Michelin Guide stars mean stress for chefs – and do diners care?
I wonder who, apart from chefs and restaurant public relations people, pays attention to the annual Michelin Guide awards for Hong Kong and Macau. Gold by Harlan Goldstein’s Harlan swears his stars are a big draw, but surely Hong Kongers let Open Rice, not a French guidebook decide where they eat. Michelin only started here in 2009, but has made some odd calls, such as dishing out stars to local dim sum joint Tim Ho Wan.
Nothing wrong with dim sum
But fine dining it is not and that’s what Michelin is supposed to be about. Ask any European contender and they will tell you it’s also about back of house and surroundings, which in Europe are judged as keenly as what’s on the plate. So the guide’s excuses that food, not plastic seats and kitchen hygiene are not being judged would raise eyebrows in Paris. For Europe, Michelin food must be perfect, every carrot identical, even ice-cream made fresh daily and yesterday’s chucked. During my chef days I was shocked at how wasteful it was. Every barrelled spud that was not identical went into the stockpot. I’d be surprised if the same standards were applied when making dim sum.
But Michelin defends their Hong Kong decisions. Michael Ellis, Michelin Guides’ international director, insists the evaluation criteria are the same everywhere. “Our method has always been the same focus on quality of ingredients, personality, consistency and value,” he says, pointing out that local experts do the reviews in each location. What’s more, he added, the designation of stars is based on what’s served, not how or where it’s served. Perhaps he should see how his judges in Paris and London do it.
Regardless, there’s a hint of emperor wearing no clothes about hordes of people queuing outside a Michelin starred dim sum restaurant for HK$26 dumplings, no matter how wonderful they are. And many of the tried and tested restaurants, which are packed every day, such as those in Mandarin Oriental, only just this year picked up a second star for their posh Pierre, while their Chinese restaurant Man Wah was awarded a Michelin star for the first time. Has the food suddenly improved there in the five years since Michelin set up shop? Meanwhile Mandarin Grill retains its single star for the fifth consecutive year. I can vouch for the Grill having improved dramatically under the current chef – yet it still only rates a single star.
Chinese and Japanese are in
This year’s batch shows a shift to modern Chinese and sushi, while French is fading. Released yesterday (Thursday), the French tyre company’s sixth guidebook for Hong Kong and Macau has reshuffled its maximum three star holders, slightly. Experimental Chinese restaurant Bo Innovation and Japanese Sushi Shikon both rate three stars, up from two, while pretentious French fine-dining Caprice in the Four Seasons lost one of its three stars. Many wondered how it justified them in the first place. Caprice folks were quick with an excuse, saying it was due to the departure of chef Vincent Thierry in August. His replacement, Fabrice Vulin, starts later this month. The new next year guide lists 242 Hong Kong restaurants. Five get three stars, one more than last year. (Tokyo has 28 three-star places, by the way.) The three who hung on to their triple star rating, are Cantonese eatery Lung King Heen, French L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Italian 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo – Bombana.Robuchon: Michelin means stressMeanwhile, the Macau guide lists 74 restaurants and has one new three-star: the Eight, a Cantonese fine-dining restaurant that joins larger than life French Robuchon au Dôme, both in the Grand Lisboa Hot.
In Joel Robuchon’s Macau restaurant chef Francky Semblat does it the classical way. But it’s bigger and bolder than it would be in France, with bright colours and large portions.
When I met Joel Robuchon last year, he was sanguine about Michelin. It’s a bitter sweet thing for him, though this year again his restaurants again won three stars in Hong Kong and Macau. Back in 2003 he suddenly stopped cooking, at the pinnacle of his career, with more Michelin stars in than he could count. “It had become a rollercoaster,” he explained. No sooner had you won a star than you had to work harder to retain it or get more. The stress was so bad that his great friend, chef and restaurateur Alan Chapel died, aged 53, in 1990. “He had three Michelin stars and he had a heart attack,” said Robuchon. “That’s when I became a little bit scared and started to think about it. I thought I need to be careful of myself, because we never stop in this industry, we work so very hard,” he added.
“Sometimes you push yourself too hard and then you have personal issues and then like my friend, you die.” Robuchon stopped cooking altogether for a two year retrenchment. And then he came back with his informal Atelier concept. Does he sleep over Michelin stars these days? He does not. But he keeps winning them anyway.