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Muddy Michelin waters

My most unusual Michelin-starred meal must be Tim Ho Wan, a tiny restaurant tucked away in a backwater neighbourhood of Kowloon, Hong Kong. They seated about thirty, shoulder to shoulder in a room no bigger than my lounge, with décor to remind you of your local Chinese takeaway several thousand miles away. We had a feast of very good dim sum, were out the door in just over an hour, and the meal was about £12 for two including bottomless jasmine tea.

What the heck? Where’s my amuse bouche?

It helps if you actually take some time to read how Michelin define their own star ratings. One star indicates a “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-star ranking represents “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. There’s nothing here about the whiteness of the linen, the number of waiters hovering per diner, or whether your napkin will be folded neatly on the table for you if you disappear to the loo. Michelin are steadfast about this: stars are given for the cooking; quality, consistency, inventiveness, ingredients, value for money. Yes, value for money. That is, in theory at least, how a cupboard-sized dim sum joint in Kowloon can score a Michelin star.

Which might also explain how the Pony & Trap in rural Somerset has scored a Michelin star, or the Hand & Flowers has become the first pub in Britain with two Michelin stars. This acclamation seems to have particularly divided people. As one irate Frenchman pointed out rather sarcastically (check his comment below this blog for the full rant), the toilets even have “lovely plastic flowers…..a must have in a 2 Michelin Star rated place”! He’s clearly missing the point. It’s all about the food, right?

Or is it? Why do people consistently associate Michelin stars with a particular formula of elegant super-processed cuisine, silver service and serene white linen dining rooms (with fresh flowers in the toilet, dammit)? Well, presumably because for a very long time that was about the only sort of establishment that delivered the kind of food to merit a Michelin star.

So should we not applaud the fact that Michelin is trying to discard this twentieth century image and award stars quite deliberately (it seems to me) to dining establishments that focus on delivering quality cooking at a specific price-point rather than a blinkered fine dining formula?

I’m not going to applaud it. Let me set out my argument.

At the end of the day, restaurants are not chasing Michelin stars. No. They’re chasing money. Restaurants are businesses. The Michelin star, with its venerable history in the echelons of fine dining, attracts a moneyed clientèle willing to pay handsomely for a particular dining experience. This experience includes being looked after brilliantly, sitting in a refined dining space, eating food that has obviously had immense care and attention lavished on it, and splashing out on a bottle of vintage champagne if the occasion warrants. For most, this is special occasion dining; a wedding anniversary, a family birthday, or a lavish weekend break. It’s the restaurant that chooses to combine silver service and white linen with the Michelin-style food, because that’s what their target demographic wants and expects. History tells them so.

The Michelin star may be awarded for excellence in cooking, but it is used by people as a way of quickly identifying a complete special occasion; food, service and ambience.

To my mind, Michelin are just muddying the waters and confusing the punters by giving out stars to jolly good pubs or tasty dim sum joints. They should accept the position that the history of fine dining has put them in and continue to use the three Michelin stars to identify the highest levels of fine dining. And no, that doesn’t just mean French haute cuisine. It should be obvious today that anything from Japanese to Nordic inspired cooking can deliver a meal fit for a fine dining splurge. For delicious food in a different settings or price point, why not expand and emphasise the Bib Gourmand rosette, let’s say to three levels, in order to reward and acclaim brilliance elsewhere in the realms of eating out?

Referring again back to their own definitions: one star indicates a “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-star ranking represents “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. These stars should shine above the doors of destination restaurants. People plan entire weekend breaks around a trip to Le Manoir or The Kitchin. I don’t care how brilliant the burgers at MEATLiquor, or how splendid the simple cooking at The Green Cafe in Ludlow, no-one is going to build a weekend break around a visit there.

Michelin stars have a place. Had a place. Michelin is in danger of terminally confusing their punters if they pay too much attention to people who moan about the “Michelin formula” and so try to spread their three star system across the entire gamut of eating establishments. Keep the stars focussed. Keep them for those special occasion meals where you can ooh and aah over the cleverness of the amuses bouche, tinkle your myriad of silvered cutlery along the line of various wine glasses and have your napkin neatly folded by a team of dashing waiters when you pop to the loo.

