Updated: Oct 13, 2018
Michelin-star Monday is nearly upon us – the day we find out who has made the little red book that can make or break a restaurant. But can it?
I’ve worked with a number of restaurants that boast the award in its collection, often sitting beside AA Rosettes, a listing in the Good Food Guide and perhaps a National Restaurant Award if they are well known within that clique.
The Michelin star is clearly the most coveted. It means a lot. It puts the winning restaurant firmly on a prestigious map, lifting its awareness, but it doesn’t necessarily make a restaurant successful, that’s for sure, even after the customary pricing increase that comes after the star is awarded.
Speaking to the leader of a group that operates multiple Michelin-starred venues, their view was it certainly helped when they gained the star and it would definitely hurt if they lost it, but in London in particular it merely puts them in a relatively big pond of winners all fighting for trade at shoulder times, constrained by maintaining a standard that can only be justified by full-price trading at evenings and weekends. On top of that, they’ve also got a big-priced chef or two in the kitchen with egos to match, making commercialisation more difficult again.
Yesterday afternoon, Michelin tweeted an affirmation that stars are only awarded for the food, with cooking style, service and setting playing no part.
Just read that back. The only thing that matters is what’s on the plate, they say!
Speak to anyone in the industry who is trying to grow a restaurant business and the hot word at the moment is “experience”. Bizarrely, less than a year ago we were led to believe this was Michelin’s new direction too while being briefed by one of its senior directors at an industry event. Michelin “was changing” and putting the all-important experience factor right up there alongside food, he said.
Not one response to the tweet was positive. Several front-of-house leaders questioned the point of all they do, this being the case. Another suggested it is impossible to unpack the experience into constituent parts.
One person tweeted asking if that meant street food vendors could be given stars, which of course they can. Two Singaporean street food stands first took that title in 2016, while more were awarded in Bangkok last year. There have long been tiny back-street restaurants awarded stars in Hong Kong – many of which I was able to experience last year, after hours of queuing for each I might add.
What struck me when visiting those venues is that while they aren’t fine-dining operations with multimillion-pound fit-outs and enormous wine lists, the experience they provided was contextualised, in keeping with what you would expect.
I think it’s highly unlikely Michelin would carry on awarding three stars to a venue that served stunning dishes, beautifully plated, but consistently offered bad service with a deteriorating experience. Michelin has a reputation to maintain.
Dissect what Michelin is saying – “food style plays no part”. Sure we can live with that but it’s the other two that don’t ring true. The reality may be closer to the “service style plays no part” and the setting must be in keeping with the food and expectation.
In an obscure kind of way I think this may be Michelin trying to be more relevant, something it has clearly lost. Was this tweet a hint that, come Monday, we will see British street food vendors awarded Michelin stars?
I would certainly welcome Michelin recognising a broader range of venues to better represent the way we consume and engage with food. I just hope it is a true commitment from the company, not just a PR stunt as it seemed to be in south east Asia.
Originally published in Propel.