Brat, 2018’s standout restaurant opening was the solo debut from chef Tomos Parry. The restaurant, which opened above Smoking Goat on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Redchurch Street in March last year introduced east London to a style of grill cooking inspired both by the Basque country and his native Wales. Parry’s dedication to that cooking style — slow-grilling over charcoal and roasting in a wood oven — for whole turbots, mallards, and seasonal vegetables, together with outstanding service and a wine list developed by Noble Rot, earned the restaurant a Michelin star, a string of effusive reviews, and the tacit, universal status of the city’s hottest restaurant.
In a conversation with Parry during prep at Brat, beneath a soundtrack of 99 Red Balloons earlier this month, Eater asked the chef and first-time restaurateur how surprised he was to win a Michelin star after only six months, if it had become a burden, and how he plans to keep it.
“It is weird,” he says when asked if the customer profile has changed in the three months since the award. “We get people expecting it to be a certain way. Especially the weekend crowd.
“It’s quite a weird pressure to have to deal with... you wouldn’t have that with anything else in life would you? Any other job. You wouldn’t get like a body that awards you and then you don’t really know why, so therefore you don’t really know how you’re supposed to act with it.”
He seems genuinely mystified as to what now qualifies as a Michelin-starred restaurant. Or, at least, why his restaurant this year earned the award. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with. But to be honest, I’m embracing it and I’m really happy with it,” he says assuredly. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m anti-Michelin in any way. I’m not. I respect it all. The Michelin thing — they’re giving people livelihoods, giving all the guys here work because they’ve made [Brat] busier.
“They put pressure on everyone but it does help.”
There are restaurants that open with the explicit ambition of winning Michelin stars. In London last year, launch statements included it as a stated mission. There are others who do it and don’t say. And when they win, they play dumb. Occasionally, there’s a restaurant that Michelin rewards to service Michelin’s own brand image. That is not to say the restaurant is undeserving of a prestigious award; it’s that the restaurant historically, and according to a significant body of evidence, is one not associated with the criteria privileged by the brand’s index. Brat is one such restaurant.
Asked whether he worries now about losing something he never set out to achieve, he says, “I didn’t worry about getting one because it wasn’t really in my psyche. Everyone’s going to say the same thing — ‘I don’t open a restaurant for awards’ — but... it’s just the truth. It wasn’t driven by that.
“Losing it: I worry about the fact that I don’t know what I’m dealing with so I don’t know how to lose it or keep it...there really aren’t any [other] bodies in the world that have such an impact on your business and you have no idea what you’re dealing with.
“So yeah I do worry about losing it, but you have no idea how to stop that from happening.”
Parry, as was demonstrated by the awards last year, thinks Michelin is changing. “I didn’t expect to get a star obviously but then I suppose when you look across the world, the places that have stars — Restaurant Elkano [in Getaria, Brat’s principal source of inspiration] has one and that’s just purely grilled fish and you’re like, ok, well, maybe [we are] a starred restaurant.
“Ultimately though, it’s so good for the team morale here, it’s really nice. There’s obviously pressure, but I’m very happy.”
How does having a Michelin star affect the process of recruitment at the restaurant? “We [now] get a lot of international applicants,” he says, pointing to the comparative universality of awareness in brand Michelin, before moving the conversation towards the staff who’ve been there since the start, and how it vindicated a decision to cook food their way.
“What I’m happy about — like it or not Michelin helps you and we’ve cooked what we wanted to cook from day one in the style that we wanted to and being rewarded for that is really encouraging for the future of the restaurant because it gives me and all the guys that have worked together that kind of confidence to cook those things.” He also takes pride in the broad church of approval. He smiles, and says: “I’d say traditionally Eater and Michelin are kind of different. It’s nice that it’s not one or the other, actually.”
But there’s something more fundamental — in Parry’s heritage as a chef and as a person— that means he’ll never join the band of Michelin critics or defectors.
“The conversation is always a strange one,” he says. “I’m definitely not one of those people who would say I’d give it back or anything. Absolutely no chance. It’s cool. It’s good for family as well. My mum and dad, they know what we’re doing in London [now]. There’s a seal of approval because it’s this universal[ly understood] thing.”
He then turns to his early years as a chef. “Growing up in Wales, you work with these chefs ... so many chefs who if they didn’t get a star their restaurants are fucked,” he says. “Because you’re rural in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t get that star or your [AA] Rosettes, then the business goes under, your family goes under. So I think in London you’ve got to be careful throwing around ‘fuck Michelin, it’s shit.’ You’ve got to understand that it’s so important to rural Wales. I’d never come out and bitch about it because I worked for chefs who are amazing [to whom it means so much]. My mentor chef for instance [Grady Atkins in Cardiff] he’s better than me — he taught me everything. He hasn’t got one and he should have been awarded one obviously.
In what he calls a “London bubble,” he says chefs are spoilt. “I’ve got people walking past the door all the time, so with or without the star, there’ll still be guests.”
He then emphasises something in Michelin’s DNA which may have little bearing on its importance in urban areas, but is fundamental elsewhere. It was “originally set up as a road guide and in Wales, it still has the same effect,” he says. “In rural places. My background is ... you need that. You don’t get press going there.
“It would be completely unfair of me [to downplay it]. I’ve worked with people who’ve worked their arses off in family-run restaurants [and still don’t have a star.]”
“I respect it because I know how it’s almost destroyed some people’s lives and made so many people’s livelihoods.” As Brat moves into its second year, with a star it never sought and probably didn’t need, the chef will continue to draw breath from the Michelin bubble, even if he doesn’t know what’s keeping it inflated.