The Michelin-star man with a wine list (and app)
November 14, 2012 | By:
Andy Hayler, 50, is arguably Britain's most impartial food critic. Now he's turned his attention to wine pricing. By Oliver Bennett
Wine Search app Wine glasses 620 Shutterstock_4687861

All bar none. Hayler knows the restaurant mark-ups

Andy Hayler has just returned from San Sebastian in northern Spain, and he’s excited. “I ate in a brilliant restaurant that hasn’t even got one Michelin star,” he says. “Stunning ingredients, simply cooked.”

This information is meaningful because Hayler, 50, is the only person to have eaten in and reviewed every three-star Michelin restaurant in the world; more than any of Michelin’s own bona fide operatives can claim.

So what’s it like being the best-fed person on the planet? “Great!” says Hayler, speaking from his Chiswick office. “Some people spend their money on cars or holidays. I spend it on restaurants.”

Hayler, who is married to Stella, a physician, has been the foodie’s foodie for two decades. He has written and contributed to several food books, been a regular guest critic on Masterchef: the Professionals, and most importantly, has run his site since 1996, now called Andy Hayler’s Restaurant, Food and Hotel Guide, marking meals out of ten.

The British mark-up on wine

The site has a keen following among chefs (Hayler knows this, because in 2006 the Guardian rated it their Number Two website, on the grounds that ‘all the chefs seem to read’ it ), and now, to augment his perspicacious reviews, he has branched out into the world of apps with Wine Search for iPhone.

The main benefit of this oenophilic oracle is to be able to divine the mark-up in British restaurants. When you’re in a restaurant or shop, you put the name of your chosen wine into it and it finds out what your wine costs elsewhere. As you would, unfortunately, imagine, it is regularly several times the retail price, and can be five times or more.

Should we be up in arms about this? “Not really,” says Hayler. “It’s restauarant economics, but you can protect yourself from excessive  mark-ups by being well informed.”

Yes, it’s galling that British restaurants are among the worst offenders in the world when it comes to wine mark-up. “In Spain, for example, many top restaurants hardly mark up their wines at all,” says Hayler.

But the point is to be armed, as there will usually be a better deal in any wine list. And even if there isn’t, you can order a more modest wine and splurge somewhere else that has a kinder mark-up.

As to whether it looks odd to punch into your iPhone beneath the linen while the sommelier looks on, he says: “No one has ever said anything to me and, in fact, the nicer sommeliers understand and even tell me their recommendations.”

How he became the foodie’s foodie

Andy Hayler food critic

Andy Hayler

The app, then, shines a light into this murky bit of bottom-lining by restaurateurs. It’s also a bit of a first for Hayler. Our hungry hero was once an information management executive with Royal Dutch Shell (and is still a data management expert, with his own company). In 1988, he had a breakthrough moment at the three-star Jamin in Paris, run by gastostar Joel Robuchon.

After that blooding, Hayler indulged his love of high-end food on his many business trips. “I always wanted – I still want – to go to the best restaurant in every town I go to.”

In 2004, he noticed that he had been to several of the world’s 49 Michelin three-star restaurants, and decided to get the set and go to every single one.

It’s a trick he has since pulled three times, most recently this year, when he completed eating in all 109 Michelin three-star restaurants at that time from Florence to Fujisawa.

As an expert in data management, Hayler is something of a completist and brings a statistical fortitude to his restaurant work. As a tech savant, he draws attention to the fact that when you put the words ‘restaurant critic’ into Google, the first name to appear is not AA Gill or Giles Coren, but Andy Hayler.

It is appropriate, he thinks: “Restaurant critics are more about entertainment, to sell newspapers.”

It’s still a kind of turbo-charged hobby, so he was very proud when, in 2006, the Guardian newspaper named his guide as one of the top ten food guides. “I was so pleased as it was unexpected,” he says.

Genuinely impartial

Indeed, it’s not that Hayler isn’t writerly; more that he is sharp-focused on the food quality. Take this, from his review of La Calandre in Italy: “Another fine dish was suckling pig with ethereally light mustard foam and spring greens with a beautifully dark, unctuous and intense sauce.” Yum. That’s certainly appetising prose.

But what about service, décor, ambience? “Not my thing. I was at a three-star in Japan recently and had terrible service, which I ignored. I mark on presentation, quality of ingredients, and technical execution.”

He is proud of the fact that he pays for himself, and estimates the cost of all his Michelin forays at about £20,000, which he thinks is a good deal. “Recently I saw that renting a Ferrari costs about £1,000 a day. Eating out is nothing compared to those kinds of costs. My hobby could be worse.” The most he has spent on one meal is $800 per head at Per Se, in New York.

As Hayler has shadowed Michelin’s star system, one wonders if the secretive company has ever been in touch. They haven’t. But they will have heard of him, and he holds the distinction of being one of the few Brits invited to discuss food on French television.

This self-funding enables Hayler to be forthright, unlike other guides (not the Michelin, which pays for itself) and newspapers, and which informs his app. As he says: “Unfortunately, much wine writing is paid for indirectly by the wine industry, so you can mostly forget about those tips you read in the wine magazines.”

It’s also nicely bracing that Hayler doesn’t automatically favour trendy restos like El Bulli in its heyday.

“All those ingredients tortured into unnatural textures,” he says. “it’s Harry Potter food. Some dishes at modernist restaurants can provide great theatre, but it takes the ultra-talented to pull this off, and far too often less talented imitators produce dishes that favour innovation at the expense of flavour.

“I believe that there is a reaction against the heavy use of chemicals in such cooking now by diners, and we see recently a welcome emphasis on natural ingredients, exemplified by restaurants like Hedone in London and Extebarri in Spain.”

So Hayler says top-end ingredients are the way forward. That is, really top-end, like beer-fed, brush-massaged Kobe beef from Japan. All washed down with better value wine courtesy of Wine Search, of course.

Get Wine Search for iPhone at iPhone apps, £1.49