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Michelin starred dining

The Michelin guide has long been seen as the barometer of culinary excellence, but with a New York edition of the guide released to accusations of pro-gaellic bias and the slings and arrows of US Francophobes, are the coveted Michelin stars sparkling as bright as they once were?

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The reworking of Macbeth as a celebrity chef in a BBC produced Shakespeare Retold season was inspired. The jump from fiercely proud to fiercely murderous somehow seems less of a stretch for a Michelin-hungry chef than for ordinary mortals.

Scratch the surface, and the world of Michelin doesn’t exactly lose its similarity to a Shakespearean tragedy – first there was Bernard Loiseau, the celebrated chef who committed suicide at the thought of losing one of his coveted three stars, then Pascal Remy, the disgraced inspector whose book exposed the secrets behind selection, and then the shame of the Ostend Queen restaurant in Belgium which received a published rating before it had even opened its doors. And now there’s the New York guide, with accusations of factual errors and bias towards French restaurants.

But, perversely perhaps, it is that very sense of passion that surrounds the guide that makes the rest of us pay attention. Like Relais & Chateaux, it prides itself on the fact that many trips are not undertaken without first checking the location of its favoured establishments. And, again like Relais & Chateaux, it has been criticised for encouraging (perhaps insisting on) more and more luxury at the expense of the basics.

But when it comes down to it, if you can’t trust Michelin, who can you trust? Reviews in most guides, the company itself would point out, are paid for. Even Zagats, its big rival in the US, charges for inclusion, and many rely on unpaid reader evaluations, which may be mixed in quality. Michelin Red Guides, on the other hand, hire quality inspectors who are meticulous in their search, and are anonymous. Probably because of this, and despite selling over 30 million copies worldwide in its 104 years, the guides typically lose money, and are seen as loss leaders for the company (who presumably make plenty of profit from the tyre business). 

The New York guide shows signs of a less stuffy Michelin. Besides being available digitally, via PDA, the new format of the book is an improvement. The restaurants get half pages each (double page for starred restaurants), big photos, and best of all, there are recipes. Finally you can recreate the German fried potatoes that accompany Brooklyn’s best steak dinner at Peter Luger’s.

In a year where we learned that France’s opposition to the Iraq war cost its wine industry over $100m in US sales, it might seem like a rocky time to launch one of the country’s best known ambassadors into a distinctly prickly market, but Marie-Benedicte Chevet at the head office is keen to play down any connection between the guide and its Gallic origins. “We have been very well received by New Yorkers. We launched with 150,000 copies, and have already reprinted another 35,000. And besides, Michelin is very much an international company now. Getting a Michelin star undeniably gives a restaurant recognition within a global context.”

They see the criticisms over the awarding of Michelin stars to French chefs as inevitable, but unfair. “Yes, there are three French chefs among the four three-starred restaurants – but they have been in the US for over 20 years, and cook with American staff using American ingredients. We feature 40 different types of cuisine, from Malaysian to Brazilian.”
 
And the accusations of rewarding style over substance? There is an almost audible sigh here. “Stars are given according to what is on the plate, and only what is on the plate, according to the quality of the ingredients, the skill of presentation, the flavour combinations, the creativity, the value for money. And all of these need to be consistent – a restaurant must be as good on a Monday as a Friday.” The Fat Duck at Bray-on-Thames, back in England, is rolled out as an example of a three-starred restaurant that does not have chic surroundings – comfortable, but not a starched table cloth in sight. “Michelin has been, and always will be, just an indication of an extremely good place to eat.”

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