Food guides are a complicated business. As far as the world’s chefs are concerned, there is only one that matters: Michelin. Ever since the guide to France, published by the eponymous tyre company, first started handing out stars to restaurants, its rankings have had a disproportionate effect on the food scene.
Michelin operated on the principle that merely to be included in the guide was an honour. Very good restaurants were given one star. Excellent restaurants got two stars. And the world’s finest restaurants got three. (Three stars is the highest ranking.)
The Michelin Guide was founded and edited by Andre Michelin in 1900. Michelin (along with his brother Edouard) had founded the tyre company in 1888 and the guide was his way of helping motorists find their way around France. In the early guides, restaurants were merely listed. Though the first stars were awarded in 1926, the guide did not bother with much prose or description till the end of the 20th century. But the stars alone were enough. Chefs began to long for Michelin ratings for their restaurants and such was the Guide’s influence on chefs that the confusion over who got the stars – the chef or the restaurant – began.
Michelin was clear. It did not rate the chef. It gave the stars to the restaurants. Thus, Maxim’s, the famous Paris restaurant showed off its stars in the early part of the 20th century even though the chef remained a lesser-known figure toiling away in the kitchen. But because restaurants became so closely identified with their chefs, it became harder and harder to say who had got the stars: the restaurant or the chef himself. When a famous chef left a restaurant, Michelin often took its stars away. And when great chefs moved to new restaurants, Michelin had a way of ensuring that their stars travelled with them.
Today it is common to speak of ‘Michelin-starred chefs’ though in theory, the stars continue to be given to the restaurants, not the men who cook in them.
As the fame of French food spread, Michelin launched guides to other European countries, finally arriving in England in the 1970s. In French-influenced nations, the guide was well received. At other places, the reaction was mixed. For instance, British food writers often claim that Michelin’s London guide makes too much of fancy French food and that the Michelin inspectors do not understand other cuisines. (They certainly know damn-all about Indian food – the London guide shows that Michelin’s UK operation is lost when it moves away from European food).
In 2005, the Guide spread beyond Europe and launched a New York edition – only to find that nobody cared. New Yorkers trust the New York Times (where a single review can make or break a restaurant) and many have affection for Zagat (which is based on feedback from ordinary diners). But nobody cares too much about Michelin. Though the Guide loyally gave three stars to the French chef Alain Ducasse when he opened in New York at the Essex House hotel, this cut no ice with diners and Ducasse’s restaurant closed down. (Ducasse has since opened a new restaurant at the St. Regis Hotel.) Similarly, two Michelin stars did not help Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant especially after Ramsay failed to impress the New York Times.Asia was next on Michelin’s list. In 2007, it announced that it was launching a Tokyo guide. When it appeared, foodies were startled to discover that Tokyo had 150 Michelin-starred restaurants – more than Paris. Next came Hong Kong where Michelin made a genuine effort to understand Chinese cuisine and gave stars to small,
I am not sure where Michelin will go next but Singapore must be high up on the guide’s list of priorities. Such critics as Pascal Remy, a former Michelin inspector (in Michelin parlance, an inspector is a man who visits a restaurant anonymously and reviews it for the guide) who fell out with Michelin and wrote an expose of the guide’s methods, claim that the whole business of rating restaurants is no more than a means of furthering the tyre company’s commercial interests. That’s why the guide went to Japan, which is a major tyre market, says Remy.
If that is true, then I doubt if we will get any Michelin guides to India in the near future and so our restaurants and chefs will be denied the stars that are their due. Meanwhile, our chefs look for global recognition whenever they can find it. Last month, there was some excitement within the restaurant and hotel business about the fourth edition of the Miele guide to Asia’s restaurants.
I went to the launch party for the first Miele guide and wrote about it then. I had hoped that the guide would grow to become an Asian Michelin but my hopes seem to have been belied. In all my travels through Asia over the last few years, I’ve never actually heard anyone quoting the Miele guide and the only place I have ever been able to find a copy on sale is in Singapore, where the guide is based. (Perhaps I just move in the wrong circles and go to the wrong bookshops.)
I was looking at the fourth edition and I thought I knew what the problem was. The reason the guide has failed to make the impact it could have is because it seems embarrassed by the food of Asia.
Take for instance, its top ten Asian restaurants in this edition. Not one of these restaurants serves real Asian food. Three out of ten are branches of French chains. Another three out of ten are located in Singapore (including numbers one and two) which is almost too convenient for a Singapore-based guide. Of the chefs of the top ten restaurants, six are European and schooled in the French tradition. Of the other four, three are Asians who run ‘modern European’ or French restaurants. And the one exception specialises in a kind of molecular gastronomy.
Hello! Is this a guide to Asia or what? Or is it just a directory of expatriate chefs?
I have nothing against the top ten restaurants themselves. The ones I do know on the list are all very good: Iggy’s and Andre in Singapore, Caprice and Bo Innovation (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) in Hong Kong, etc.
But are these really the best restaurants in Asia? Is there not a single Chinese, Thai or Indian restaurant that is in the same league as these places?
And what about Japan? Michelin thinks the food in Tokyo is amazing. But I could not find a single Japanese restaurant in the Miele guide’s top 20 restaurants. At first I thought that perhaps Japan was not part of the guide. But no, there is an extensive Japanese section. So why are there no Japanese restaurants at all in the top 20?
That leaves India. Does it make sense to claim that not one of Asia’s top 10 restaurants is in India? The first Indian entry is the Bombay Dum Pukht at 15, followed by the Madras Dakshin at 16 and finally Bukhara at 20. I do not dispute the choice of restaurants (though personally I would have taken the Delhi original over the Bombay Dum Pukht) and yes, it is an amazing achievement for ITC to get three restaurants (the only three Indian restaurants, as it turns out) in the Asian Top 20.
But is there no restaurant in all of India in the same league as three different Singapore restaurants? Are all our chefs useless compared to a bunch of white guys who live the expat lifestyle in Asia? Is French the only cuisine that matters? Does it make sense for Asian cuisines to be completely excluded from an Asian Top Ten? Surely, Bukhara and Dum Pukht (Delhi) belong in any genuinely representative Top Ten?
The real loser in all this is Indian food. Given that Michelin in the West shows no real understanding of Indian cuisine, our restaurants and chefs never get the global recognition they deserve. If Michelin does come to India and demonstrates the same commitment to local cuisine that it has shown in Hong Kong or Tokyo then I’m sure that at least two Indian restaurants would get three stars (the Delhi Dum Pukht, for one), and many others would get loads of stars. But Michelin has no Indian ambitions. And existing Asian guides have too many European ambitions, making Indian chefs the orphans of the global food scene.
From HT Brunch, November 20
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