Michelin Has Put Its Jeans On

Michelin Guide: the prestigious marker of restaurant quality worldwide, or an elitist bully with too much clout? Opinions vary greatly on this, but there’s no doubting the power of the star. Chefs around the world seek the attention of Michelin like a hug from a distant parent. You might say you don’t care, until you get it.

Over the past few years, the reign of Michelin has been challenged amidst cries of elitism and a lack of understanding of what diners today actually want. Ratings from reviewers such as Pete Wells (New York) and Marina O’Loughlin (London) are arguably more widely read and better received than the guides. You could also argue that their opinions are more relevant to the diner of today. Per Se in New York is a good example. It currently has three Michelin stars, but Pete Wells famously dropped its New York Times rating to two stars in January, calling it “among the worst food deals in New York” and declaring that “servers sometimes give you the feeling that you work for them, and your job is to feel lucky to receive whatever you get.” Ouch.

I’ll admit that I have limited experience with Michelin restaurants, and for two reasons:

  1. I tend to think of them as stuffy and pretentious
  2. I can’t afford it

I did, however, go to a Michelin starred restaurant in Copenhagen when I was 22. My initial elation at sampling what I then thought of as the best of the best lasted until midway through the first course. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t lovely – it was. It was just that the whole experience was decidedly not fun. The dining room was silent, the waiter unsmiling and I generally felt like I didn’t belong there. Some may argue that 22-year-old me probably didn’t belong there. Not the target audience. I doubt I would feel any more comfortable returning at 27, with many more restaurants under my belt. Had I been paying for my own meal, the disappointment would have bordered on regret. Happily, I wasn’t. I’ve held a certain disregard for the guides since that meal. They’re a bit like my slightly racist grandmother: they have a lot to say, but I generally don’t pay attention.

Now this is just my personal opinion, but I feel it echoes the opinions of the rest of my kind. By ‘my kind’, I of course mean the millennials. The most feared of all consumer markets, with our strong ethics and growing spending power, or so the papers keep telling me. When my millennial friends and I choose somewhere to eat, we generally consult reviewers, friends and TripAdvisor/Yelp etc. (whether the latter is is truly useful or not is another matter). We look for somewhere with great food, a fun atmosphere and the chance of banter – bants, if you will – with the waiter. Silver service doesn’t really come into the equation. This might be true for other generations as well. Probably. I’m Generation Me so I don’t really care.

My slight disregard for Michelin Guide made me all the more interested to read that the recently launched Singapore guide awarded two hawker stands with a star. This has come as a surprise to many, including the owner of one of the stands. Buried in a hawker complex and looking like every other operator around them, they have none of the traditional Michelin markers, apart from the difficulty of getting in (or to the counter, in this case).

Hurrah! Maybe Michelin still has a sense of what’s happening around the world. Critics have been talking about the ‘death of fine dining’ for the past couple of years, highlighting the fact that people are dining out more frequently, and are seeking a more casual way in which to do so. This rising demand has in turn led high profile chefs like Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay to rebrand, offering a more relaxed style of service. As the dining world slowly moves on, so must the guides judging it.

The inclusion of hawker stands in the Singapore guide also sends a powerful message to restaurant operators: you don’t need to emulate haute cuisine to be considered of Michelin standard. Hell, you don’t even need a restaurant.

Will Michelin always have a place? Probably. Those magical little stars still hold major sway in the restaurant industry, as is obvious by poor Manchester’s reaction every time it fails to get one. I’m just glad it’s branching out a bit to reflect the exciting growth of sectors outside of fine dining. Now I’m off to join to queue for Chan Hon Meng; I’ll let you know how it is when I reach the front next month.

By Laura Condon

Cover image credit: Wallace Woon/EPA, sourced in The Guardian

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