STARS IN THEIR EYES

Simon Wil­son de­bunks the myth of the Miche­lin star sys­tem

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - SIMON WIL­SON IS A SOME­TIME RES­TAU­RANT CRITIC AND FOR­MER RES­TAU­RANT AWARDS JUDGE.

Why do restau­rants keep telling us their chefs have worked some­where with a Miche­lin star?

I re­viewed an Auck­land res­tau­rant once in the com­pany of a man who, in my view, has all the at­tributes needed to be a fine in­spec­tor for the

Miche­lin Guide, a cen­tury-old French res­tau­rant guide book. Food knowl­edge: vast and in­tri­cately de­tailed. Ob­sessed with tech­ni­cal­ity: oh yes.

He was al­ready there when I ar­rived, sit­ting at a ta­ble in the door­way, where there was a draft and wait­ers and cus­tomers con­stantly bumped their way past. Pity about the ta­ble they gave us, I said.

Oh, he said, I asked to sit here.

I or­dered vitello ton­nato, which is an Ital­ian dish of veal with a tuna sauce that de­pends on the qual­ity of the meat, the rather pre­cisely pi­quant qual­ity of the sauce, and the pre­sen­ta­tion — which is difficult. There was a photo do­ing the rounds of so­cial me­dia re­cently of a plate of meat with what looked like a large pile of vomit on top.

That evening at our res­tau­rant it looked fab­u­lous — and tasted that way too. My din­ing com­pan­ion leaned over with his fork, took a mouth­ful, chewed thought­fully and pro­nounced it the best vitello ton­nato he had ever eaten in a res­tau­rant.

He did not take an­other bite. De­spite my best ef­forts to share, he would not. He al­ready knew what he thought so what was the point?

I don’t want to say he didn’t ac­tu­ally like food, be­cause I know he does. But me, judg­ing a meal or just out for din­ner, if I like it I’ll eat it.

I have, I know it, a sim­pler un­der­stand­ing of what means to like food.

Good on him, though. Re­spect. We can’t all live like Miche­lin judges and it’s prob­a­bly good that some peo­ple do so we don’t have to.

AC­TU­ALLY, I

don’t be­lieve that. The Miche­lin star sys­tem is a blight on hos­pi­tal­ity. The so-called stan­dards it has im­posed on din­ing have con­stricted the res­tau­rant trade for decades, prop­ping up a self-ag­gran­dis­ing, archly con­ser­va­tive and — worst sin of all — deeply bor­ing style of eat­ing out.

Miche­lin judg­ing is not what it was, but the bleak heart of the Miche­lin sys­tem re­mains. It’s an idea born of peo­ple who pick at this and that and don’t re­ally eat. It says din­ing should hap­pen in a room that sounds like a li­brary and looks like it be­longs in a French chateau, prefer­ably one with ser­vants in the kitchen.

It thinks of food as a tech­ni­cal cre­ation to be mea­sured by ar­cane rules in­vented be­fore time be­gan. Or at least, be­fore the 20th cen­tury.

It’s the idea that a great res­tau­rant is a tem­ple, not to he­do­nism, but to pro­pri­ety.

We’re so lucky Miche­lin judges don’t op­er­ate in New Zealand. Free from their dead weight, our best restau­rants — not all of them or even most, but our best — have de­vel­oped an ap­peal­ing lo­cal style. The food is exquisitely cooked, of­ten with lo­cal ar­ti­sanal in­gre­di­ents, and served in an at­mos­phere that com­bines folksy friend­li­ness with im­pec­ca­ble at­ten­tion to de­tail.

You have fun and there’s some fancy. That’s what we’re re­ally good at and much of the rea­son for it — the bold­ness in the kitchen and the warmth of the ser­vice — would not even reg­is­ter in the tick box lists of a Miche­lin judge.

