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More transparency please, Michelin Guide

Wednesday’s unveiling of the Singapore guide also reveals a growing air of disillusionment about how stars are awarded

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Other than the five newly minted one stars, it wasn’t what was happening on stage but off it that proved of any interest on Wednesday night.

IF THERE were speech bubbles floating above the heads of every chef at the Michelin Guide gala dinner on Wednesday night, they might have read something like this:

“Michelin stars are a bonus, I don’t cook for Michelin, I just want my customers to be happy… Michelin stars are a bonus….”

“Damn it, why am I still one star, I deserve two.”

“Damn it, Andre is gone, I should be three star.”

“OMG, OMG, OMG I have a Michelin STAR!”

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(In Cantonese) “Aieeee, Michael Ellis, you still haven’t call my name!” (The poor chef of one-starred Crystal Jade Golden Palace was left out of the roll call until international director Michael Ellis had to be reminded of the oversight.)

 

 

Other than the five newly minted one stars, it wasn’t what was happening on stage but off it that proved of any interest on Wednesday night. That was when all the feverish speculation of the past few weeks about who got how many stars and who didn’t, finally ended in an anticlimax where the 2018 results stayed largely status quo.

For an awards night, the mood was hardly celebratory. What we sensed, apart from the euphoria of the newbies, was an air of resignation, an ‘oh-well’ demeanour over the mysterious workings of the powers-that-be, aka the Michelin Guide – how it awards stars, how it finances itself, and why it never seems to be able to give straight answers to questions beyond the obvious five criteria for entry into the guide.

(Namely, they are quality of the products; mastery of flavour and cooking techniques; the “personality” of the chef in his cuisine; value for money; consistency between visits.)

Meanwhile, guests hobnobbed in the fancy ballroom of the Resorts World Sentosa – kudos to the resort for a polished operation that showed its resilience in the face of losing all its stars from Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier Joel Robuchon to Osia.

Dinner featured Michelin-starred delectables, from Saint Pierre’s seafood starter and Meta’s chilli crab bibimbap to an odd mutation of fish, durian and buah keluak sauce from no less than Hong Kong’s BO Innovation.

In between courses, the questions and gossip flew fast and furious.

Why are there no hawker Michelin stars this year? Have we run out of good enough stalls? To which Mr Ellis explained in a post-event question-and-answer session that there are just three hawker stalls in the Asian guides with a Michelin star, but it isn’t the guide’s objective to specifically look out for them.

He said, “A Michelin star for hawkers is an exception, not a rule. I would not expect to see large numbers of hawkers having stars.”

And after the exit of Joel Robuchon, why aren’t any of our two-star restaurants worth upgrading to three stars? To which came a shrug from Mr Ellis and a non-committal reply that, “if it happens, it happens”.

It’s cold comfort for top contenders like Odette and Les Amis, which, going by the five criteria, seem to have nailed them all. We would go so far as to say that, based on a recent tasting, both are at the top of their game, with Les Amis having the edge in technique and product quality. But the issue is, what does it take to get beyond two stars? Consistency is one plausibility. Another tricky one is the personality of the chef – the one criteria that, unlike the other four, is nearly impossible to quantify, making it completely open to subjectivity. Could that be a deciding factor if the other four are met?

Then there is the whole chestnut of who actually pays for a Michelin Guide. It’s hard to get tourism boards to admit they sponsor the guide, although Michelin has said it gets sponsorship from them and commercial partners as it gets harder to finance the guide on book sales alone.

What is tougher, though, is to convince people that there is no payback involved. This year, particularly, the issue of stars being up for sale was a hot topic.

Idle, irresponsible rumours all these may be, but they all start somewhere. It's also clear that no matter how many people claim to dismiss the guide, question its intentions, gripe about favouritism or any of a long string of complaints, any chef who is anybody still wants to be in the guide. Because it still means something. And they want it desperately, regardless of how many will parrot in public: “Michelin stars are a bonus, I don’t cook for Michelin, I just want to make my customers happy”.

Transparency, and a responsibility to uphold the integrity of a guide, may be the purview of Michelin, and Michelin alone. It has no obligation to answer to anybody if it doesn’t want to, but, the more tight-lipped it is, the more scepticism it breeds.

Maybe it’s time to open up a little. But until then, the cycle repeats itself.

With this being Mr Ellis’ last issue since he’s moving on to a new career after September, it will be interesting to see what happens when his successor comes on board.

In the meantime, we wait, we gossip, and for the chefs, they work hard and hope for the best.

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