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thoughts on Michelin & haute-cuisine

by Tom Cannavan, 06/05

In June 2005 I wrote an account of my two-week gastronomic holiday, when I travelled around the south of France eating in some of the top restaurants of the region. Some very good points were raised by visitors in response. Where I had something to add to the debate I have also included my reply.

Thanks to everyone who responded.

   Essay Responses   

Rupert Fairclough, UK
Good article, couldn’t agree more. As a regular visitor to French starred restaurants, I'm am starting to get really bored with foie gras poelle or St Jacques for starter followed by an optional fish course followed by beef or lamb or chicken, as well as the endless little bits and pieces. What is missing is whatever the culinary equivalent of terroir is. The ingredients are the best, the chefs are very talented, the food is delicious it's just the tenth time I've eaten more or less the same thing this year. I suppose I'm remaking your own point. One of the most memorable meals I've had this year was in a village café. Salad, followed by help-yourself blanquette de veau, green beans and rice, a choice of fromage blanc or local cheese, followed by a choice of puddings. All this for 11 Euros! The ingredients were fresh and up to the job, the cooking honest and the service very friendly. What more do I want? Not very much actually, although next time I go to France I'm going to visit a one-star restaurant because it might just be the one I’m looking for! Hopelessly hooked. As a completely separate point, I find the Gault-Millau guide streets ahead of the Michelin in terms of accuracy. There are some starred restaurants that don't even appear in the GM guide and there are some others where it agrees with the rating. Above all there is a full and incisive commentary with each entry. Might I suggest you try your next gastronomic tour using this guide and compare stars with toques? I've an idea you might come away from it with a slightly different view of French cuisine and you've got a really good excuse to go and eat some more fantastic food!
My response to Rupert:
Now this is what I like: a man giving practical advice :-) I have bought the Gault-Millau before, but not for years for some reason. I must do so. Eating out, especially in finer places, is one of the great joys of my life, so I have absolutely no doubt I'll be ploughing on using both guides in the future. But I hope more and more chefs buck the obvious "trends" and do something original and more simple, and I hope Michelin respects that.

Andy Cook, UK
Will's analogy to Parker is a good one. The Parker / Michelin comparison is very accurate. But, as with wine critics, don't we learn what to expect from each restaurant guide over the years? Just as we learn what Parker's tastes are, we only go to the Michelin Guide when we want a particular type of meal. Although you and I might be bored of formulaic Michelin menus, there are leagues of punters out there who aren't, and who live their lives eating in 2/3 star restaurants, only drinking wines that Parker scores over 90. For those of us with other frames of reference, Parker and Michelin provide some very useful pointers, but they shouldn't be the considered the touchstone of criticism.
My response to Andy:
Yes, I guess so: there are loads of people for whom Michelin is totally irrelevant, as there are loads of people for whom Parker is irrelevant. But that doesn't negate the influence Parker has on wine, or Michelin has on fine dining - my point is more that these super-critics are shaping their respective fields, not just commenting on them, so whether you follow them or not, you can't esacpe their influence.

Andrew Stevenson, UK
I just read the comments on your Michelin piece. I'd make two main points (partly contradictory): 1) Michelin is a pretty dreadful **guide**, at least in the UK. In the UK and probably elsewhere, Michelin matters far more to chefs and the hospitality industry more generally, than it does to members of the public. 2) If you or I, or any member of the public, is using any of the guides as a guide to where to go, then don't we want consistency? Michelin have to impose higher levels of consistency than other guides, as there is no accompanying text: always their major weakness - there are no lines to read between. Compare the Good Food Guide, which has its own scoring system. If you just went on the scores, then it would be a potentially unhelpful guide, particularly outside London, as the scoring is applied really rather inconsistently across the county. But you have textual descriptions to help. The Good Food Guide's text can fill in the gaps: with Michelin you only have the bib, and the one, two, three stars. Three stars in Michelin tells you precisely what to expect (what you listed in your original article); other guides have to tell you (notice how many times it's mentioned in the GFG) that there are nice tablecloths, lots of staff, good cutlery, Riedel glasses etc. This doesn't negate your points at all. But I think it's why it's the way it is. If chefs and the industry had latched on to a text-based guide as the ultimate arbiter, then there might be more variety. But the main aim is always to please Michelin and to get the Michelin stars, and it's fairly obvious to chefs and restaurateurs what they have to do to achieve that. The Fat Duck is an interesting case: is it an exception that proves the rule? It certainly doesn't seem to fit quite the same criteria as other 3-stars. Might its three-star status lead to a gradual change in what the industry believes it has to do to get the stars? As an aside, it was interesting to see Derek Brown on Gordon Ramsay's programme last week when GR brought him in to critique the place in Inverness (quite a coup for Channel 4 to get him to appear, I'd presume). His recommendation was to simplify the cuisine. And, as another aside, Michelin has now buggered up Formula One Grand Prix racing now!
My response to Andrew:
The guide is hugely powerful still, for all that it is really difficult to use at first (the offspring of a train timetable and set of IKEA self-assembly instructions). When friends of mine got their Michelin star their bookings went through the roof, and have stayed that way. Theirs is essentially simple food in a simple country restaurant, but of exacting quality: all stocks, sauces and reductions home-made, bread, chocolates and ice-creams all home-made, and all using locally-sourced produce where possible. They "do their own thing" with real passion, and that's what I really look for in my ideal restaurant, small or large, simple or grand. Andrew's comment on the Grand Prix refers to the 2005 US Grand Prix, where a problem with Michelin tyres meant only six cars started the race. We can't blame the 3-star restaurants on that though :-)

