Is the once mighty Michelin is losing ground as the awarder of the most coveted culinary accolades?
As I’ve already mentioned, in the last couple of years Michelin has tried to break new ground – extending its operations beyond Europe to New York and, more recently, to East Asia. The reason, according to the New York Times, isn’t so much ambition as desperation:
Michelin is expanding to new markets to compensate for its declining influence in Europe, where it has lost readership to the Internet and the shifting demands of consumers who no longer want their tastes dictated to them. Michelin says it sells about one million guides a year worldwide, of which a growing proportion has been outside Europe.
It seems that the Tokyo edition of Michelin’s Guide wasn’t universally well received. Some restaurateurs refused to allow their establishments to be listed, citing concerns over Michelin’s inspectors’ ability to understand and comment on Japanese food – this in spite of Michelin engaging Japanese inspectors to work alongside their French team. And it’s reported that some Japanese buyers of the Guide who visited restaurants awarded three Michelin stars had their high expectations dashed.
In the light of all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Hong Kong and Macau chefs and restaurant owners are sceptical about the value of the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau that’s due to be released in December 2008. The Caterer quotes food critic Hugo Leung as saying that “Chinese cuisines have so many varieties and even a guide like Michelin can’t represent everybody’s tastes in food”.
This cool reception comes on top of several high-profile criticisms of Michelin earlier this year. In April, Waitrose Food Illustrated carried comments by six leading chefs, including Marco Pierre White, one-time youngest holder of three Michelin stars, who claimed that there were at least 50 restaurants in England that were as good as New York’s two-star rated establishments, rather than the 10 that Michelin had actually given that rating. WFI editor William Sitwell was quoted at the time as saying that “We’ve moved on from these preachings and I think more and more people go by word of mouth when choosing where to eat.”
Michelin’s rivals have been quick to seize the opportunity offered by its malaise. At the end of August Harden’s guide announced that Gordon Ramsay had been dethroned as best chef in London by his former protégé, Marcus Wareing, blaming Ramsay’s apparent preoccupation with media activities for the decline of his restaurants’ standards. However, Gordon Ramsay Holdings’ hit back, suggesting that Harden’s editors were seeking to generate publicity for their guide by using negative spin, and that Michelin remained the “ultimate gauge of success” for the industry as a whole.
So who’s to be believed? Are some awards more equal than others? Well, perhaps. And, whatever Michelin’s faults, its reputation still counts for something. But surely it makes sense not to base your choice of restaurant on a single arbiter – especially when it’s so easy these days to get a range of different (and respected) views over the Internet.