The growing controversy regarding restaurant rating systems like Michelin and the comparatively recently debuted Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list has put the old guard of established chefs holding multiple (more than three) stars in the Michelin guide against the new wave of emerging chefs quickly gaining international repute based on such lists. Three Michelin stars meant that all restaurants holding those were on par with each other. None was ranked as the ‘best’ in the world , a position that is hard to justify according to many critics since there is no specific criteria involved for the selection and no one is confirming that the individual casting the vote actually visited and dined at a particular establishment.
The question of providing receipts has been brought up by some chefs but has never been made a part of the selection criteria. It is not fully disclosed how the panelists who vote qualify or are selected to be part of the voting process though there are career journalists and chefs on these panels. There are stories out there about junkets and press trips paid for by restaurants courting the panelists. The heavy lobbying and the banding together of chefs to ensure their mutual votes have become a part of the food scene and does seem to play into the process of determining these awards.
Not all restaurants on this 50 Best list have received the honor of having stars (of the Michelin kind) bestowed upon them. Rene Redzepi’s Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, which is at the top of the list yet again in 2014, holds two Michelin stars while establishments with three stars did not make it to the upper echelons of this rating system. The brewing discord has resulted in some well-reputed and established chefs to be openly vocal about this issue. On the one hand there is the repute and prestige of the Michelin nod, and on the other the possibility of attracting hordes of diners in troubled economic times with the more media-driven 50 Best List.
According to some critics of this idea, it is simply because none of the French restaurants have made it to the top ten of this list. Evidently, the placement of restaurants from countries such as Denmark, Spain, Italy, the UK, the US and Brazil at the top of these lists has done damage to the prestige and perception of French cuisine in the world of gastronomy. Many top names like Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, and Guy Savoy have stayed away from the ceremonies at the London Guildhall every April, not even showing up to receive awards like “Lifetime Achievement” in some instances.
It is perhaps a sign of the times when information is at the fingertips of diners instantly and instead of opening the red book they simply follow the buzz on social media. With the advent of the Asia’s 50 Best and Latin America’s 50 Best lists, more restaurants are gaining international repute from parts of the world the Michelin inspectors never venture to.
From a diner’s perspective, even the Michelin rating system fails to justify itself to diners who are at times disappointed in an expensive experience based on this system. The Michelin inspectors are said to be specifically trained to follow a set criteria, though recently many of their rankings are questioned by the industry. There are restaurants and chefs who worked within their framework for years before earning their place and find it disheartening when a brief exposure to press and some targeted publicity with these “lists” elevates newer restaurants to the top levels of the industry.
Controversies regarding the Michelin Guide abound as well, such as with chefs like Bernard Loiseau, who tragically took his life when faced with losing his 3-star standing, or Alain Senderens, who famously “returned” his stars. These awards are a double edged sword for sure because the instant they are named on these lists or receive these awards, the struggle to maintain the status quo begins.
Most diners who don’t delve deeply into these rating indexes only notice the #5, #8, or #9 number displayed on the restaurants website or touted in the press, relying solely on this information. There are also the confused diners who don’t know what to believe or base their decision on when making reservations or even long journeys to other parts of the world for a meal at these glorified establishments. The Michelin was the standard for decades, but now it’s being replaced, or is it?
Flashy awards ceremonies that are quickly becoming the norm put the chefs from the restaurants that make the list out in the press, social media, etc., boosting reservations and book sales and aiding them in building their brands. It is perhaps symptomatic of this new world, with the possibility of instant exposure via social media and online news that simultaneously goes out to every corner of the world to existing or potential diners with access to Internet or smartphones. The release of the Michelin Guide is no longer waited for with bated breath by anyone, possibly because there is no fanfare with celebrity chefs on the red carpet at a fancy bash carried live by webcast or TV to potential customers.
During a conversation with Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand during the Bon Appétit Vegas Uncork’d week, I put this controversial question to him and he was quite clear about his views regarding this topic:
I can tell you there is a real problem with these rating systems. I was a member of the jury initially for France and one of the regulations was that one had to go to the restaurant that we were voting for in the last eighteen months, and I can assure you that there is no way to absolutely prove that this truly happened. I, as one of the chefs, I was doing what others were doing and voting for my friends and for people I liked. People vote for restaurants they have never visited and I would vote the same way. I remember one time I was asked specifically to put a certain restaurant for my vote and this is when I stopped being a part of this. Perhaps there are some people on the jury who are very serious about this and then there are people who don’t travel to these restaurants and just cast their votes as chefs and restaurateurs. In order to justify these lists this work must be done very seriously. It is worrying that to be number one on this list you have to be willing to poison people (a reference to the norovirus incident at Noma and the food poisoning incident at The Fat Duck).
Your Hong Kong location is the only one amongst all your L’Ateliers to have earned three stars from the Michelin inspectors. What is it about that particular restaurant as compared to other L’Ateliers like the Paris ones for the Michelin to rate it above the others?
It is the most elegant Atelier with a more elevated decor and has certainly one of the most comprehensive wine lists than all the Ateliers aside from perhaps Macau and hotels in the city. Maybe the wine list is even more elevated than in our Joël Robuchon restaurants and the dining room is actually separated from the kitchen, adding to the ambiance. Maybe that is why but of course you should pose this question to the Michelin people. We ourselves find it difficult to understand their reasoning or get any information. (I said I would if I ever found one of their inspectors, and considering they are going more public now, that may actually happen.)
Robuchon is not the only one. Chefs in Spain like Martin Berasategui have been outspoken in this regard and previously voiced their displeasure with this system, raising the issue of voters having to prove that they had actually visited these restaurants. I had the opportunity to speak with Pierre Gagnaire as well during Vegas Uncork’d and he was dismissive about these World’s Best Restaurants lists and evidently did not attach any significance to them.
I asked Chef Martin Berasategui this question a year ago:
In your opinion, who should be the judge of a chef’s talent: The diners, or organizations that have their own rating system?
It is a complex issue, without diners we cooks are nothing. If they do not approve of our proposals or talent there is nothing we can do, but it is also true that there are organizations with very professional people at the front to do this work, and they deserve my respect. For example the guide Michelin, they have inspectors who carry out their work with strict standards and are well prepared for their job.
While at Mesamérica in Mexico City last week I asked David Thompson (whose restaurant Nahm in Bangkok was listed as #1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants recently) about the issue. Thompson said it was hard to say that one restaurant was better than other restaurants since many others deserved the same acclaim, and his restaurant being picked as the best in Asia was just a happy coincidence. Thompson magnanimously said that there were certainly some restaurants out there that were better than his.
It is possible that all these debates will lead to clearer selection criteria and not confuse diners by placing a restaurant at #6 in the World’s 50 Best and then placing it at #2 in the Best of Latin America, as is the case with Alex Atala’s D.O.M. in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The restaurant that earned the top spot in Latin America, Astrid y Gaston of Lima, Peru, was not even in the top ten on the World’s 50 Best list. When restaurants jump up from the bottom of the list to the top within the short span of one year, it is a little questionable as well.
The mind boggles at this convoluted process and what these list really represent. On the other hand, the fast emerging food culture in countries like Peru, Mexico, Africa, and Asia would not have come to the attention of travelers and diners if it was not for these lists or brought many talented young chefs to our attention.
I will share more views on this controversy as I continue my conversations with chefs and restaurateurs during my travels and dining adventures around the world. I travel extensively and my itineraries are based around restaurant visits both to the Michelin-rated and those on the 50 Best lists. Except for occasional disappointments, for the most part they are spot on.