The question of how a restaurant gets recognized by the MICHELIN Guide is a perennial one among chefs and restauranteurs in the f&b scene. More light was shed on the assessment criteria that the inspectors—who dine out anonymously and pay for their meals—use to rate their dining experience at the annual MICHELIN Guide Singapore Trade Seminar held last week.
Held two days after the revelation of the full list of the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2018 recipients, the seminar saw five food and beverage professionals discuss the topic: A discourse on getting it right—why do some restaurants have stars and others don’t?
Some 250 people attended the seminar held at Regent Singapore.
The panelists included Michael Ellis, international director of MICHELIN Guides, Philipp Blaser, vice president of food and beverage at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts (Asia Pacific), Alvin Leung, chef/owner of three-Michelin-starred Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, Lam Ming Kin, chef/owner of one-Michelin-starred Longtail in Taipei and Yeo See Kiat of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomy association.
The panel dissected the five assessment criteria that both local and international MICHELIN Guide inspectors have adhered to for more than a century. Ellis highlights that the Guide is not meant to be a phone book or encyclopedia of restaurants, but it is a confluence of opinions and views from seasoned food and beverage professionals.
1. Using Quality ProductsChefs in Singapore may not have the luxury of using much locally-grown seasonal ingredients—such as how Lam uses mangoes and tuna from all over Taiwan at Longtail, but there is still no excuse for seeking out the best of the best.
Tan Ken Loon, chef/owner of seafood restaurant The Naked Finn, goes the extra mile by traveling to cities such as Hokkaido, Brussels and Hong Kong to source seafood directly instead of relying on suppliers. Tan has since started an import business that has brought in more than 200 varieties of seafood and has a focus on sustainable sources. “For us, it is a pursuit to discover more seafood species, as it is challenging for us to get ingredients in Singapore," he says. "We want to show that there are many other seafood species out there that you can get good value for.”
While using fresh produce is essential, it is not imperative for restaurants to use premium and luxe ingredients, such as truffles, foie gras and turbot, in order to get the attention of inspectors. “I want to debunk this myth,” Ellis says. “I have seen a three-starred restaurant use beets and smoked eel in its menu. Making the simple sublime will get our attention.”
2. Mastery of Flavor and Cooking TechniquesLeung stresses the importance of adopting a practical approach when designing stand-out dishes that are also aligned with the restaurant’s identity and business. He says: “There has to be a balance in showcasing the ingredients, but one needs to be practical and ensure that business can remain sustainable. If you use too many luxury ingredients, you are only featuring luxury.”
He breaks down the flavors in his dishes to fit into the various categories: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, salty and umami, all while thinking about texture. “You can come up with a practical dish by playing with the ingredients and moving colors and textures around,” he says.
Besides the quality of food, cooking techniques also matter. Yeo says: “As a diner, my expectations of a restaurant depend on how much I am paying for a meal. For a Michelin-starred restaurant there has to be good attention to details down to the kitchen-to-table serving time so that the food does not arrive cold at the table.”
3. Personality of the Chef in the CuisineWhen it comes to chefs with colorful personalities, one needn't look further than Leung, who is known for his quirky “demon chef” moniker and his “X-treme Chinese cuisine” in his BO restaurants in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. How does he toe the line of expressing the right amount of personality in his cuisine? Leung says that the food that he serves is people’s interpretation of his personality: “I have to alter the personality of the dishes to cater to the customers whom I am cooking for.”
How do restaurants managed by organization bring forward their personalities while staying aligned to a corporate identity?
Blaser, who oversees more than 100 dining establishments in the Four Seasons Hotels Group ventures that fostering a culture to experiment can help. “We need to create a culture of safety that it is okay to make mistakes and experiment with the style of food and service,” he says.
4. Value for MoneyYeo interprets a value-for-money meal as “coming out of a restaurant with a memorable experience.” He says: “Value is having a wow factor. It should include a total experience, from the attentiveness of the service staff and ambience to food.”
Chef and restauranteur Beppe de Vito, who runs the IlLido Group that operates a diverse range of establishments from casual restaurants to one-starred Braci, believes that all eateries, regardless of their target audiences, should focus on making customers happy and treated them equally.
He says the customers frequent his casual restaurants during lunchtime as it meets their budgets, but they also go to his upmarket restaurants when they need to entertain.
5. Consistency of FoodEllis points out that the main reason behind the uncomfortable exercise of inspectors taking stars away is the lack of food consistency. Drawing his experience as a former commis cook, he acknowledges the reality of restaurants having bad days when staff do not show up or suppliers fail to deliver.
“That’s why our inspectors visit a restaurant two or three times, with different inspectors visiting each time, before making a decision,” he says.
However, a chef’s work is no longer restricted in a kitchen these days. Today, traveling for events and overseas cooking collaborations is par for the course. How do chefs ensure consistency while they are away?
Lam points out that cooking technology such as the combi oven and sous vide machine has helped to plug the gap, but that is not the end-all solution. “Cooking involves craftsmanship and a human touch," he says. "There is no fast solution to this. You need to spend time with your cooks and train them step by step.”
Do restaurants that do fewer covers stand a higher chance of getting Michelin stars?
Ellis says that that is not necessarily true. He cites two examples: three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York City, which does a high volume of haute cuisine, and the one-Michelin-starred Le Jules Verne in the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, which is open throughout the year.
Besides food consistency, Blaser adds that restaurants should not neglect the consistency of financial management. Chefs and restauranteurs need to engineer the menu to factor in aspects such as costs of the dish and analyze data to determine if a dish should be dropped or continued in order to optimize business.
Sharing an anecdote that was shared to him by Will Guidara, co-owner of three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, he says: “One needs to macro-manage the restaurant’s financial statements 95% of the time. The last 5% is spent on pouring a glass of wine or serving guests in-house bar snacks, instead of packets of nuts, to make their day. It shows compassion and passion and gives a fantastic dining experience.”