Miche­lin still makes its in­spec­tors iden­tify 23 in­gre­di­ents, or what­ever it is, cooked into a dish, which is both mind-blow­ingly im­pres­sive and only min­i­mally re­lated, in my view, to any­one’s abil­ity to judge a res­tau­rant.

I know, it’s not what it was. Miche­lin is open to new cuisines, it’s big in Asia now, and it says it’s open to new styles of eat­ing too. Good old Miche­lin.

There’s a yak­i­tori bar in Tokyo that seats half a dozen din­ers a time, eat­ing snacks with their beer, and it has some Miche­lin stars. Which means it also has a queue round the block.

Maybe that’s amaz­ing. To me, that sounds like a ges­ture of anti-restau­ran­tism: the place has be­come the op­po­site of it­self. Al­though I haven’t been there so I can’t judge how good it re­ally is.

I’m happy to judge the Miche­lin-starred res­tau­rant I ate at once in Hong Kong, though. The food was a showy mess, like it had been de­signed to be laughed at on tele­vi­sion. Which could have been true, the chef was a celebrity buf­foon.

One of the dishes looked like a beach, com­plete with a lit­tle fake ed­i­ble con­dom on a bed of fake ed­i­ble sand.

It seems Miche­lin, in its mod­ern in­car­na­tion, may have veered slightly off course. I sup­pose I should be ap­plaud­ing, but I’m not.

Miche­lin is also aw­ful for the world it helped cre­ate. Gor­don Ram­say once said los­ing Miche­lin stars was like los­ing a girl­friend or los­ing foot­ball’s Eu­ro­pean Cham­pi­ons League. Ap­par­ently those two things equate as well.

He also said if he dis­cov­ered an in­di­vid­ual staffer had been re­spon­si­ble for one of his restau­rants hav­ing lost stars, he would take them to a Nor­we­gian fjord and drown them.

Who the hell needs Ram­say? Who, in the world of cre­at­ing restau­rants with scrump­tious food, warmly at­ten­tive ser­vice and a won­der­ful at­mos­phere, needs their stan­dards to be driven in any way at all by blowhard celebri­ties? STILL, I’M

not say­ing no to ev­ery­thing. Miche­lin eat­ing can be great.

The first res­tau­rant of a Miche­lin-starred chef I ever ate at was L’Ate­lier de Joel Robu­chon, in Paris. It was 2004 and the place it­self was too in­for­mal for Miche­lin stars back then: we ate at the counter, for heaven’s sake. But Robu­chon him­self was star-stud­ded. By the time he died last year he’d won 31, mak­ing him the most Miche­linned chef in the world.

At L’Ate­lier we ate slices of jel­lied ter­rine and an in­tensely aro­matic soup but the dish I re­mem­ber most was in­di­vid­ual choco­late fon­dants, the molten choco­late gush­ing ex­trav­a­gantly from the choco­late-cake cas­ing.

It was deca­dent, tasty and crunchy-soft mouth­feely good be­yond be­lief. Within a year or two ev­ery bog-stan­dard bistro in the world was do­ing it.

Not as well, nat­u­rally. I’m glad I ex­pe­ri­enced the dish at what I choose to be­lieve, sen­ti­men­tally, was its apex. But I am still pay­ing off the bill.

Those stars should tell you where to find im­pec­ca­ble cook­ing. Per­haps they do — that sand in Hong Kong tasted bet­ter than it looked. But they are a poor guide to the qual­ity of the res­tau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence.

For that, you need some­thing bet­ter. Sadly, you won’t get it from the as­sur­ance of some PR flak that a chef has “worked in Miche­lin-starred restau­rants”.

EV­ERY OTHER

week in New Zealand, a new res­tau­rant pops up boast­ing it has a chef with Miche­lin-star ex­pe­ri­ence. It could mean any­thing.

In the leg­endary Auck­land fine-din­ing res­tau­rant The French Cafe one night, where you can see through the pass into the kitchen, I watched a man in full chef’s whites stand in a cor­ner for three straight hours. He didn’t move.

