Just weeks before the 2012 Michelin guide season kicks off, former chief-inspector of Michelin Benelux, Paul van Craenenbroeck has published his Michelin memoirs in a book called (translated) "The magic behind the Michelin star". Even though there has always been controversy about the Michelin guide and in particular the stars it awards to restaurants for culinary excellence, Michelin is still considered the most important guide in the world of food and restaurants, especially by the chefs themselves. Yes, there are other guides and lists but after more than a century there truly is a certain magic to the world of Michelin stars.
In his book Paul van Craenenbroeck describes his life as a Michelin inspector. There are the early years when he had just started and soon discovered that, contrary to popular belief, it is a tough job which demands a lot both physically and mentally. He describes his average working day visiting up to 8 restaurants, having lunch and dinner at 2 of them. The book gives you a good insight in the life of a Michelin inspector, a job which Van Craenenbroeck clearly undertook with almost religious fervour and missionary zeal, leading him to criticise colleagues who had a different work ethic. He also explains that the anonimity of a Michelin inspector doesn't exist, at least not if they are working in a relatively small area like the Benelux. Restaurants will be well aware who the Michelin inspectors are. But then again it's no secret that restaurants often have photographs of restaurant critics and Michelin inspectors in their kitchens. In her memoirs former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl (somewhat comically) relates that she actually used to disguise herself to avoid recognition.
The book also covers his years as chief-inspector. When Van Craenenbroeck retired early 2005 he had been chief-inspector and editor of the Benelux guide for 17 years. Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg used to share a Michelin guide, since 2007 there have been two separate guides, Belgium/Luxembourg and The Netherlands. The last guide that was released under his supervision was the 2005 Benelux guide. This was also the year Michelin had to withdraw this guide because it mentioned a restaurant that had not yet opened when the guide went to the printers. A very awkward situation and a story that made the headlines all over the world. The restaurant in question was Ostend Queen, a restaurant owned by legendary chef Pierre Wynants. In his book Van Craenenbroeck, who clearly feels he needs to set the record straight, devotes a whole chapter to telling his side of the story. I do not doubt that his intentions were good and that he acted in good faith, but perception is reality and the matter can only be regarded as a spectacular error of judgment on his part.
The Ostend Queen affair is a rather unfortunate ending to the otherwise distinguished career of Paul Van Craenenbroeck, a career that was marked by exceptional commitment despite an often troubled relationship with head office in Paris. For this troubled relationship Van Craenenbroeck firmly puts the blame on the conservative and incompetent apparachiks in Paris. In a number of cases his views seem convincing, but it is also fair to say that Van Craenenbroeck comes across as very opinionated person who likes to entertain the belief that his views are by definition the right ones. In fact, in the acknowledgments he says as much.
Some of the statements he makes in his book however are plainly wrong or even slanderous. In the book he doesn't hide his disdain for molecular gastronomy and although a lot can be said about this style of cooking, his comments are more or less equal to telling Picasso to paint Rembrandts because modern art is a health hazard. It becomes malicious however when he writes (translated): "Honestly, I avoid these sorcerer's apprentices like the plague. You be the judge: in England, three stars, 40 people hospitalised. The establishment was closed for 3 weeks. It was pretended that the causes were unknown. Who would believe that?". Well, we all know which restaurant he is referring to and we all know the cause of the troubles at this restaurant: contaminated shellfish, not the style of cooking. Here's a link to the Health Protection Agency's 47-page 2009 report. Was he unaware of this report or did he choose to ignore it?
The Magic behind the Michelin star is a good read and one does get the impression that Paul Van Craenenbroeck's work has been an important contribution to the elevation of the standards of cooking in restaurants in Belgium and in particular the Netherlands. In a way it is therefore sad that a certain lack of recognition from the organisation to which he dedicated a major part of his working life seems to have left him somewhat disappointed.
Note: the book has been published in Dutch only. The publishers are in the process of the selling the rights for an English edition.