You can throw any question at Gwendal Poullennec, the newly appointed international director of the Michelin Guide, and his answer will always be the same. Why weren’t there any three stars last year? Why are the top restaurants always French? Why are local chef-driven restaurants stuck at one star but ‘foreign’ talents get up to two and more? Why can’t so-and-so go up to two when he’s way better than that so-and-so who really did go up to two?
Every single time, his rejoinder is ‘methodology’.
He’s not trying to fob you off, but he wants to stress the importance of this bible of benchmarks that enables an inspector to assess everything from a bak chor mee stall to haute French cuisine restaurant with the same yardstick.
That’s why Mr Poullennac, who was in Singapore earlier this week, wants to develop greater transparency in the guide, “to develop a real dialogue with chefs to explain how it works, to avoid misunderstanding”. Too often, he says, “when chefs get upset, it’s because they don’t understand or were given the wrong information, so this is something we have to work on.”
So if you’re a chef who thinks your concept and cooking are so high-minded that they supersede Michelin’s seemingly archaic principles, you ignore them at your peril. Even though the context and culture of each cuisine are different, the same set of criteria applies across the board. “You look at the quality of the product; mastery of the cooking technique; balance of flavour; personality of the chef as expressed on the plate; and consistency.” Where chefs get stumped are in the finer details of each criteria. For this, inspectors rely on a fixed set of benchmarks that require the experience and training of inspectors – who are themselves former F&B professionals – to assess.
These benchmarks, however, are a tightly guarded secret, so if you can somehow get access to them, you can theoretically game the system, but it is still no guarantee.
If that doesn’t alleviate the chefs’ frustrations, Mr Poullennec – who took over from his more reticent predecessor Michael Ellis exactly one year ago – plans to create more opportunities for them to have frank discussions with Michelin, “where no question is taboo”.
It sounds like an about-turn for the notoriously secretive guide, and Mr Poullennec agrees that “we are talking more than we used to”, and it’s a general direction that Michelin is going as it continues its expansion into new markets.
For example, the guide is launching in Beijing on Nov 28, and “we don’t want to have people popping up in restaurants saying ‘I’m a Michelin inspector so I don’t have to pay for the meal’, or if something happens that has nothing to do with us and they say, ‘Oh, Michelin did that’. So it’s about protecting the guide and prevent misuse of it.”
The inspection process
Mr Poullennec assures that no one inspector decides the fate of each restaurant. “It’s always a group decision.” That’s why each restaurant is visited around three times, or more if the inspectors can’t agree.
Ambience and setting also have no bearing on the ratings as it’s always the food alone that is rated. That’s why both a hawker stall or a fine-dining restaurant can be awarded one star even if it’s a whole kitchen team versus a sole operator cooking just one dish. “The criteria are still the same, but when we give the star, we make it clear that it’s for street food.”
If the inspectors happen to visit a restaurant when the head chef is away or if they’re having a bad day, it’s not the end of the world. “We understand that cooking is a very human process,” says Mr Poullennec. “So we do give some leeway.” That is where the collegiate decision-making comes into play, and the multiple visits. “Also we don’t care if the chef is there or not. The stars are not awarded to the chef, we only care about the experience that we get when we are in the restaurant.”
The inspectors’ objective is not to rate chefs, but ultimately it’s about the end-user – the people who use the guide, and to make recommendations for them alone, and Mr Poullennec is adamant that the guide is completely editorially independent. “There is no conflict of interest at all.”
No, Michelin inspectors do not always dine alone with a notebook and order the cheapest meal. “It can be one, a couple, three, it depends. They dine like normal diners, (pay for their meals) and each visit they may order something different.”
Are most inspectors French? “We have 15 nationalities in our team and French inspectors are a minority worldwide. In Japan we recruit locals with the right skills and train them so they can produce the guide and also go overseas to assess Japanese restaurants. In China we have to train people about Chinese food because there are so many different kinds.”
Can a chef return his stars? “You cannot give back your star because it’s owned by Michelin. Sometimes they change the restaurant concept or close the restaurant and they say they’re giving back the stars. That’s a non-issue.” As for Sebastian Bras, there was never any question about him returning his stars. “It was a non-story for us but the media played it up.”
Moving up the ranks
Again, don’t dismiss the criteria for moving from one to three stars as just arbitrary benchmarks. “One star is worth a stop, meaning it’s a good place in its category. Two stars is worth a detour which for us means it’s national level and just beginning to have an international reputation. And three stars is something very exceptional and worth the trip.”
Michelin doesn’t set quotas for three star restaurants which is why they were in no hurry to award any in Singapore last year. “We apply the same criteria everywhere so it just reflects the culinary potential. There are many destinations with no three stars, including Thailand. The guide reflects the quality of restaurants and there is no set number of stars for any cuisine or nationalities. The results are based on facts and the experience of our inspectors.”
Yes, people will rail against their decisions, but “we are used to the scrutiny, and foodies can choose whoever they want to trust. What is key is that we stand by our decisions. Independence means that people can disagree.”
Foreign versus local chefs
He says there is no preference for European restaurants over local or Asian cuisine, and it doesn’t mean that a Chinese restaurant can’t get three stars, pointing to the case of Hong Kong or Macau. Again, it’s all about the methodology.
He also believes it’s a matter of time before local-born chefs get to be on the same level of foreign chefs with Michelin-starred backgrounds who have set up restaurants in Singapore and earned stars for their effort.
“When you talk about the guide and emergence of the culinary scene you have to look at it long term. Take the case of California. Ten years ago there was only one three star restaurant with most of the know-how coming from foreign chefs. Now you have seven three-stars and all the restaurants that rose to star level are all run by local chefs who were trained in starred restaurants before.”
In Singapore’s case, “we feel that things are evolving. Even if you have a foreign chef, most of them have been here for a very long time – to me they are local – and they are also training a lot of local people. These young chefs will one day spread their wings and open their own restaurants.”
That said, there is recourse for those who feel slighted. “We can give you feedback about our experience and why you did not get a star. But we will not tell you how to get it.”
Ultimately, there is no “secret recipe” to getting stars. “It’s all about your personality, cooking techniques, your team. Don’t copy (what people have done in the past). Be yourself. Most of the time the highest awards come when the chef and team focus on the client. They forget about the star and just produce an authentic experience. Then as a client, we would be satisfied and we would award a star.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.