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Michelin has changed

Almost everything you think you know about Michelin stars is wrong.

Let’s start with the basic misconceptions. Michelin gives stars (ranging from one to three) to restaurants not to chefs. Each year these stars are reviewed and if the restaurant is found not to have maintained its quality, the star is taken away.

 

So when a chef claims to be a ‘Michelin star chef’ because he once worked in a restaurant that had a Michelin star, he is talking nonsense. When a restaurant claims to be ‘Michelin starred’ because it once held a star, it is lying unless it holds a star for the current year.

 

   Michelin stars are not given to restaurants in every country. Michelin comes to a restaurant market, studies it thoroughly and usually, after three years or so, it is ready to launch a guide and award stars. It does not say, for instance, ‘“Indian Accent in Delhi is good so let’s give it a star”. When and if Michelin does a Guide to India, it is entirely possible that Indian Accent will feature in it. But until there is a guide to India, no restaurant in India, no matter how good, will get a star.

 

   These are the basic mistakes, made usually by people outside the food industry. But there is a second and third set of mistakes made within the industry. One set is used by chefs and restaurateurs to fool the public by describing visiting chefs as ‘Michelin star chef’. The star wasn’t the chef’s to begin with (it was the restaurant’s). And some chefs continue using the Michelin name long after they have left the restaurant in question or the restaurant has lost its star.

 

   And there is a third, more serious range of mistakes made in an honest if misguided way by people within the profession. Speak to chefs and they will tell you that because Michelin is a French company, there will be a prejudice against Asian countries. You can’t use too much spice. All dishes must be presented on pretty plates. There is a formula for how you have to balance your tangy flavours to please the Michelin inspectors.

 

   Almost all of this is nonsense though to be fair, some of it may have been true at one stage. Part of the problem is that nobody from the outside knows how Michelin works. It is not based on a system of easily-rigged voting. Instead restaurants are judged by professional inspectors (usually from a hospitality background) who remain anonymous. Rarely will the same inspector visit a restaurant twice. On the second visit, another inspector will come. And if the two disagree then a third, more senior inspector, will visit.

 

   All visits are anonymous. The inspectors go to great lengths to hide their identities and they will pay for every meal. Each year, Michelin pays out hundreds of thousands of dollars in restaurant and travel costs because it believes, that is the only way to judge a restaurant fairly. There is no other food rating organisation in the world that invests as much in its ratings as Michelin. No other rating organisation spends so much time and money on evaluating each restaurant.

 

   You could argue that today’s Michelin is not the same as the old Michelin. In its older avatar, Michelin was more French, it worshipped French chefs and had difficulty understanding other cuisines. So, a very good Japanese restaurant might be done an injustice while Paul Bocuse’s very mediocre restaurant undeservedly kept three Michelin stars (the top grade) only out of some sense of respect.

 

   But over the last two decades, Michelin has changed. Determined to get rid of its image as a Western Europe-focused guide, Michelin set its eyes on Japan. Gwendal Poullennec, a young recruit who had joined Michelin directly from a top business school, turning down more lucrative offers from private industry, moved to Japan and lived there for over three years . He learned Japanese, took the subway everywhere and, as he was recruiting inspectors, ate as many Japanese meals as he could.

 

   The Japan guide was the breakthrough for Michelin. The Japanese who are often resistant to white people telling them what to eat respected the guide and largely agreed with its ratings. In as insular a country as Japan it became common to hear a restaurant being recommended by Japanese gourmets because it had a Michelin star.

 

   "Michelin is notoriously reluctant to talk about its inspectors or its methods. But talking to Poullennec I got the impression that the process is much more international than before."

   More unusually, Michelin gave three stars to so many Japanese restaurants that it was hard to accuse it of being motivated by French prejudice.

 

   While still living in Japan, Poullennec opened up Hong Kong and China. The Michelin guide to Hong Kong caused a huge stir --- it was the first time that a Chinese restaurant had got three stars --- and when the inspectors also gave a star to a small dim sum shop called Tim Ho Wan that had only recently opened, the locals accepted that the inspectors knew what they were talking about.

 

   After many such successes Gwendal Poullennec became the global head of Michelin and he has wasted no effort in expanding the guide and in increasing its scope so that it became the world’s most authoritative guide to restaurants, not just a Western Europe phenomenon.

 

   I spent several hours with Poullennec and Elisabeth Boucher who works closely with him in Paris last week and what struck me most was the restless, youthful energy and passion they brought to their jobs. Gwendal is a rangy 44 year-old who bicycles everywhere, even when it is raining, and is forever looking for ways to expand Michelin's horizons. Elisabeth Boucher who helps Poullennec and looks after global strategy is a Cambridge-educated, literature student who has also worked in political offices. The two of them and their different skills and training bring a fresh and different energy to the old Michelin operation and together they have taken Michelin to 45 countries.

 

   Michelin is notoriously reluctant to talk about its inspectors or its methods. But talking to Poullennec I got the impression that the process is much more international than before. Not only are many nationalities represented but each guide is not just the work of a single team. The Italian guides, for instance, may use inspectors flown in from France or Hong Kong.  The Bangkok guides may use the services of inspectors from London and Paris. This makes it almost impossible for chefs to be able to recognise inspectors. And it also brings area-specific expertise. No French restaurant in say, Singapore will get three stars until it has been inspected by a guy who gives out three stars in Paris.

 

   Gwendal believes that the difference between an inspector and a foodie is a question of rigour. A person who really loves food may eat out three or four times a week, yielding a total of roughly 180 meals a year. A Michelin inspector on the other hand must eat 300 meals at restaurants every year. Only then does he or she get the perspective required to make judgements. “It is not enough that somebody goes to a restaurant and likes the food” he says. “It has to be rigorous. It has to be somebody who eats out all the time. It’s not a hobby. It’s a job. “

 

   Even if Gwendal did nothing else, he would be remembered as the man who took Michelin international and broke the caricature of it as a parochial French company. But he has also successfully re-entered America where Michelin had suffered some reverses. And he has huge plans. The Green Stars, an initiative closely associated with him, emphasised sustainability long before it became trendy. And now there is a hotel rating system (with keys rather than stars apparently) to be unveiled in April/May which he is not ready to talk about yet.

 

   But he will discuss how Michelin, which is often invited to open guides in many countries by government bodies that subsidise the operations, maintains its independence.  At last year’s launch of the Abu Dhabi guide, the Minister of Tourism began the proceedings by pointing out that Gwendal had not given him any information about the winners and that he would learn about them at the same time as the audience.

 

   In the event, Abu Dhabi did not fare particularly well. Bangkok has done better but after seven years, Michelin has not found a single three star restaurant in Thailand, which does not delight the folks at Thai Tourism.

 

   And yet the countries in question keep renewing or signing new contracts with Michelin. They do it because the very presence of a Michelin Guide leads to a sharp boost in tourism and it elevates the standards of the local restaurant scene. And there are other benefits: global fame, respect for the country’s cuisine and greater attention paid to the cooking ingredients and methods (say, Thai rice) by chefs all over the world.

 

   The message these days is: all cultures have great food. It’s not just the prerogative of the French. And Michelin will find the best restaurants in each country that serve this great food.

 

   In a world under siege from hype, lies, fixes and advertorial, it is refreshing to find one Guide that will never compromise on  its standards no matter how much it is paid.

 

   Because food matters. And judging it fairly may matter even more.

 

 

Posted On: 02 Feb 2024 01:00 PM
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