Diner’s Diary

Michelin Guides wouldn’t exist without sponsors, says director in defence of practice that has raised some eyebrows

Soliciting sponsors, such as an operator of 40 restaurants for Michelin Guide Singapore, is as natural as sports having sponsors and newspapers having ads, says Michael Ellis. Besides, without sponsors there’d be no guides, he says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2018, 2:55pm

The Michelin Guides’ international director has defended the dining bible’s sponsorship in Asia by businesses and tourism boards, which has prompted questions about how independent the guides are.

Michael Ellis said Michelin would continue to seek sponsorship for the annual guides, and equated this to sponsorship of sporting events or newspapers soliciting advertising as a form of financial support.

“If you look at any event, whether a sporting event, tennis match, sailing events, Formula One, sponsors are part of life. If you look at newspaper advertising, it’s a form of sponsorship at the end of the day, that’s their business model,” said Ellis, who will soon leave his post.

Ellis, 60, spoke to the Post ahead of the unveiling of the 2018 edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore on Wednesday at Resorts World Sentosa – one of the guide’s sponsors, along with French mineral water companies Badoit and Evian, credit card giant American Express, dining reservations service Chope, Nespresso, and the Singapore Tourism Board.

Resorts World Sentosa operates 40 restaurants, one of which, Osia, this year lost the Michelin star it had previously been awarded. Its two others with Michelin stars – Joël Robuchon Restaurant, the lone three-star restaurant in Singapore, and two-star L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – closed last month.

Ellis said the Michelin Guide would not exist without sponsors.

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“Until recently our only revenue came from the sale of books. It will come [as a] surprise [to] nobody that the sale of paper products is not a growth industry,” he said, alluding to the digital revolution in publishing. “It hasn’t been easy for everyone in the print industry to make that switch. As the maker of books we were caught in that trap too.

“Our Michelin CEO at headquarters, when he sees our costs are going up every year, and revenues going down, he says that’s not sustainable. The message that we got was if the Michelin Guide wants to plant the flagpole around the world, that’s great, but they’d like us to at least not increase the cost too much. We have to offset some of that.”

Michelin has had no trouble securing financial backing for its guides. Tourism boards and convention centre managers have clamoured to have the Michelin Guides in their cities as a vehicle to promote tourism.

“Tourism has become a huge and growing industry, and so there is a lot of competition to get tourists, especially those gastro-tourists who plan their trips around where they want to eat. They tend to be well-educated and high-spending tourists that people want to get, and they often are Michelin Guide users or are interested in it,” Ellis said.

Once Michelin comes to an agreement with a major sponsor, there is an understanding the sponsor will not interfere with the inspectors rating restaurants. If they did – not that they ever have – it would be a deal-breaker, says Ellis.

Hong Kong Tourism denies paid Michelin Guide listings: questions remain

Michelin Guides surprised Singapore by failing to award three Michelin stars to any restaurants in the city state on Wednesday.

While the American says it is disappointing Robuchon’s two restaurants have closed, he says the fact there are fewer fine-dining restaurants has no impact on the Michelin Guides, which he says are mirrors or barometers of the dining scene.

“Certainly there has been a move around the world to casual fine dining, a move towards locavore, or locally sourced produce, and smaller and smaller establishments; in many European cities and the United States, instead of a 100-seat restaurant with a huge staff you might have one or two people in front of the house and a 20-30 cover restaurant to reduce financial risks.”

Ellis says he is fine with these new dining developments, and would rather restaurants focus on understanding what customers want to eat, how much they want to pay, and the atmosphere to succeed in the industry.

“I would rather see a thriving, healthy, full restaurant that’s not necessarily in the Michelin guide than one that has Michelin stars [but is] half or three-quarters empty. It’s very important the restaurant scene is thriving for us to do our jobs,” he says.

More often than not, when a restaurant does get a coveted Michelin star or stars, it is overwhelmed.

Take Singaporean hawker stall Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, where customers had to wait up to two hours to try the famed dish when it was given its first star in 2016.

Ellis says this is a challenge chefs and restaurateurs are happy to take on, and that they are proud to be part of the “Michelin star family”.

If a hawker stall meets the criteria that we use in terms of the quality of ingredients, ambience, mastery of cooking techniques and harmony of flavours, then that is a star that is well deserved
Michael Ellis

There was controversy when street food was included in the Hong Kong and Macau Guide in 2015, but Ellis says Michelin stands by the decision.

“We do that because street food is part of Asian food culture; there really is no street food culture in Europe, a bit in the United States if you include food trucks,” he says.

“I think places like Hong Kong, Bangkok, and especially Singapore have a unique street food culture. For a relatively small country to have the depth and breadth of amazing street food at affordable prices, any guide to Singapore would be a waste without it.”

He understands how a chef in Europe working hard to earn a Michelin star might be frustrated to see an Asian hawker stall can earn a star, but Ellis says they are using a Western template to judge something different.

“If a hawker stall meets the criteria that we use in terms of the quality of ingredients, ambience, mastery of cooking techniques and harmony of flavours, then that is a star that is well deserved. To date there are only two hawker centres in Singapore and one in Bangkok [with Michelin stars]. It’s not hundreds of stars for street food.

“I know a number of French chefs who went to Hawker Chan’s Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle and they said, ‘Wow that guy has something going on here’, and now understand why it got a Michelin star.”

After seven years as head of the Michelin guides, Ellis is stepping down in mid-September to become chief culinary officer at the Dubai-based Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts. He says he will miss meeting chefs and dining in restaurants around the world.

“Being on stage and doing events I see the emotion and joy, and see the importance of the Michelin guide to the chefs, that shining that unique Michelin spotlight can be a game changer [for them]. It makes me feel professionally we’re making a difference and that’s also something that I am honoured to have taken part in.”