This week on the Secret Library we hear from Librarian Antony Ramm, who has been researching locations on our Edible Leeds heritage trail – published as part of our Heritage Open Day Week events. In this first entry in our series of longer articles exploring some of the people and places on that trail, he looks at the slightly confusing history of Michelin-starred restaurants in Leeds city centre…
As I’m sure most people reading this article know, Leeds currently has only one recipient of this prestigious award in the city centre, and that’s The Man Behind the Curtain, located just above Flannels store, in-between Vicar Lane and the Victoria gate complex – the image below shows Flannels looking onto Victoria Gate.
Headed by flamboyant chef Michael O’Hare, this experimental fine dining restaurant opened in 2014 and got its Michelin star in 2015, as we can see in the YEP article that follows.
Next I am going to say something that I am not entirely sure is correct: The Man Behind the Curtain follows in the footsteps of three other city centre restaurants, all awarded one star, though now all closed: these were – Pool Court on The Calls (1995-2005), Rascasse on Water Lane (1997-2000) and Guellar’s (2002). Those latter two were both head-chef’d by Simon Guellar, a Leeds-born chef who has since worked at very-definitely Michelin-starred The Box Top in Ilkley. All can be seen in the image gallery below.
I’ve got that information about the four other Michelin-starred restaurants in Leeds from a fairly comprehensive article published on the Yorkshire Post website in about 2019: https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/heritage-and-retro/heritage/yorkshires-michelin-stars-history-1748997.
That article, in turn, seems to have sourced its information about Michelin-starred restaurants in Leeds from a PDF floating about the internet, which lists the years each restaurant in the UK held its stars for: https://www.four-magazine.com/files/images/articles/3301/gb-i-1974-2016-star-history.pdf.
The creators of that pdf don’t say where they’ve sourced their information – but, given it’s comprehensive nature, I can only assume they’ve been able to consult the original Michelin guides published each year. I’ve not been able to do that as I cannot find a library in Leeds that has a full sequence of them.
I say all this because, interestingly, there are a number of quite significant contradictions in the information online regarding which Leeds restaurants have had Michelin stars: the Man Behind the Curtain Wikipedia entry, for instance, says that venue was the second restaurant in Leeds to get a star, rather than the fourth. It also references a YEP article that claims the recipient of the first was Jeff Baker at his Bistro Moderne in Leeds – a second reference on the same Wiki page links to a York Press article about his Bistro Moderne in York (rather than Leeds), making the claim he was the first Leeds chef to gain a star; but without saying for which restaurant!
(Note that Bistro Moderne is not among the three other restaurants given in the PDF we’ve just looked at).
I’ve tried to reconcile these competing claims with some additional research, but have actually ended up not really being able to say anything with any certainty. I looked, for instance, in our index of local newspaper articles for references to Michelin and the various venues named on that PDF – only to find that (a) articles specifically about Michelin are mainly about The Man Behind The Curtain and some even repeat the claim it was the indeed the second venue in Leeds to get a star and (b) articles about the individual venues don’t really satisfyingly clarify whether those places held stars. And (c) I’ve not found any reference to a Bistro Moderne in Leeds, either gaining a Michelin-star; in fact, consulting telephone directories in the department from the years before 2013 don’t show a listing for Bistro Moderne in Leeds at all.
This (relative) confusion is particularly the case for Rascasse, which was opened by Head Chef Simon Guellar in late 1995; we know from a 1996 newspaper article that the restaurant definitely gained a Michelin red ‘M’ by 1996, although it’s not clear to me whether that is the same as a Michelin star (the Michelin website is frustratingly vague about this).
Interestingly, articles published after the initial mention of that red ‘M’ don’t mention the venue being Michelin-starred (if that is what the red ‘M’ means) – which I would have expected they would do. Even an advert published in 1997 doesn’t mention it, nor does a comprehensive YEP review in 1998 or a review published in April 2000 – admittedly after Guellar had actually left the restaurant.
However, an October 2001 article about Guellar’s next venture – the eponymous Guellar’s, based at York Place – definitely does describe its predecessor in the terms we’re looking for. But that’s just one of several articles on the venue, and to my mind not evidence enough (I’d have preferred at least 2 or 3 confirmatory sources).
However, the 1998 Leeds Fax guide to life in the city does describe Rascasse as being Michelin-starred for superb quality, as does the Little Book of Leeds for 2000. But whether that is definitive proof – or a warning about the perils of trusting everything written in a printed source – is hard to say.
It’s kind of the same situation with Guellar’s next venture: called Guellar’s, as we’ve already heard, based at York Place and described by that YP from 2019 article as having gained a Michelin star in 2002. The Itchy Leeds guide from 2002 doesn’t mention Guellar’s as having got a star, though it may have been published before the Michelin guide came out that year.
However, this 2005 article in the Wharfe Valley Times describes Guellar as having gained a Michelin-star at three of his restaurants in Yorkshire: Rascasse, Guellar’s and The Box Tree in Ilkley – which he moved to after Guellar’s closed.
That article is an interview with Guellar himself, so the information is likely from the chef’s mouth, as it were. That’s probably sufficient proof – though I still think there’s the possibility of a kind of Chinese whisper or urban legend situation here, where information is being replicated in print with the source each time being a previous article on the subject – with no original, definitive source ever having been published or found. A situation worsened today by the seeming inaccuracies on Wikipedia, of course. (And by this point I was learning to not necessarily trust anything outside the official Michelin guides themselves).
Pool Court seems more certain, however – with contemporary YEP articles definitely naming it as a Michelin-starred venue.
Indeed, some small amount of additional digging online does seem to reveal that Jeff Baker was in fact the head chef at Pool Court during the 10 years it was gaining stars – it seems most likely, then, that Baker was the first chef in Leeds to gain at star, but at Pool Court, not at Bistro Moderne. I can only think that editors of the The Man Behind The Curtain Wikipedia article have misread the York Press article and conflated two separate bits of information – that Jeff Baker was the first Leeds chef to gain a star and that he ran a restaurant called Bistro Moderne – into the single claim that he gained his star for that restaurant in Leeds. That still doesn’t explain why Pool Court, Rascasse and Guellars are not mentioned in that Wikipedia article either, nor some of YEP articles I’ve found (which claim The Man Behind the Curtain was indeed only the second Michelin-starred venue in Leeds city centre).
So, we’re left with snippets of information, which sort-of add up to the possibility that three venues in Leeds before The Man Behind The Curtain won a Michelin-star – but no real definitive proof. As I say, checking the actual published guides would be the way to go, but I cannot find them anywhere, and Michelin themselves have not responded to my emailed query about it. Please: if anyone reading this article today knows the answer and has definitive proof – do let us know using the contact details below (we want to update the Wikipedia article, aside from anything else 😊)
Tel: 0113 3785005
EDIT: Just a day after publishing this article, I did get a response from Michelin – who have checked their local records and confirmed that the Michelin-starred restaurants in Leeds city centre are as follows:
Pool Court at 42 – 1996 to 2006
Rascasse – 1997 to 2000
Gueller – 2002
The Man Behind the Curtain – 2016 to 2021