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Woman On Top: Rebecca Burr

One year into her new job, Katy Harrington talks to the first ever female editor of the star-making Michelin guide

Written by . Published on October 31st 2011.

Woman On Top: Rebecca Burr

ONE year into her role as the first female editor of the prestigious Michelin Guide to Great Britain & Ireland and Rebecca Burr is feeling positive.

We are looking for well operated, well kept, value for money, good food – it hasn’t got to be elaborate, the simpler the better, often less is more.

2011 has been a big year for the guide, marking its centenary (it’s 100 years since the first guide to Great Britain was published in 1911) and also seeing the release of its 38th edition.

For Burr, the highlights of the 2012 guide include the first British pub ever being awarded two Michelin stars – The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.

“I think that probably took people by surprise but Tom [Kerridge] is a very accomplished chef so we were really pleased with that. It’s always fantastic to be a part of this and every year its getting better and better.”

Tom Kerridge is a name you may recognize. He was the chubby, cheerful and utterly charming chef who won the main course section of the BBC’s The Great British Menu two years running. And Kerridge’s pub getting a second star is indicative of the 2012 Michelin guide’s new, less severe and perhaps, friendlier, image.

HandandflowersThe Hand & Flowers, the first British pub to be awarded two stars

Before taking up the role as top dog, Burr spent 12 years as a Michelin inspector, working under her predecessor Derek Bulmer (who was editor for more than 30 years).

Much was made of the fact that Burr was the first woman to hold the position of editor, but she shrugs off any suggestion that her sex should be a factor. She points out that there is a history of female Michelin editors in both the US and in France (not to mention the many female editors of other guides in the UK). To Burr, her gender is just not an issue, not something she particularly wants to focus on and as she succinctly puts it to me: “We women can travel and eat as much as the men”.

Started by the Michelin family (your typical French gastronomes) over 100 years ago, the Michelin guide began as something to give to chauffeurs on where they could service and repair their cars and find accommodation or a meal.

Over the years, it turned into an entity of its own, becoming synonymous with fine French dining. More than 100 years on, 30 million copies of the Michelin Guide for France have been sold worldwide. Here in the UK, sales of the guide are relatively low but that hardly seems to matter with its formidable reputation and the fact that as a company, Michelin is one of the world’s biggest tyre manufacturers with sales of €17.9 billion last year.

Michelin-ManThe Michelin Man has nothing to do with the Michelin Guide, but we like him anyway

The Michelin man, the tyre company’s mascot, looks as jovial as a man made out of tyres could be expected to be, yet the Michelin guide carries a reputation as an austere, snooty guide for people who to eat only haute cuisine style – tiny portions at gargantuan prices.

This reputation is clearly one that Burr wants to dispel. There is an illusion, she says, “that it's all very serious and formal and often French and expensive and it isn’t."

Burr is keen to draw attention to “the wealth of the Bib Gourmand restaurants” in the guide. Introduced in 1997, the Bib Gourmand is an award given by the inspectors that is different from the stars but acknowledges, “really good cooking at a moderate price”. To be eligible for a Bib Gourmand, the restaurant must offer three courses for under £28.

Twenty-eight of these awards were given in the new guide, with an impressive thirteen located in London: Sushi Say in Willesden Green, Koya in Soho, Azou in Hammersmith, The Fox and Grapes in Wimbledon, Brawn in Bethnal Green and José in Bermondsey to name a few. Overall 90 new restaurants were added to London in total and to Burr this shows London’s “diversity, variety and the wealth of choice at any level.”

The stock image of the Michelin inspector I paint (an elderly gentleman with a silk handkerchief in his pocket who doesn’t consider pizza and pasta ‘food’) makes her laugh. But if the inspectors aren’t all fuddy duddy food snobs, then who are they? 

“We have so many different people on our team – men and women of varying ages,” she says. So no octogenarian Francophiles then? “The established inspectors on the team are worth their weight in gold because they’ve seen so much but we have new people coming into the team all the time,” says Burr diplomatically.

With 27 guides on three continents they also have a team of experts that they can call on internationally, but the world over, the criteria is the same. “We are looking for well operated, well kept, value for money, good food – it hasn’t got to be elaborate, the simpler the better, often less is more.”

JoseJose in Bermondsey was awarded the Bib Gourmand

The guide certainly has the power to make or break a chef, and this is something that Burr doesn’t take lightly: “The decisions are not made on one experience, we want them to maintain the star and keep it for as long as they can but we have to recognize the inspector’s experience and if we have been along over a series of meals and that standard hasn’t been maintained then we have to recognize that. We have all the reports to back up a decision. If the star is removed, it means something has changed and the chef will know that.”

Despite protestations that the ‘old boy’s club’ image is unfounded, there is no denying the miniscule number of female chefs working at the top level in the UK. 

Burr doesn’t seem particularly keen to dwell on this: “It would be great if there were more but there is too much focus on this now. It’s a bit of an old subject, because I don’t think there every will be as many [female chefs].”

She may not know the reasons why so many kitchens are fiercely male dominated but she does stress that the gender of the cook is “never a consideration to us when we are eating”.

With her first full year as editor under her belt, it’s been a smooth transition. “I have a great team and great support from head office in France. I lead the team but the inspectors have the key role because they are full time on the road; they discover the talent and I follow it.”

Most editors, I put it to her, want to make some changes once they are in the driving seat, but Burr doesn’t seem to think that change is necessary. “Nothing needed to change, we just needed to keep evolving and then progress with how things are working. Nothing is broken.”

This attitude could be interpreted as blinkered and stuck-in-the-mud or simply reflective of an institution that wishes to preserve its standards and history in a generation of self-appointed bloggers and food critics.

With the next edition of guide already well under way and no sign of anything slowing down, it sounds like the job as well as the restaurants are living up to Burr’s expectations.

“The whole way of cooking in Great Britain and Ireland at the moment is just fantastic. The chefs are out on their own and they are not hiding in the shadow of France or Italy. London is the place where all the major chefs want to come up and set up in...It’s an honour to have this position.”

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