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17 April 2014

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RestauRANT: what’s so special about the Michelin guide?

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restauRANT_michelin - Michelin_chef.jpgIn the wake of the latest round of stars, Joe Warwick lets the air out of Michelin’s tyres in an effort to halt its drive for world domination.

I’m currently working on an idea for a Michelin voodoo doll. It would consist of a pocket-sized Bibendum, the jolly, rotund tyre-man that’s been the company’s logo since 1894, into which you could stick a miniature set of chefs’ knives. I think it would sell rather well, particularly to shunned culinary professionals with aspirations to Michelin recognition. My only worry is that there’s little chance that the French tyre manufacturer turned restaurant-guide publisher would ever clear its trademark to allow me to put my prototype into production.

Not that I’m suggesting Michelin has no sense of humour; rather that, no matter what criticism has been thrown at the guide in its 110-year history, it seems to endure like the tread on a set of its steel-belted radials. For those who have issues with Michelin, the best policy would seem to be to ignore the guide – which, from humble beginnings, has grown into what is now widely perceived as being the arbiter of gastronomic achievement. By and large, that was possible until 2006, when it ventured out of Europe for the first time with a guide to New York. Since then it has launched guides to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, and commenced its assault on Asia, taking on Tokyo in 2007, rapidly followed by Kyoto, Osaka and Hong Kong.

In the UK, the open season on Michelin in the press used to run from the start of the year to the publication of its guide to Great Britain and Ireland in late January, ceasing several weeks later as the grumbles subsided. Now, thanks both to increased media interest and an increasing number of guides, published between November and March, it seems impossible to avoid the Michelin treadmill for almost half the year. It’s getting, dare I say it, ‘tyresome’, even for the most enthusiastic followers of gastronomic fashion. Indeed, it seems Michelin may already have rather over-reached itself. Its ambitious period of expansion coincided with a difficult time for the world economy and saw the publication of its guides to LA and Las Vegas suspended for 2010, only two years after their launch, and its guide to Austria shelved indefinitely.

Michelin’s global expansion was arguably inspired, firstly, by the success of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, an annual poll of chefs and food writers that garners enviable international attention, and, secondly, by a return to the guide’s origins as a promotional tool for selling tyres. Jean-Luc Naret, the guide’s director-general, argued that, because the company sold tyres in the US and Asia, it made marketing sense to publish guides there, too. But, while the same tyre can be sold worldwide without much effort, the same approach to rating restaurants is another thing altogether.

The hostile reception Michelin received when it appeared in New York and, later, in Tokyo, was merely an echo of the complaints still levelled at the Spanish, Italian and UK guides – namely, that when it comes to rating establishments which veer too far from the French idea of a restaurant, they fail. Michelin, however, would argue that Tokyo overtaking Paris as the most Michelin-starred city on the planet answers charges of French culinary imperialism.

Last year the company went big on the star it gave to a modest 20-seat dim-sum canteen, Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, as if that somehow demonstrated that Michelin wasn’t just about dining rooms in five-star hotels. When it launched in New York, it did the same thing, awarding a star to Brooklyn’s spit ’n’ sawdust steakhouse, Peter Luger. But such efforts look tokenistic and further confuse what Michelin is actually about. In the days when it stuck to rating haute cuisine, everyone knew roughly what a Michelin star stood for. Now, who knows? Michelin loves to talk about restaurants being rated on consistency, but its own inconsistency, apparent when you compare star ratings across countries and continents, is increasingly obvious.

Granted, Michelin is assisting the gradual globalisation of gastronomy, but, in so doing, it is in danger of destroying what made eating abroad so exciting to begin with – diversity. Does every major city featured in one of its guides really need another McMichelin-approved outlet of Robuchon, Ramsay and Ducasse, their influence filtering down to the local cooking talent so that, eventually, every restaurant with ambition will be serving the same menu?

I’m hoping that the company will get back to me about my voodoo-doll idea. I’m thinking that, unlike the Michelin guide itself, it has true international appeal.

This article was published in the spring 2010 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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