The Michelin Guide has “produced a legion of miserable gourmands”, the late AA Gill once wrote in a blistering article for Vanity Fair. The renowned food critic slated the guide for becoming an overpriced exercise in vanity to feed the raging egos of competitive chefs while giving “foodie trainspotters” the ultimate bragging rights, but in the process, sucked any modicum of joy out of the experience. Heading for a good night out with friends? Don’t subject yourself to the stifling, old-fashioned rigours of a Michelinstarred venue…
It didn’t start out like this. The story of how a tyre-shaped figure (named Bibendum) became the mascot for excellent food begins with the Michelin brothers, Andre and Edouard, in France back in 1889. In order to drum up business for their tyre company, the forward-thinking brothers cooked up a marketing scheme: a handy traveller’s guide with maps, information on where to get petrol or tyre repairs, and where to stop for the night and get a decent meal.
Interest grew, particularly for the restaurant section, and by 1931 the three-star system as we know it today had been established. From a humble directory, the Michelin Guide evolved into a destination wish list. But has it now, as Gill argued, evolved into an entirely different beast?
Gill’s other main criticism took aim at the guide’s “limited scope and its snobbery” in demonstrating a clear bias against anything other than French cuisine, pointing out Italy has absurdly few three-star restaurants in comparison, while the rich complexities of Indian cuisine just seemed to baffle the guide. Notably, in the guide’s most recent expansion in Thailand, not a single establishment in Bangkok was deemed worthy of a three-star rating…
At the same time, there was nothing “miserable” about the Bangkok guide launch – quite the opposite in fact. And having been lucky enough to dine in a few Michelin-starred establishments, I can confirm the experiences were nowhere near as horrific as Gill suggests. The last few guides have also demonstrated a clear shift away from the supposed devotion to formal dining rooms and eye-watering price tags, with a number of street stalls being honoured with the coveted stars.
It’s an interesting debate. But at the end of the day – it is just a guide. So if you agree with Gill, and hate the pretentious nonsense of Michelin’s fine-dining recommendations, simply use the guide as a “where to avoid”. But if you’re an ardent food lover with an appreciation for the finer things in life, then turn to page 50 to find out where you should be heading in Bangkok.