WHY I DON’T GIVE A TOSS ABOUT MICHELIN STARS
Irish Daily Mail
9 September 2016
There’s a tiny restaurant on Queen Street, just off the north Dublin quays, called The Fish Shop. It’s all about the freshest local seafood, cooked very simply and there’s no choice on the menu.
It serves some of the best food you will ever taste and it’s done with real warmth and enthusiasm, without any palaver.
Michelin would hate it. Too simple. Too cheap. No ceremony. The antithesis of what the little red book is all about.
And what about Heron & Grey in Blackrock? The cooking is way ahead of a lot of Michelin-starred establishments in France but it’s at the back of a flea market and most people don’t dress up to eat there.
Or Iyer’s Café in Cork where the most delicate and complex Indian vegetarian food is served in a small, bright but spartan space by a former aerospace engineer? And its fellow Cork institiution, Miyazaki, where Japanese street food becomes true art and there are six stools and a narrow counter?
I could go on, but no, Michelin just doesn’t understand these places and the many like them. They are all about real food, real hospitality and nothing to do with menus as fashion, eating as a statement, status symbols on plates.
Of course, Michelin does award stars to some brilliant restaurants; but they also take them away. Thornton’s is closing for many reasons, not least rocketing rents and key money, but Kevin Thornton says that the loss of his Michelin star, last year, was “like a stab in the heart”. That would not have helped.
Now, I’m certainly not alone in regarding Kevin Thornton as one of our great chefs, indeed as a chef whose original genius is absolutely world class. For what it’s worth, Thornton’s was once named as one of the 50 best restaurants on the planet. Thornton’s has been right at the top of its game over the past few years.
Michelin took away one of Thornton’s two stars in 2006. Last year they took away the remaining star.*
Why? We will never know. Michelin never explain.
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.
Since 2003 Michelin has been trying to be less French and has set about chasing the well-heeled demographic with, for example, guides to New York and, controversially, Tokyo.
Three European and two Japanese inspectors showered stars upon the restaurants of Tokyo only to find some of them being declined. Toshiya Kadowaki, one of the city’s leading chefs, was amongst the refuseniks.
"How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?” he fumed, sounding rather French.
Fashion magazine publisher Toru Kenjo added “Anyone who knows restaurants in Tokyo knows that these stars are ridiculous”.
Michelin certainly does seem to do ridiculous. For years they ignored Chapter One, presumably because it was on the northside of Dublin; when it became impossible to continue doing so they implied that it had suddenly improved. Last year they said “the time was right” to give a star to The Greenhouse, long after many of us had decided that this was one of the very finest restaurants on the island.
The kindest interpretation of this is that Michelin are slow learners. But it’s not just the tardiness in recognising excellence, it’s the inconistency, the gongs for mediocrity that rankle.
A few years ago, a restaurant that I had slated in a review got a Michelin star. The restaurant community was shocked. Nobody could understand why this underwhelming bistro had been singled out for a star. Any doubt that Michelin had finally lost the plot evaporated at that stage. (The star was taken away the following year).
Many chefs will disagree – at least in public – but I firmly believe that Michelin has lost all credibility. Nowadays, it’s all about selling books, aided by a whiff of what may be deliberate controversy, chasing the money and, in the process, losing the plot. It reeks of cynicism.
Skye Gyngell kept mum when awarded a star when she was at Petersham Nurseries in greater London but said, when she moved on, “It’s been a curse... we’ve had a lot more complaints.”
This echoes what A A Gill says about a restaurateur who hated his Michelin star because his restaurant was suddenly “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.”
Anticipating the launch of the 2017 Michelin Guide to Britain and Ireland in London at the start of October, the editor of the book commented: “The last 10 years have seen the emergence of a lot of different types of restaurants producing excellent food under the guidance of extremely talented young chefs.”
Guidance? Does she have any idea what these young chefs do? They slave away with the team in their kitchens. They don’t do “guidance”, they do very hard mental and physical work. Of course, much of the most impressive new talent is working its guts out in places that Michelin will never deign to notice, because the linen isn’t crisp enough. Or there at all.
And isn’t it telling that Michelin here implies that all this excitement about food in these islands kicked off in 2006? Slow learners, certainly.
I don’t care about Michelin but I do care about many of the chefs who are still in thrall to the rubbery icon. I don’t give a toss about the people who live by the Michelin guides; I wouldn’t enjoy sharing food and wine with them and, in fact, it might be a trial sharing a restaurant with them.
“This year we will sell more than one million guides,” one of the Michelin head honchos said some time ago. “It is not by pure coincidence and chance that we are the guide the experts want to take.”
You may have guessed, correctly, that this was spoken by a Frenchman. But who are these “experts” who hang on every Michelin mot? Experts have a stubborn tendency to make up their own minds.
No, the audience for Michelin is certainly not experts. It’s the over-paid, insecure, status-conscious whingers and complainers who eat out to be seen in the “right” places and to exercise their perfectly honed sense of entitlement.
Try doing that in The Fish Shop or Miyazaki.
It’s all part of the luxury brand phenomenon, buying into an aspiration instead of anything of substance, making a statement about yourself with a trademark.
And so, for real people, Michelin will always be irrelevant. Their stars don’t change the taste of what’s on the plate, which is why the sublime cooking at Thornton’s is still – until the end of October - as wonderful as ever. And why some of the best food in the country remains below the rubbery radar.
To my great surprise, but delight for the guys, Heron & Grey got a Michelin star in October 2016. Maybe Michelin read me occasionally? Nah. I doubt it.
* Thornton's at the Fitzwilliam closed on October 29th 2016. However, a new venture starts Spring 2017.