Every year after the release of the first Michelin guide of the season, the same inevitable discussion starts. Is it Francophile? Is it just about butter and cream? Is it any good at all? Is it old-hat? Yesterday good old A.A. Gill answered some of these questions in the November 2012 issue of Vanity Fair. This is the letter I chose not to send to Mr Gill in reply.
"Dear Mr Gill
I have read your article in the November 2012 issue of Vanity Fair with great interest. As is your wont, you produced a very well written piece and I wish to thank you for making me smile. Your concluding remark in particular, that Michelin has produced a legion of miserable gourmands who do not care about conviviality, was quite funny - coming from a man who avers (in the podcast that goes with the article) that he prefers to eat alone and who does not drink. There are numerous points however on which I disagree with what you are saying and I will deal with these below.
Let me start by saying that a Michelin guide is essentially a travel guide. A guide that features a selection of hotels and restaurants that may provide the traveller with rest and "restauration". Nothing more, nothing less and I have always found it very useful as such. For some reason however, the entries in a Michelin guide seem to elicit rather more discussion than the entries in a Lonely Planet travel guide do, or (even) the ratings in Hugh Johnson's annual Wine Guide.
Obviously for chefs it is a different story. For them being awarded a star by Michelin is like winning a medal at the Olympics. Chefs invest the same amount of time, energy and sacrifice into getting a star as an athlete into getting a medal when he/she prepares for the Olympics. Clearly this requires a lot of energy and dedication, but I think it wrong to portray chefs as attention-craving maniacs who need Michelin to have a life in the first place. Especially in the three-star category, chefs are artists who express themselves through food and this is not only a kinder, but also a better view than yours.
But back to your criticism of the Michelin guide. Your words: "Francophile, bloated and snobbish." And you think Italy has absurdly few three-star restaurants. Absurdly few by which standard? You do not explain. If conviviality and regionality were the relevant standards there might be many more but, as you rightly point out yourself, these are not. You can't blame Michelin for adhering to its own standards. In context, I believe that 7 three-star restaurants is a pretty good score. But let us not only talk about Italy.
Take Germany for example. Germany is a country that has traditionally been known for its Bratwurst, Schnitzels, Potato salad and other rich and calorific dishes. Many critics seem to overlook that in recent years Germany has been one of the most gastronomically thriving countries in Europe. Unlike its counterparts in some Scandinavian countries however, the German tourist board hasn't been pouring oodles of dosh into boosting the international profile of German cuisine. Germany currently has 9 three-star restaurants, at least four of which were awarded their third star in the last 5 years. I have been to 7 of these 9 three-star restaurants. Most are restaurants run by young chefs who create refined, inspired and elegant food that does not forget its origins ("Bodenständig", they call it). Germany also has 32 two-star restaurants; not bad for a Bratwurst country in which we shouldn't mention the war (or la guerre, when Michelin is concerned).
They do sometimes make incomprehensible decisions (du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas, as those frogs say), but in my experience Michelin is generally really careful when awarding stars, especially in the three star category. Last year Hertog Jan restaurant in Bruges (Belgium) was awarded its third star. Before making their final decision, Michelin visited the restaurant twelve times (!) to be absolutely certain. And don't tell me it was because they couldn't make up their minds. We all know how catastrophic losing a third star can be for a restaurant and a chef. The food at Hertog Jan is also a perfect example that even Michelin has moved on since Fernand Point.
You say, and I quote: "In both London and New York, the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people actually eat". You baffle me. Lots of very popular London and New York city restaurants are featured in the guide. You do not have to be a glossy plutocrat with a speechless rental date to visit one of Russell Norman's restaurants and many are featured in the London 2012 guide notwithstanding. They do not have stars, but hey ho, not all pleasant restaurants qualify for that accolade and some of them do have Bib Gourmands. Unfortunately these non-starred entries are so often overlooked. Are you forgetting too, that Michelin guides are not just about stars?
And what's this slashing of gourmands and food bloggers all about? Checklist gourmands, foodie trainspotters? Come on. Let's face it, newspaper food critics are losing market share and influence. Some know more about writing than about food anyway. It is an ancient recipe: if you have nothing to say, raise your voice. Punters can get their information from many sources nowadays - some better than others. Visitor numbers of foodblogs (some better than others) continue to rise. I believe that most people have the nous to make an informed choice. But why the harsh words about checklist gourmands? In the podcast you yourself couldn't suppress the urge to share with us that you were present at elBulli's final meal.
So I'm a checklist gourmand? Yep, I am. At the bottom of my website you will find a list of all the restaurants I have visited in recent years. Restaurants where I have experienced mainly marvellous and sometimes disappointing meals. A list that makes me happy and a list full of memories. Wedding anniversaries (yes, I'm guilty), birthdays, my first visit to a three-star restaurant, an impromptu visit on a Thursday night. The anticipation of going to a three-star restaurant that sometimes had been booked months in advance. Finally going to the restaurant of that legendary chef; one, two, three or no stars. My first visit to Rick Stein's Seafood restaurant in Padstow is just as memorable for me as my first visit to Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck. I may not be as good a writer as you are, but I enjoy writing about these restaurants and unsurprisingly the reviews of Michelin-starred ones, especially those with three stars, always find most interest.
So why do I go to these horrid places, these "conservative, fussy rooms that use expensive ingredients with ingratiating pomp"? My main inspiration to go to Michelin-starred restaurants is beauty. The love of beauty - in its culinary incarnation - is what drives me there (no pun intended) and somehow Michelin always seems to guide me there. Beauty in the presentation, beauty in the flavours and beauty in the service. Great service is an art. Now where's the harm in that?
Having read your article and having listened to the podcast where you talk about your experiences in Michelin-starred restaurants, for me the conclusion is inevitable that you are a brilliant writer, worthy of three stars if Michelin had any say in this (God forbid ...), so gifted even that you are able to drum up considerable attention with a story that is as incorrect as it is old-hat.
This Vanity Fair piece is not about Michelin or about gastronomy, this piece is about you and your provincial view of the culinary world. In the podcast you mention having had your most memorable meal at Noma in the early years. Noma was awarded two stars within 5 years after it had opened its doors. From a gastronomic perspective it is a shame that they have now started serving live ants - no cooking involved. But then again two stars is still a very respectable accolade.
You also talk about the crowd in Michelin-starred restaurants. It is true, the uninitiated sometimes find it difficult to be comfortable in the alien environment of a gastronomic theatre. In my experience Germans, Belgians and French generally seem much more relaxed in Michelin-starred restaurants than people are in certain other countries. Is it a cultural thing? Michelin does not instruct people in its guides to behave awkwardly. I for one have as much fun, get just as drunk (or shall we perhaps call it jolly rather than hammered), as I would at any other restaurant. At the end of the day a Michelin starred restaurant is just a place where you have a good time, whilst enjoying beautiful food, fine wine and excellent service. Believe me: they do all go together.
I guess you are guilty of the charges that you bring: unrealistic expectations of a Michelin starred restaurant and of the Michelin guide. Let us enjoy the Michelin guide as a celebration of gastronomy and of our gastronomic heritage. Let us be proud of all these chefs who have won one, two or three Michelin medals.