Can a Michelin-Rated Restaurant Thrive in the Heart of Steel Country?
The English city of Sheffield has over half a million people but only one Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Jöro. And they have big plans
Walking into Jöro, you feel like you could be anywhere in the world – quite literally. The small, tasting menu-focused restaurant is located in the bottom floor of a building constructed from reclaimed shipping containers. After traveling the globe, these containers probably never expected to ride out their final days in, of all places, a landlocked city in Northern England. Meanwhile, the cuisine also has a global approach, almost contradictorily so: Highly influenced by the work of Nordic chefs like Rene Redzepi, as the name implies, Jöro also adheres to the ethos of “using hyper seasonal ingredients and locally sourced food.” The result is a dish like Norwegian mackerel prepared with kohlrabi, onion and roasted yeast purée and dashi, tastily tipping its hat in all directions.
And yet despite the umlaut, Jöro is extremely relevant to the place it inhabits: Sheffield – a former English steel capital not too dissimilar from Pittsburgh. When Michelin released its 2018 guide for the United Kingdom back in October, Jöro – which had only opened in January – was added with a Bib Gourmand distinction. It’s a big deal for this city of over 550,000 people: Sheffield has no starred restaurants, making Jöro the top of its Michelin crop. “I was over the moon when we found out,” explained head chef and co-owner Luke French. “I was expecting only a listing/plate status recognition from Michelin, so this was a really nice surprise. Obviously it isn’t a star, but I wasn’t expecting that either!”
The Michelin Guide works a bit differently in England than it does in the States. Unlike in America, where guides are offered for specific cities – currently just Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. – across the pond, all of Great Britain and Ireland are lumped into one book. Seeing as the whole United Kingdom is only about the size of Michigan, this decision makes sense. But it also creates an interesting dynamic: Unlike in the U.S. where all of our Michelin-rated restaurants are in major urban areas, in the U.K., starred and Bib Gourmand-recommended destinations are sprinkled across the landscape from the hippest neighborhoods in London to the tiniest country villages.
This system can create a conundrum for a city like Sheffield. While the 1,100-resident village of Baslow, a short 30-minute drive away, has a Michelin-starred restaurant, its metropolitan neighbor of over a half-million has had nary a single star since The Old Vicarage – featuring more traditional white tablecloth dining in a Victorian house – lost its distinction back in 2015. Meanwhile, Bristol – an English city of comparable size to Sheffield – has three Michelin-starred eateries.
An obvious assumption would be that Sheffield simply can’t support these kinds of fine dining establishments, with Northerners representing a more “meat and potatoes” crowd as the U.K.’s Daily Mail put it. But the response French has received since earning his Michelin acclaim would seem to say otherwise. “We only used to fill on the evenings towards the back end of the week, but now we are pretty much full for lunch and dinner each day we are open,” he tells me. “The phone never stops, email never stops!” Adding, “It’s very positive.”
Importantly, the chef says that increase in business is more than just foodie tourist looking to cross another restaurant off their list. “As well as being a neighborhood restaurant, we are now seen also as a destination restaurant,” French says. “However, we are still seeing a lot of locals coming through the door, people wanting to try something new, and many return guests as well which is great.”
Part of Jöro‘s success is that, despite its lofty ideals, much like its locally sourced food, the restaurant doesn’t overlook its home. Both the eight and ten course tasting menus aren’t just delightful, but to a former New Yorker, they also feel like a downright steal at just £45 and £55 (about $60 and $74) – pricing more in line what people expect to pay in the area. Tacking on a wine flight for £35 or £45 also seemed more than fair based on the quality of wine and the pours. (Never skimp a Northerner on his drink!) And Jöro isn’t beholden to its tasting menus either: On any given night, diners can also choose to eat small plates a la carte – essentially allowing you to pick from the tasting menu at your own discretion, and within your own price range.
Along similar lines, despite the obvious Nordic and occasionally Japanese influence, a number of dishes felt right at home in South Yorkshire. The beetroots were a standout, prepared in long, flat strands like a purely beet-made tagliatelle interwoven with goats curd, pumpkin seed granola and spruce pickled blueberries. The Moss Valley pork was also prepared perfectly, accompanied by carrots and cabbage – daintily, yes, but still in a nod to the area’s Sunday roast roots.
As a result, French, who has been in Sheffield since 2010 after starting his career around Cambridge, is already looking to double down on the city. “We’ve got four years left on our lease here,” he says. “In between now and that time I’d like to find us a new home, with more space to enable us to really smash in what we want to do in to the forefront of cooking in the North of the UK…. I would like a larger kitchen, with separate areas for stations, more staff, more storage, an area we can cure and age meats, make cheese, a bakery, fermentation chamber, and I’d love a small holding where we could rear some animals and grow some veg.”
To put it another way, French want to take Jöro – and Sheffield – to the next level. “I want a Michelin Star, and I am determined and confident our cooking is good enough; we just have to maintain the consistency, and not dilute or get carried away: always tasting and questioning if what we are doing is at a high enough level, not over complicating,” the chef says. “If we can do it and in Sheffield, in a shipping container, history will be made….”