The Michelin Guide exposes restaurants to intense scrutiny
But what’s it like to be the spouse of an award-winning chef?
In practical terms, that usually means being the wife or girlfriend of the chef because the majority of restaurants hailed by Michelin are led by men.
It’s common to hear accounts of the pressures of cooking at the highest level and learn about the personal sacrifices made by chefs. But it was fascinating to hear about the stresses from a different perspective, which happened on a culinary trip to Norway.
I accompanied delegates from the Délice Network of global food cities on an educational visit to Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway.
One of the highlights was listening to Torill Renaa about the realities of running the first restaurant outside Oslo to receive a Michelin star.
Torill is married to chef Sven Erik Renaa, a former adviser and coach to the Norwegian culinary team, who was awarded a coveted star for RE-NAA in 2016.
The commitment to excellence, in all areas, is unremitting. Torill says: “We are a restaurant of quality. Quality, quality, quality. Quality in products, quality in people, quality in ingredients, quality in furniture.”
Since it opened 10 years ago, REE-NA has undergone subtle shifts that reflect changing customer demands.
At one point, the original restaurant, a fine dining establishment with 70 covers, offered five tasting menus. The 2019 Michelin star version has just 20 seats – and one menu.
The couple’s business has diversified, too. They also have a bistro with party venues, a bakery and artisan pizzeria, and a pizza restaurant at the airport.
Torill, a mother of two children, is candid about the particular challenges of running the flagship Michelin star restaurant.
She says: “You are judged every day. Every plate you deliver to a customer, you are judged on it. It takes a specific type of person to live under that pressure and to handle that pressure, and maybe it is for young people. It is a lot of pressure. Everything is judged. Tension is high.”
Torill says operators are driven by passion. “But does passion pay your bills? Can you sell passion? That is a big question because I cannot take any more money from the product [the food her husband cooks].
“What happens if I get sick? What happens if my husband gets sick? Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘If I lose that star, my life is over.’”
It is refreshing to hear about RE-NAA’s commitment to staff training and it’s clear that the restaurant’s reputation for outstanding food generates positive publicity for Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway.
But what is the pay-back for the sacrifice?
Torill says: “Does a city need individuality to be attractive? How do we keep quality restaurants and generate the next generation to go for it?”
By Richard McComb
Head of content