Was he an in­tern on his first month, and in the se­cond would be al­lowed to start peel­ing pota­toes? Was he the sous chef be­ing pun­ished for the pre­vi­ous night when he burnt the bechamel sauce?

I don’t know, but I guar­an­tee that even if that was his first day on the job and he quit in tears the very same night, his CV will still carry the phrase “worked at the French Cafe”.

That’s what “worked at a Miche­lin res­tau­rant” can mean.

On the other hand, it can mean Josh Em­mett. He’s a bona fide Miche­lin-starred guy: head chef at The Savoy Grill in Lon­don when it won a star; se­nior chef de par­tie at a Ram­say res­tau­rant when it won three stars, ex­ec­u­tive chef at two other Ram­say restau­rants that won three stars be­tween them.

Emett made Ram­say look good. Emett is a Miche­lin mae­stro, no ques­tion.

But that’s his personal history. When he re­turned to New Zealand he opened Rata in Queen­stown, then Ostro in Auck­land, then Madam Woo, which now has five lo­ca­tions. As a MasterChef judge he was like a man who lives in the rar­efied up­per air of elite achieve­ment, but none of his New Zealand restau­rants is Miche­lin qual­ity. None of them as­pires to be.

Rata’s the best and well worth a visit. Madam Woo is cheap and cheer­ful, in a pro­cess­fo­cused barn kind of way.

All Emett’s restau­rants here have dishes on the menu that I re­ally hope one day I will eat again. But his Miche­lin pedi­gree is ir­rel­e­vant. Those dishes are not “good” in a Miche­lin way. And, in case you were won­der­ing, his heatand-eat su­per­mar­ket meals aren’t meant to be Miche­lin qual­ity ei­ther.

Even if you were told some chef “worked in a Miche­lin-starred res­tau­rant” but then dis­cov­ered they got sacked after six months, you can’t know what that means.

Pos­si­bly they couldn’t make a de­cent stock. But pos­si­bly they couldn’t stand be­ing slowly boiled alive in the broth of bor­ing, and were happy to run off to an ex­cit­ing, more ad­ven­tur­ous kitchen.

Nigel Slater and Nigella Law­son both know how to make per­fect stocks. Nei­ther of them could be re­motely both­ered with the proper­ness re­quired to cook in a Miche­lin style. In New Zealand that’s also true for Al Brown and the many pro­teges his qual­ity-with-panache recipe for suc­cess has helped to breed.

It’s tempt­ing to think that a bet­ter guide to qual­ity might be “worked for Al Brown” or “worked in [in­sert your favourite res­tau­rant]”. But even that’s un­re­li­able. I know sev­eral top Auck­land restau­ra­teurs who are a lit­tle an­noyed that a few oth­ers, hav­ing worked for them, now trade on their name when the re­la­tion­ship ended badly.

We need all kinds of restau­rants. Fun, fancy, fun and fancy — and all the oth­ers. Some peo­ple en­joy fine din­ing im­mensely, and who’s to say they shouldn’t. But it’s non­sense to think their pref­er­ence de­fines qual­ity for ev­ery­one else.

The best meal you’ll ever have in your life? For some peo­ple it will in­deed be in a Miche­lin­starred res­tau­rant. For most, it will be that bar­be­cue you had one time with loved ones on the beach; or take­ways with a bot­tle of cheap bub­bly, sit­ting on the floor of your first home. Con­text isn’t all, but it’s an aw­ful lot.

And if you want help choos­ing a place to eat, for­get that Miche­lin stuff. Let a de­cent critic guide your way. The Her­ald has a few, as do oth­ers. Read them and de­cide whose judg­ment sounds right for you.

The best critic is the one who tells you what you need to know. Just like the best res­tau­rant, which is not the one that just gained an­other star from some fancy judg­ing out­fit. It’s the one you like the most.

Free from their dead weight, our best restau­rants — not all of them or even most, but our best — have de­vel­oped an ap­peal­ing lo­cal style.

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