Tom Gibson, UK
I find that the trouble with many stellarly-endowed restaurants is too much emphasis on presentation rather than price and complication rather than complimentary. The food offered more often expresses the chef's ego instead of the customer's expectation. Furthermore, more pertinently, prices on the wine list could be more accurately described in terms of GNP rather than old fashioned LSD.
My response to Tom:
Yes, at the two and three-star level I've found this too I must say; with the chef working the room at the end of the evening to visit every table. I always find it a bit embarrassing, but I suppose you at least know he's been in the kitchen...

Paul Anderson, UK
I was thinking along the same lines as Will Chambers (below) and very quickly after reading your essay, I thought of wine and Parker and Rolland (not to mention Mondovino). What you seem to have experienced is a homogenisation of menus, cooking styles and service, all driven by the critic. In this case, the critic is Michelin but, as far as I know there is no global consultant yet and I'm just waiting on Nossiter to make a documentary called Mondogastro. My experience is slightly different in that the starred restaurants I visit are more rural and mainly in Burgundy and Champagne. I'm not sure of this theory, but I have one that says if the restaurant is off the beaten track then they are more dependant on locals, rather than tourists who are unlikely to return again (at least in the near future). This makes them try harder to keep their regular customers happy and often build up a good friendship/relationship so can be more relaxed and possibly experiment more. However, I suppose if that doesn't keep the Michelin inspector happy then they are struggling to retain their stars and that's when my theory falls to the ground. Who knows? I just know that we haven't got bored yet with Michelin starred restaurants and keep going back. The other thing is that maybe it's not a good idea overloading yourself with this style of food in a short space of time as it can then become dull. Keep it as a less frequent special treat and it may feel more special ? Another thing we have done is go to restaurants that have recently been demoted from 1 star to a bib gourmand and still has the same chef. There are a couple we know in this category and the food is still very much up to scratch, however the service, while still good was not up to the star standard. This was not a bad thing and is something we'll do more of in the future.
My response to Paul:
I believe the "one-star" category offers more scope within the Michelin system (hence why there have been Chinese and Indian restaurants in London with one star), so it is really above that, and one-star restaurants with aspirations to two, where I have a "problem"; but it is not a problem really, just a bit of unease. I do agree that cramming in nine different restaurants in a fortnight compounded my feelings, and am sure my next stand-alone three-star experience will be wonderful when taken in isolation.

David Pearce, UK
Ah Tom - you have passed through your right of passage. It happens to us all as we get older. The older we are, the simpler we like the food! Certainly that's the case for me. I had a nice lunch yesterday with some winemakers at Claridges - very nice and away from the Foie Gras etc on the lunch menu. Starters included Ballontine of rabbit, Mushroom risotto and a duck confit ravioli. Mains included Pork belly on choucroute, Sea Bass and rack of lamb. I agree that the whole haute-cuisine experience can be too formulated in the style of food. Just think of Marco Pierre-White a few years ago: it was like Happy Eater Michelin-style - the menus totally predictable. What we need to get back to is good honest food where the main focus of the dish is the main ingredient, whose only additions are complementary.
My response to David:
I'll definitely concede to a touch of early "grumpy old man" syndrome! But yes, there's a definite danger that comes with success as in MPW - and I fear the same for Gordon Ramsay somewhere down the line as he opens more and more places and does less and less cooking.

Will Chambers, UK
Michelin / Robert Parker - similar success; similar effects. The thirst of the consumer for accurate scoring leads - when that scoring is reliable - to a warping of the product because the provider inevitably responds. We should have been happy with good old word of mouth and the odd gross disappointment.
My response to Will:
A comparison to Robert Parker isn't a bad one at all. The critic becoming too powerful, and ending up shaping and almost dictating the way their subject develops, rather than just commentating on it.