The Michelin Guide. An annual publication of almost mythical status that can, quite literally, make or break the fortunes of a restaurant. Each year the catering industry holds its breath in anticipation of the latest edition – how many new stars this year? How many three-stars? Will anyone lose their stars? Some chefs have become so consumed by the pressures of the Michelin circus that they have suffered full mental breakdown. Some have even resorted to suicide.
For a book.
A book originally conceived in order to sell tyres. Yep, that’s right. The origins of the Michelin Guide lay in a bid to increase tyre sales by encouraging motorists to wear-out their rubber whilst visiting the listings within the guide. That was in 1900; by 1926 the star-rating system was introduced and the rest, as they say, is history. So now here we are some hundred-odd years later happily paying £15 a pop for a little red book that used to be given away for free.
On the face of it you would have to ask why? We live in an age of Trip Advisor and truly constant media coverage, where everyone and their dog has a social media account and will happily share their restaurant reviews for a ‘like’. The information is out there – if someone enjoys a meal they’ll tweet about it; receive a bad meal and they’ll plaster the images over Instagram. It has never been easier to garner an opinion. But opinions are like arseholes: everybody has one, and as any good proctologist will confirm, each and every one is different. Which is where the Michelin Guide begins to make sense.
The strength (or perceived strength) of the little red book lies in its anonymity. Each one of its inspectors carries out their work in covert inconspicuousness, visiting a restaurant on a number of occasions and at varying times of the day in order to gauge a mean average of both the food and the service. This secretive approach means that Michelin’s inspectors keep no alternate agenda. They don’t tweet, they don’t blog, they have no soapbox on which to stand to feed their starving egos; inspections are carried out quietly and the resulting reviews written with absolute objectivity. This is what sets the Guide apart from the rest. As it has no ulterior motive (not even the motive of selling tyres anymore) the Michelin Guide is held as a bastion of culinary critique. Whereas a disgruntled punter may vent their spleen on Trip Advisor, a Michelin inspector will unceremoniously report their findings and measure them against an established criteria of excellence; no sponsors, no fishing for followers, no revengeful spite.
So what are those criteria? Well, it is on the back of this question that the Michelin tapestry begins to unravel.
Michelin is a French company. The last century of Western European cuisine has been, by and large, based on French technique; when a chef talks of being ‘classically trained’, he or she is invariably referring to the classic French system. The French invented the notion of gastronomy, their intricate cuisine is quite rightly the benchmark against which all other cuisines tend to be judged. When it comes to their food, the French are (dare I say it?) elitist, and more than a little disparaging of others. Which is why the first Michelin stars to be awarded in the UK didn’t occur until 1974, and even then they were awarded to French chefs serving classic French food. It is no wonder, then, that for some time now the Michelin Guide has been accused of bias towards the French sensibility. The Guardian even went so far as to call the guide ‘a tool of Gallic cultural imperialism’; looking back through the lists of stars awarded since 1974 there seems little to argue against this view.
The Michelin guide had become so synonymous with this Franco-centric bias that those with a different mindset began to turn away from it. It was seen as outdated and, with the resurgence of the Spanish and Scandinavian food movements, even irrelevant by a new generation of diners. But not so by the chefs. They continued to court the Michelin dynasty – and why wouldn’t they? With each new star came the chance to increase menu prices. The more stars gained, the more exclusive your club; the more exclusive, the higher the premium. It’s basic supply and demand. As long as enough people were willing to pay the premium, the system could sustain itself.
And this is the case. There are plenty of people out there who will happily pay upwards of £200 for a seat at a three-star table, enough people to place a 6 month waiting list on some restaurant reservations. Which is precisely the problem: the average person is scared of Michelin. To your average Joe, the words ‘Michelin star’ mean expensive. They mean formality, stuffiness, elitism, pretentiousness. Even if this is not the case – there are a good number of more relaxed starred eateries out there now – it is the perceived traits of Michelin dining that keep all but the most dedicated gastronomes away. Which is fine, I suppose. Horses for courses; Michelin dining is not for everyone.
But then Michelin pulled a dick move.
Painfully aware of its elitist reputation, the powers-that-be at Michelin decided to diversify. They wanted to show the world that they weren’t just about high-end French cookery, about extensive wine lists and complicated cooking techniques, sky high prices or minuscule portions. A Michelin star should be awarded for culinary excellence, regardless of price, location or discipline. And so in 2016, amid a torrent of media publicity, two street vendors were awarded a Michelin star each in the Singapore edition of the Michelin Guide. Cue the Michelin directors back in France congratulating each other on their swift levelling of the playing field. After all, what says accessibility like a Singapore street-food hawker winning a Michelin star?
One of the two awarded a star was Chan Hon Meng, chef proprietor of Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle in Singapore’s Chinatown Complex open-air food court. As its name suggests, the stall sells chicken, rice and noodles with an average plate of food costing around £1.10. Now I’m sure that Mr Meng’s chicken is utterly sublime, certainly the best of its kind to be found, but can a Singaporean street-food stall really be compared to The Ritz, River Café, St. John, The Man Behind The Curtain, Hakkasan, or Pétrus? Or any of the other 140 one-star restaurants in the UK alone? Were Chef Meng selling his chicken from a stall in Borough Market, would his star still have been awarded him? The answer, quite simply, is no.
Of course it wouldn’t. This was a cynical publicity stunt, plain and simple. In one move the Michelin Guide negated everything for which it was once revered: consistency and impartiality. The value of a single Michelin star that may have taken a 20-strong brigade years of toil to achieve was wiped away as soon as Chan Hon Meng’s star was awarded. Michelin had effectively said to all of those one-star establishments ‘Congratulations, you are now as good as a Singapore street vendor’.
And what are the guide-using public to think? That they can expect the same exacting standards of precision technique and service at a market stall as they can in a Belgravia restaurant? That the same simple dish repeated over and over again is comparable to an á la carte of 12 or more carefully concocted dishes of fresh seasonal produce? A Michelin star means nothing unless its value is consistent the world over. So if Michelin itself can’t seem to clarify its own value-system then, quite simply, what is the point of the system at all?