Monday, 4 April 2011
What is Michelin good for?
Being neither a journalist paid to provide timely comment on the day's news nor even a particularly motivated blogger at the best of times, I am never very on the ball when it comes to current affairs and this post is a few months too late. Ideally it would have been published on or around 18th January this year, when the 2011 Michelin Guide UK was released, and I could have added my name to the maelstrom of opinion that inevitably greets the yearly arrival of what, for better or for worse, is still the most important food guide in Europe.
In truth though, however I feel about the inclusions and glaring omissions in this year's Michelin, my opinion of the Guide has been on a fairly consistent downward trajectory since the multi-starred joints like Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road stopped being quasi-fantastical Restaurants of Dreams and I moved to London and actually started eating in them. This is inevitable, of course - not only could anywhere not live up to the Godlike places I'd invented in my head, but a difference of opinion with any guide of any kind is only natural - such is taste and preference and the majestic variety of the human condition.
The problem is that, usually, guides are just that - guides. You can use review sites like London Eating or Square Meal, you can read blogs, scour the weekend papers, buy publications like Harden's or AA, but you will never (unless you are incredibly lucky) find any one source that is a completely infallible indication of a great evening out. There are just too many factors involved, too many variables for a short paragraph on a website or a score out of 5 to take account of. I think the best restaurant in London is Tayyabs but I can't guarantee that you will too. And most sensible people realise this and will not expect too much of anything that attempts to tell you where to have your dinner.
With Michelin, though, it's different. The star awards have become an objective shorthand for achievement. A restaurant, once given the nod, is "Michelin-starred" and can expect a great deal more custom, as well as, of course, the tacit authorisation to bump up its prices by 20%. The chef, too, is one moment an overworked, underpaid kitchen monkey, the next "Michelin Starred Chef", with a pay rise, a range of branded utensils and a senior sous to do all the work maintaining the starred reputation while he or she goes off on a book tour or guest spot at the Ideal Home Exhibition. So, a Michelin award is much more important to anyone in the industry than any other accolade. What, you may be thinking, is the problem here? Perhaps Michelin are just that much better at judging a place than anyone else?
I refer you back to this year's awards. With Michelin seemingly more powerful than they have ever been, and stars so disproportionally valuable in terms of prestige and their affect on the profit margins, there exists a kind of rarefied subset of places that exist purely to please Michelin. This is not news to anyone who has been following such things, but it's particularly sad to see, year after year, just so many dull star-friendly restaurants rewarded for doing pretty much exactly what they know they have to do, with their amuse-bouches, their pre-desserts and their petits fours. Anywhere specifically trying for Michelin stars knows, more or less, the kind of thing expected of them, and although I would never dismiss their achievement as being easy and admittedly you may accidentally create some rather tasty food along the way, I would argue that if your desired end result is to please a Michelin inspector and not a normal punter, this can only be a bad thing.
Take Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. A more desperately boring, stiff, pompous and ponderous meal I've very rarely suffered, and yet it was just crushingly inevitable they were going to get the top award from Michelin. Who cares that the average diner would be far better served spending their money on a dozen and a half slap-up feasts at the Viet Grill or who knows how many steak and chips at Goodman; Michelin yet again found their own fetishistic preferences offered to them in a kind of culinary fellatio, and were only too happy to provide a happy ending.
I should probably insert a disclaimer at this point. Not only was I just as in thrall to the stars as anyone over the years, entranced in my hopelessly geeky way by the idea that you could measure culinary achievement so accurately, but also there are of course plenty of multi-starred restaurants I really like. The Fat Duck, the Ledbury, the Square; these are all superb places to spend your money and their attractiveness to the dreaded inspectors is no doubt a motivating factor. But I still can't help thinking that mainly they make food for themselves and their customers and the awards in the Guide are a (no doubt welcome) side effect of their innovation and effort, not the be-all and end-all.
Ultimately, Michelin is only, even at its best, a way for a certain handful of very expensive restaurants (and a certain type of stamp-collecting star-chasing gastro-bore) to measure their self-worth, but at its worst is stifling innovation in food, favouring overcomplicated French techniques over any other type of cuisine, and isn't even to the average person - and this is perhaps the most important point of all - a reliable guide on where to eat out any more. Discriminatory, elitist and completely counter-productive, in an ideal world the Red Guide would be just another voice in the crowd, a slightly pitiable elderly uncle still banging on about demi-glace and "Jerusalem artichoke cappuccino with hazelnut foam" while the rest of us just get on with our lives. We're sadly a long way from that situation becoming real, but hopefully, in London of all places, home to the #Meateasy, Keu!, Spuntino, Brawn, Bocca di Lupo, et al, we will find the self-confidence to pursue good food for good food's sake, and not grind all the joy out of eating by fretting about what Michelin might think. There is much, much more to life than a Michelin star.