser says the Hand & Flower’s best-selling dishes at the moment are Cornish ‘Tin Mine’ tart with spiced date sauce, soft cheddar & crispy beef, 30 day dry aged fillet of beef with potato buttermilk waffle, crème fraiche & chive butter and sauce Bordelaise, and banana souffle with vanilla custard ice cream, milk chocolate and plantation original dark rum sauce.
He adds that it is a “warm welcome from a hugely talented front of house team” that sets the gastropub apart, as well as its 15 uniquely designed bedrooms that provide guests with an “incredible gastronomic overnight stay”.