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Irish Chefs

This is the awards time of year, a time when all kinds of businesses give out gongs for the past year. The Golden Globes and The Academy Awards, which hang in the balance this year, are the best known, but in the world of gastronomy this is the time of year for the Michelin stars.

What makes the Michelin stars important to restaurateurs and diners alike is that it judges restaurants by international standards.

You know what to expect from a one-star restaurant, whether it's in France, Italy or Ireland. Like it or not, it's the gastronomic gold standard. This year's awards are just out and there's good news aplenty for Irish restaurants. Nobody has lost a star, and Dublin has two new ones to add to the list Dylan McGrath's Mint, in Ranelagh, and Oliver Dunne's Bon Appetit, in Malahide.

I've had my disagreements with the Michelin Guide in the past, particularly when it refused to recognise the achievements of Chapter One for several years, before eventually conceding.

But this year, I can only applaud its choices. I did predict that Mint would be the next star, but although I was enthusiastic and astounded by Oliver Dunne's skills in Bon Appetit, I never thought the Red Guide would respond so quickly.

The 'Michelin Guide' isn't only about stars, though. They also bequeath a 'Bib Gourmand', an award for restaurants that offer really good food and great value but with less pomp than the starred restaurants. Again, two new recipients this year are restaurants that really impressed me The Winding Stair on Dublin's Ormonde Quay and Sha Roe in Clonegal, Co Carlow.

You might ask, "why should we care about what a French tyre company thinks?" but I think we should.

Unlike many guides, the restaurants it lists don't pay to be in it and their inspectors are all people who have been in the business, either as chefs or managers. They know their trade and the guide has a reputation for integrity with a few glitches that it's maintained and nurtured over many decades.

What's important about these awards is that they reflect a growing maturity and confidence in Irish gastronomy. Apart from the increase in starred restaurants from four to six a major advance the two Bib Gourmands highlight changes in the Irish approach to food. The Winding Stair is at the forefront of offering simple but excellent food, at prices people can afford, and Sha Roe is proof that the market for good food isn't just in the major centres of populations, but can be found even in the remotest parts of the country.

As good restaurants thrive, more jobs are available for up and coming young chefs. These days they no longer need to emigrate, they can hone skills here in Ireland, among chefs who can hold their own at a European standard.

It's almost as though 2008 is a coming of age for the Irish restaurant business. Certainly Dublin is now up to the European average for stars for its size, and Ireland is no longer the foodie backwater it was


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