It was a very tricky call for the team at the Checkers restaurant in Wales to make. Seven years after their remote restaurant and B&B close to the English border was awarded a Michelin star they picked up the phone to the revered guide and explained they were handing back the coveted award.
“That felt like a big deal for us,” said front-of-house supremo Kathryn Francis. “You feel you’re almost being ungrateful. It wasn’t that. The star had always been super positive but we made the call and told them what we were going to do. The guide has to be accurate and you have to be respectful to it. But we felt we had to put family first.
“Michelin were really nice, they appreciated we were letting them know. It would have been very difficult to do what we did without that star. You rely on it to find business, people migrate to it. But it was time for us to move on.”
Not many willingly give back a Michelin star but the Checkers had become a victim of its own success. Soon after opening in the Welsh Marches town of Montgomery, the secretive Michelin judges had visited and awarded the star.
“The renovation took ages but we opened in March 2011,” said Francis. “Michelin came and inspected in the first few weeks of opening and we were bowled over that by October we had our star.” The guide described it as a “charming 18th century coaching inn” serving “classical dishes executed with a deft touch”.
Since then, people have travelled from far and wide to sample the high-end cooking of Kathryn’s sister, Sarah, and her partner, Stéphane Borie.
But between them the trio – who bill themselves the Frenchman and the farmer’s daughters – have five children aged four to 11, and in the end the packed days and late nights caught up with them.
“It got to the stage where it was difficult juggling family life with working five nights a week later in the evening and also doing breakfast for residents, doing all the prep work, keeping on top of the paperwork and admin,” said Kathryn. “And all the time trying to squeeze in time for your kids. You start to compromise. It’s tough, you want to be there to tuck them in at night and you’re scooting out to work. You begin to feel guilty.
“You have to decide what’s most important for you. Working late evenings and having kids is difficult. It’s not a problem exclusive to hospitality. Many people in other jobs struggle to get a balance. Kids need you to be around and they still need you when they are teenagers. It’s about striking a balance between life and work. We got to the point where we thought, this isn’t sustainable.”
So the decision was made to change the business model. The Checkers announced that they had spoken to Michelin to effectively hand back the star. On their Facebook page they described it as a “bold (and slightly scary, exciting and possibly bonkers)” decision.
They reopened on Friday as Checkers Pantry and will serve breakfasts, light lunches and cakes and coffee, as well as keeping the B&B going.
Sarah is taking over as head chef while Borie will return for pop-up gourmet nights and other events, but will also have time to travel around the UK and Europe plying his art. “It will hopefully open us up to a wider audience,” said Kathryn. “Our tasting menu was £65 a person. Now visitors can come in and have a bowl of soup for five quid.”
The sisters, who grew up on a Shropshire farm, are clearly having fun reinventing the business. When the Guardian visited, Sarah was busy getting the kitchen ready while Kathryn was keeping the sign-writer Ian topped up with coffee as he put the finishing touches to the gleaming new facade.
One of Kathryn’s children has expressed concern that she will miss a babysitter but the older ones are looking forward to helping serve breakfasts and lunches.
Kathryn and Sarah are feeling refreshed and raring to go. “We’ve had a few weeks now of not working in the evening,” said Kathryn. “It makes you feel a different person. It means I can get up early with the children. I feel much more organised. I’ve got a clearer head and am more focused.”
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