Does Michelin still matter? The changing face of London’s food scene
The Oscar Wilde quote goes that a person “who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world”. Well, I’m pretty sure that’s true but with so many different dinner options around the capital, the question really has to be - what tables are we choosing to dine at in the first place?
The question of where to go for your dinner is no longer a case of popping “up west” without a reservation or looking up the best places to eat in Soho on TripAdvisor. Oh no, times have changed. Even with the prevalence of social media, food blogs galore and everyone seemingly becoming a bit more of a foodie each day, there’s one thing that has stayed constant in the quest for the world’s best restaurants - The Michelin Guide.
What was once started by the tyre company of the same name has since become the most important food guide of the world and arguably, it’s all a little odd. You see, the guide was created as a way for motorists to flick through information about nearby hotels and restaurants around France originally. Michelin is that friendly figure made up of tyres you see outside petrol stations but the guide was established in order to encourage people to drive around, explore a little bit more than usual and ultimately, look to buy Michelin tyres for their travels. The restaurant part of the guide gained a lot of popularity and the first set of those iconic Michelin stars was awarded back in 1926, with the three star rating system being developed by 1931.
Let’s fast forward to this year. The latest Michelin Guide for London was only announced on October 1st and saw chefs such as Marcus Wareing go from owning two Michelin stars for nine years at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge to now having one. Similarly the first and only Michelin-starred Peruvian restaurant in the capital, Lima, lost its star in this year’s awards. Events such as these prompt the question of whether the Michelin star process is still relevant in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving away from the fine dining, white table-clothed stereotype of dining out and good food. The late Anthony Bourdain said, “the only people who really care about Michelin stars in New York are French guys … We could live without it quite nicely”. So okay, it could be seen as more of a European ideal for restaurateurs but with the guide now in 28 countries around the world, it sure doesn’t look like it’s notoriety will be contained anytime soon.
It was once widely recognised that many chefs strived to be recognised by the Michelin Guide but many chefs are on the opposite side of the fence entirely. For example, French chef Sebastian Bras of Le Suquet apparently begged Michelin not to include his restaurant in the 2018 guide. He commented on the amount of increased pressure he felt he was under by the unannounced visits that can be made a few times each year by anonymous, bill paying inspectors. The process itself is one that has been heavily criticised by people claiming that the Michelin Guide favours certain establishments and only includes them for this reason. Former Michelin inspector, Pascal Remy, has even published his thoughts about the institution in a book. He divulges that inspectors can include restaurants that they have not been back to for anywhere between 24 to 30 months. Whilst a set menu at Le Suquet could easily have you forking out a minimum of £200 per person, Bras has stated that he wants to start a new chapter for his restaurant and focus on presenting dishes “without wondering whether my creations will appeal to inspectors”.
Whilst finally being endowed with a Michelin star has a lot of pros, including the inevitable menu price rises and instant uptakes in bookings, there also seem to be quite a few downfalls to this esteemed guide.
Marco Pierre White has been one chef that has publicly criticised the Michelin guide and underlined the fact that “I don’t need Michelin and they don’t need me. They sell tyres and I sell food”. A fair enough point in itself but White was also the first British chef to win three Michelin stars, with his first being awarded at 26 and gaining another two by the age of 33. A brilliant chef in his own right but without the catapult of fame surrounding his young Michelin success, it’s hard to establish whether White would be as much of a household name as he is now. In recent times though, he’s gone so far as to ban Michelin inspectors in his recently opened restaurant, The English House, in Singapore. The South-East Asian country is the latest country to be included in the Michelin Guide and in 2016, awarded a star to its first street food vendor. Hawker Chan (otherwise known as Chan Hong Men) was awarded a star for his simple yet tasty dish of soya sauce chicken and rice. Easily the cheapest dish to be highlighted by the guide as it comes in around the £1.17 mark over at his night hawker stand in Singapore. Whilst instances such as this prove that Michelin-starred dining may not come with a hefty price tag, the same cannot necessarily be said of London’s luxury Michelin scene.
Whilst the Michelin guide has crossed over to the depths of the Singaporean street food scene, the same cannot be said of the UK. Whilst many chefs have seen it spearhead their career, many have seen it cause immeasurable stress around the mysterious, and somewhat questionable, ways in which the inspections are carried out. The question of upholding standards will always be at the forefront of the Michelin argument and as a customer, one would hope that their favourite restaurant can serve up their best dish in the same way each hour of the day. The main point at the heart of this argument is, is Michelin now a byword for success? It certainly acts as a stamp of excellence but is that to mean that restaurants such as Tamarind and Outlaw’s at The Capital (who have both lost their Michelin stars in this year’s guide) are no longer worth frequenting because they are no longer seen as successful? There are many people who may only dine out at Michelin starred restaurants and that’s a magnificent feat. However, when a capital such as London is constantly churning out new, rising talent in the restaurant industry, is a Michelin star really the icing on the cake? I can only talk from a consumer perspective as unfortunately, I’m not a professional chef but in choosing where to dine in the capital, is the symbol of the Michelin star as much of a deciding factor these days?