Irish Mail on Sunday

20 September 2015

This time last year, in the very small world where such things are taken seriously, there was dismay that The Greenhouse, Mickael Viljanen’s restaurant on Dawson Street, missed out on a Michelin star.

At the same time, nobody was surprised that Kevin Thornton’s restaurant, just around the corner, kept its star, having done so for many years.

Fast forward to just last week and Michelin announced a star, at last, for The Greenhouse, with the breathtakingly patronising comment on Twitter: “The time was finally right.”

At the same time, with no warning or explanation, as usual, they took away the star from Thornton’s.

Now, I’m delighted that Belfast is getting some love from Michelin (manifested in stars for Ox and Deane’s), purely because it’s good for these restaurants and will put more bums (amply upholstered, one imagines) on the seats. But Michelin, as far as I’m concerned, is a farce. And if it were just a tyre company giving out gongs, I wouldn’t care.

But Michelin is more than that. Chefs who are at the top of their game think of little else come September. They spend years worrying about getting a star and then they despair when they lose it. Some have even been driven to suicide, such is their anxiety over the Michelin Guide. French superchef Bernard Loiseau took his own life because of this.

Michelin means much more to chefs than it does to punters. The customers who swear by Michelin are well-heeled and a bit insecure; they need to be told that their choice of restaurant is approved in much the same way as some rich people buy paintings, not because they like them, but because they are told they should.

Writing in Vanity Fair, A A Gill famously referred to a restaurateur dreading the award of a star because his restaurant would be “full of customers with faces like smacked bottoms who complained about everything. He says the temperature in the dining room drops until you can almost see your own breath. Michelin has produced a legion of miserable gourmands, people who care more about the valet parking than conviviality.”

Well, that rather sums it up for me, although I’m glad when chefs I admire get stellar recognition. I’m glad because it means so much to them and even if some of the new customers have faces like smacked bottoms, they pay. You see, producing food at the kind of level that Michelin will consider for a star, is very labour intensive.

J.P. McMahon’s Aniar in Galway was saved from closure by the award of a star. That was undoubtedly a good thing. And now the previous chef at Aniar has got a star for another Galway restaurant, Loam. I’m happy for all concerned, while loathing Michelin.

But I’m even happier for Oliver Dunne of Bon Appetit in Malahide who decided, in effect, to hand back his star by switching the restaurant to a brasserie and tapas bar.

Let’s return to that tweet. “The time was finally right,” said Michelin when they eventually gave The Greenhouse a star last week. What? Do they mean that The Greenhouse wasn’t as good a year ago as it is now? Everybody knows that this is nonsense.

Michelin clearly think that Thornton’s is not as good now as it was last year. Again, everybody who is familiar with Kevin Thornton’s cooking will conclude that while Michelin may know the difference between achiffonade and a chaud-froid they clearly have difficulty distinguishing their gluteus maximus from their cubitus. Or, to put it in English, their arse from their elbow.

But what do Michelin stars mean? Well, according to Michelin, the only restaurant in Ireland, north or south, that offers “excellent cooking, worth a detour” is Patrick Guilbaud’s. That’s how a two-star establishment is defined.

The one star restaurants, according to Michelin, offer “very good cooking in its category”. What? Yes, I don’t understand how we end up with just eleven of these on the entire island at a time when the standard of restaurant food has never been better.

So, Michelin clearly believe that Amuse, for example, close neighbour of The Greenhouse, doesn’t have very good cooking in its category? And what the hell is the category? Conor Dempsey’s Japanese-accented cooking is sublime.

And what about Graham Neville at Restaurant Forty One in Residence on Stephen’s Green? Michelin have to joking if they try to argue that his food is not worth a star. It’s right up there with the best in Dublin. Likewise, Forest Avenue.

I could go on, but enough about stars. What about Michelin’s bib gourmand? According to Michelin it recognises “good food at moderate price” and while I’m delighted that the lovely Etto on Merrion has just been given one, I can’t help laughing at the idea – the farcical notion – that there are fewer than twenty restaurants on the whole island that do good food at moderate prices.

I mean, where do I start? What about Bistro One in Foxrock? What about The Winding Stair? What about Juniors on Bath Avenue? Nash 19, Jacques and Greenes in Cork? Foodworks and Zuni in Kilkenny? The full list would take a whole page.

The patronising tone of Michelin – “the time is right” – is well calculated to work with our national cultural cringe, our delight in being given a pat on the head by some foreign “authority”, even if it’s just from across the water. Hence the attitude best summed up in “if the Michelin Guide says it’s so, it must be true.”

Of course, it would be unfair to say that Michelin inspectors don’t work hard and eating out all the time is not a bundle of laughs, despite what some may think. One of the French Michelin team, Pascal Remy, wrote a book about his experiences, describing the life of the inspector as lonely, badly paid work, and, naturally, he got fired.

Michelin inspectors are quite good at sniffing out places that are below the radar (two of this year’s bibs gourmands are surprises to most of us in the food writing community) and there’s no reason to doubt the detail of their reports.

It’s the Michelin philosophy that is impossible to understand. They say it’s all about the food on the plate, but everybody knows that this is not true. It took Chapter One years to get a Michelin star and most of us believe it’s because Ross Lewis’s oustanding restaurant is in Dublin 1, not Dublin 2.

Likewise, would The Hot Stove, much more recently opened, have at least a bib gourmand if it wasn’t, like Chapter One, on Parnell Square?

But Ireland isn’t really important to Michelin so it’s not surprising that they get it wrong so often here. And not just with their slow learning, as in the case of The Greenhouse. They gave a star a few years ago to a lacklustre bistro in Portobello, to the amazement of the industry and many customers; realising their mistake, Michelin took it away at the first opportunity.

Japan, on the other hand, is important to Michelin and that’s why Tokyo has more stars per head of population than anywhere else on earth. But don’t go thinking that it’s all down to the food.

Actually, don’t go thinking about Michelin at all. It’s so twentieth century, so irrelevant. We’ll leave it to the chefs who, poor things, are programmed to worry about getting a star and then to worry about losing it.

Michelin stars, unlike good food, have very little to do with real life.