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.


Richard Dixon said...

I'm assuming that Michelin created the Bib Gourmand for those restaurants that don't fulfil the little tweaks, teasers and anally-attentive service it so demands before a star is lavished.

I spoke to one of the owners of a newly Michelin-starred place last month - they'll remained unnamed - but they said that Michelin came to their restaurant and talked to them about the "ethos" of their restaurant. Surely it's all about the food? Obviously not.

This was before visiting 7, yes 7 times before deciding on the star, which struck me as ridiculously over the top. 3 or 4 times maybe - and then use the other 3 or 4 times to give another restaurant a chance for a garland.

Thankfully the restaurant of note was surprisingly relaxed, informal and offered up some wonderful food.

Sasha @ The Happiness Project London said...

Interesting post. But for me its NOT just about the food, its about the whole experience. I love Tayyabs and Mien Tay too, but you have a nice meal and then you leave, you aren't treated like royalty or eat food so delicate and intricate and imaginative it makes you laugh out loud.

I haven't eaten in many Michelin-starred places, but I had some of the best nights of my life at the River Cafe, Chez Bruce, Pied A Terre, Club Gascon and The Ledbury. We were treated amazingly well, the food was incredible and the wine delicious, we were there for several hours trying different courses. At an average of £100 a head it isn't cheap but the night is incredibly special, a real treat, and something you'll remember for years to come.

I'm not tempted by Alain Ducaisse or anything Ramsay does, but once my overdraft starts looking a bit more healthy, I'm dying to try The Fat Duck.

For an "inbetween" meal (something you'll remember for ages but won't blow your wallet to smithereens) I think the Polpo / Spuntino / Vinotecas's of London are perfect -nice enough inside and cool venue to keep your girlfriend happy but great value and amazing ingredients. For me, Tayyabs and Mien Tay is great but a very different night, certainly not a "date night" place anyway.

Sasha @ The Happiness Project London

Gregory said...

Love the work yet again.

My faith in Michelin deserted me shortly after reading the Perfectionist ( It made me realise that this journal is neither dynamic nor a reflection of what the paying public really want.... Good food served with a smile !!! It is only really concerned with mainting it's status.

The true sign of a good restaurant is business longevity. If a place is busy, night in, night out for a sustained period it must be doing something right regardless of it's awards.

Sam said...

I agree with a lot of your points, the main the thing the michelin guide is good for is finding a place if you fancy a "michelinny" type meal. Having said that, it arguably has more relevance if your looking for a place outside of London where's there's not quite the choice of places that we're blessed with down here.

Chris Pople said...

Richard: Yes, not ALL Michelin-starred restaurants are dull, but it seems it's easier to get a star by being dull than by being exciting. And yeah, don't let anyone tell you it's JUST about the food, that's rubbish.

Sasha: The service is part of what Michelin are scoring, definitely, and there's always room for plush surroundings and a fancy meal. But a lot of * places are all plush with no heart, including the food.

Gregory: Agreed.

SAMMY: A recent meal at Simpson's in Birmingham has only convinced me that my problems with Michelin are if anything MORE true outside the capital. A very solid, very expensive meal that exists just to please Michelin.

Alex C said...

Genuinely interesting article - thanks.

As someone who used le Guide Rouge as a primary navigational aid whilst sailing around the coast of France and other European countries for over 20 years, I think you might have missed a trick with the book. It's not just about the stars.
Certainly the stars should guide you to places with consistently excellent cooking in a refined atmosphere and excellent service (and to be fair to them, usually do).
However, they only make up a tiny percentage of the guide. Everything else in the guide is usually well worth a visit, and red forks and spoons and coins will give you an idea how much meals cost and how pleasant the setting is.
Of course you already know this and are using the guide to have a quite justified go at restaurants styling themselves to get a rosette - and with very good reason. I often rant about the scourge of the wine world, Robert Parker, whose palate which has become so powerful as to shape the way wine is made around the world. It's incredibly irritating for those of us who find him unimaginative, and preferring bland single grape varieties that appeals to uneducated (sorry) American tastes over the interesting blends that can take years and decades to mature that the French have spent the last millennia perfecting.

My point (and I apologise for going off on my own pet rant) is that the Michelin guide never pretends to go to every restaurant, and is pretty choosy about what it lets in but there certainly is room in it for marvels like Mien Tay and Zucco (my favourites of all your tips thus far).


Mr Noodles said...

I take Michelin with a giant pinch of salt. I know that certain places e.g. Tayyabs, Mien Tay etc will never get a star but when Launceston Place is continually ignored then something is most definitely rotten in the state of Denmark.

tori said...

Some great points. For me, the levels of service required for a Michelin 3 don't always mean a pleasant evening. I don't need someone to show me where the bathroom is. And if there's someone there handing me a towel, then it's just doubly awkward. Pierre Gagnaire, I'm looking at you...

Krista said...

Nice use of "culinary fellatio." Love what you do, Pople!

Frank said...

It is nigh on impossible not to feel jaded by the Michelin guide. But for some reason I feel I must defend it.

What the guide is very good at is just recommending restaurants. They don't need stars just a couple of knives and forks. And if a slurping bibendum is next to it all the better. If a restaurant has a star, just try it anyway. If it causes you to eat at Nathan Outlaw's or The Ledbury then that is only a good thing.

Yes they are wrong. And yes they do ignore great restaurants. But it is just a guide.

Triptych said...

I love some of your turns of phrase, fantastic!

Ollie said...

Very well put. What many people forget is that the Guide exists only to sell French tyres. All other effects are accidental.

Matt said...

The clear solution is to start handing out your own accolade.
"Ye gads! This restaurant has three Pople's! We must book!"

Unknown said...

I agree that Michelin is over rated but I think the factor which really cements Michelin's status is the respect given to it by chefs rather than by customers.

Going With My Gut said...

Pople: Nice work, well put. Can't remember the last time I owned a Michelin guide. Too many good finds to work through before even getting to them!

Sasha: Disagree re: Tayyabs. When my then boyfriend 1st took me to Tayyabs, I gave him grief for not having taken me there sooner. We're now married. And in fact had one of our wedding meals at Tayyabs. How's that for romance.

Matt: Love it. Do it. Let's do the Poples.