Keep the stars where they belong. I’ll use them if I want a refined dining experience. I’ll happily look elsewhere for more down-to-earth but equally delicious food.

Postscript! Of course, it may simply be that Michelin is an imperfect, biased and disjointed organisation with overworked staff and inexact standards that regularly gets things wrong but has good PR. And so it may also be the case that the Hand & Flowers isn’t even worth two stars for its food, leaving aside the plasticity of it’s bathroom bouquet. I couldn’t tell you, I last ate there before they won a single star and had a great gastropub meal. Certainly the dim sum at Tim Ho Wan was no better than those at the splendid but unawarded Maxim’s Palace on the other side of Victoria Harbour. And I was personally disgusted this year that La Becasse lost its Michelin star for no reason I can see. If nothing else, the red guide always gives restaurant lovers something to talk about!

4 comments

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  1. Northern Snippet

    Hmmm.I agree with some of the points you make.
    Some restaurants do actually chase stars,often these are the ones that run into financial difficulties. Then once you’ve got it,there’s the constant investment in trying to keep it and the worry if you lose the star and the negative effect that can have on your business.
    In our experience Michelin don’t just look at the food.An inspector that visited us made some comments re our toilet facilities(Gents is outside and always will be due to the age and design of the building) ,and how we might want to look at changing this.We were quite miffed when he actually said ‘the only reason anyone is going to come here is for the food’ But isn’t that the point?
    (We don’t have a Michelin star BTW,just an entry in spite of the toilet arrangements).
    On a recent visit to Michelin starred place,we were surprised at the quality of the accommodation though really weren’t too bothered as we were only interested in the food,sadly the food was a big disappointment so I agree people do have expectations but at the end of the day the benchmark has to be the standard of the food:0

    1. Matthew

      The Michelin inspector certainly looks at service and ambience, because the red guide includes all of these details in its full rating system – the knives and forks, etc. It’s the much vaunted stars in particular that (Michelin claims) are awarded very specifically for the food.

      But anyway, this is really what I’m arguing – Michelin should embrace the expectations that *most* of their punters have about the meaning of a star and stick to awarding them for the top levels of fine dining, fresh flowers in the loo and all. ; )

      I use the red guide a lot. If I’m visiting an area and want a meal but don’t want the formality (and price) of a fine dining splurge, I look at all the other entries in the guide. My eye is certainly drawn straight to any Bib Gourmand, but I’m equally happy if it’s just a standard Michelin listing. I’m pretty confident it’ll be a good meal.

  2. mangofantasy

    Interesting post Matthew. I’m not sure what to say, but I want to say something.

    Any rating system that is capricious does become largely useless, so while it might be appealing in principle for a greater variety of establishments to be applauded, if that’s done inconsistently I won’t really be able to use the system as a guide any longer.

    And also, any rating system needs personal calibration to your own tastes, to be useful. So Harden’s ratings, which are not capricious, need to be understood in terms of the typical audience of diners that contribute, so you can interpret and adjust. Rather like travelling with Lonely Planet.

    I think ideally I would be guided in my choices by a basket of several ratings from different sources that represent different communities and different approaches to assessment, but none of which should be internally capricious.

    But actually the one thing that comes most strongly to mind is that I just wish Michelin stars would go away. I know they’ve been coveted for decades, but in recent years mostly due to television there’s become a blanket saturation of foodie discourse with Michelin. I now find even the phrase ‘michelin star’ quite repulsive and would just like it to stop!

    1. Matthew

      I know what you mean. I did feel the need in my post to tip my hat to the fact that Michelin stars are just something that foodies talk about, endlessly. Myself included!

      But although they feel saturated and over-emphasised now, that discourse and that hunt for stars has played a huge part in the headlong evolution of eating in Britain in the last couple of decades. Lots of new places in London are having enormous success and being widely feted by the foodie community at the middle and lower end of the eating-out spectrum… but I wonder if they would have developed at all without the inspirational lead of the “Michelin crowd” and the TV (over)exposure that has given a whole generation the sense that creating and eating food can be as exciting as creating and consuming music, or art, or theatre?

      Anyway, once all the column inches and TV hours have been brushed aside, there’s still the red guide sitting in the glove compartment of my car and it’s a jolly handy book to have there whenever we travel.

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