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.
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.”
Read more by scanning the code.
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.