WHAT MAKES A RESTAU­RANT GREAT?

Is it the food? The ser­vice? The au­then­tic­ity? The re­cently re­leasedMiche­lin Guide for Shang­hai has stirred new de­bate about how restau­rants are rated and who’s judg­ing, Mike Peters re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | DINING - Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Sal­man Rushdie, no author seems to gen­er­ate as much fuss as the col­lec­tive crit­ics of theMiche­lin Guide.

“Rightly or wrongly, ev­ery­one has some­thing to say about the Miche­lin Guide,” writes Deb­bie Yong, dig­i­tal editor of the Miche­lin Guide Sin­ga­pore. That’s es­pe­cially true when the French com­pany pro­nounces for the first time on a city’s restau­rant scene— true in­Hong Kong in 2009, and nois­ily true in Shang­hai just last month.

Fromthe in­ter­net grous­ing, few seem happy with the re­cently un­veiled 2017 Shang­hai guide. To a de­gree, this is nat­u­ral: Read the let­ters to the editor of any pub­li­ca­tion or the on­line com­ments after any story, and you find the fusspots — not posts like “What a nice ar­ti­cle!”

Some crit­i­cism comes from mis­un­der­stand­ing what the Miche­lin Guide does — and doesn’t— do.

“We’ll­lety­ouinon­alit­tle­fact not ev­ery­one re­al­izes,” Yong says: “There is no such thing as aMiche­lin-starred chef.”

That state­ment may amaze many on the Chi­nese main­land, since the phrase falls like con­fetti from restau­rant ads and me­dia re­leases when celebrity chefs come to Bei­jing or Shang­hai. (Full dis­clo­sure: I’ve writ­ten it my­self in ar­ti­cles for this news­pa­per.)

How­ever, world-class meals are of­ten the col­lec­tive ef­forts of an en­tire kitchen team and not one man (or woman) alone.

“The guide is up­dated an­nu­ally and restau­rants can lose their stars if they close dur­ing the year of assess­ment, or if they do not main­tain their stan­dards over the year,” Yong writes. “Chefs can­not take off with the stars, nor do the stars trans­fer to another restau­rant owned by the same chef.”

But the idea lingers — and stirs con­tro­versy.

T’ang Court, the Chi­nese restau­rant at the Lang­ham ho­tel, scooped up the only three-star rat­ing for the en­tire city. A cho­rus of naysay­ers in­sist the award is based on the three-star glow of its sis­ter restau­rant in Hong Kong, sug­gest­ing that the Shang­hai ver­sion isn’t as good. On the other hand, other crit­ics com­plained that Shang­hai’sOtto e Mezzo gar­nered only two stars even though the Hong Kong orig­i­nal is a peren­nial three-star win­ner.

While some chefs have sug­gested that the award­ing for stars wasn’t con­sis­tent with Miche­lin stan­dards, oth­ers aren’t sure that they should be.

The Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore edi­tions re­cently broke new ground for Miche­lin by in­clud­ing street food— amove lauded by some as cul­tur­ally savvy but panned by oth­ers who found it con­de­scend­ing.

“Farmer Jac­ques may have a fab­u­lous pig stand on the side of the road in Provence, but is his pate go­ing to be no­ticed by Miche­lin?” groused oneHongKong foodie in a blog last year. “I don’t think so.”

Such is­sues re­flect par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges for Miche­lin in Asia, such as who is do­ing the judg­ing and who is the tar­get reader of the guides?

“I would ar­gue that Di­an­ping.com is a bet­ter judge thanMiche­lin,” says one Shang­hai chef. “At least it re­flects the opin­ions of the Chi­nese peo­ple.” But do peo­ple buy aMiche­lin guide to get the opin­ions of local din­ers? asks another chef.

A more sub­tle ques­tion is how in­no­va­tion and tra­di­tion are re­spec­tively re­warded in China and in theWest.

“If you are one of theNordic restau­rants that’s all the rage, Miche­lin judges wor­ship you for be­ing the first to dis­till the essence of a grasshop­per on a plate,” says a Hong Kong food blog­ger. “But in­China, theyget ex­cited by the pret­ti­est food that can be traced di­rectly to a long-ago em­peror’s ta­ble.”

WhileMiche­lin works hard to shield the iden­ti­ties of its food in­spec­tors, a com­pany ex­ec­u­tive re­cently dis­closed that most of the in­spec­tors for the Shang­hai guide are Chi­nese. How­ever, only one of them is a Shang­hai na­tive. Many Shang­hainese have carped that the Chi­nese restau­rants hon­ored serve Can­tonese cui­sine, not the best­known dishes of Shang­hai.

In an on­line ar­ti­cle head­lined “5 myths about the Miche­lin Guide de­bunked”, Miche­lin’sYon­gin­sists that the in­spec­tors have a broad world view. Specif­i­cally, she says, a gen­eral as­sump­tion that the guide is bi­ased to­ward French food is just not so.

“The Miche­lin Guide has a sta­ble of in­spec­tors who are full-time em­ploy­ees, who are re­spon­si­ble for rat­ing over 40,000 ho­tels and restau­rants in over 24 coun­tries across three con­ti­nents. Many ofthem have stud­ied in the best hos­pi­tal­ity schools in the world, live in dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents and have an open mind to­wards cuisines from ev­ery cul­ture.”

Ad­dress­ing another myth, Yong notes that restau­rants do not— and can­not— pay to be listed in the guide.

“The guide can’t be the same the world over as the world is not the same,” says a West­ern chef who re­cently left the China restau­rant scene after a decade in main­land restau­rants.

“I don’t un­der­stand why peo­ple are not just happy for the restau­rants that won awards.”

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PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Top: Ital­ian chef Ric­cardo La Perna at Otto e Mezzo Shang­hai, which just claimed two stars. Above: Tra­di­tional Cas­sata of Ge­lato Meringato at the restau­rant.

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