Being awarded a Michelin star is something restaurant dreams are made of. But as we know from wine industry accolades, the food and wine industry can be highly subjective when it comes to quality and taste. Is the Michelin star superior to other ratings and what can we learn from this highly acclaimed restaurant guide?
First on our to-do list when we planned our latest European itinerary, was making reservations at French Michelin-starred restaurants: La Table de Xavier Mathieu in Joucas as well as Jan in Nice. On my journey with food and wine the name of Chef Xavier Mathieu has often been mentioned and of course, the owner and chef of Jan is fellow South African, Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the first South African to own a Michelin star.
Dining at two such revered establishments in one week is a rare privilege and other than really enjoying the food, the well-matched wine choices and the company of good friends, my thoughts kept going to what it is that makes a restaurant Michelin-star-worthy.
Perhaps one should start at the origin of the Michelin ratings. It is quite a charming tale. Trying to sell more tyres, the Michelin brothers had to encourage people to drive more. Their ingenious solution was to provide a guide with places to eat and stay, encouraging travel, more driving and ultimately better tyre sales. The guide with its rating system evolved over the years to exclude advertising and introduce mystery diners responsible for objective ratings.
The Michelin star is based purely on the quality of the food. Inspectors ignore interior, table settings and service (these receive another rating represented by a fork and spoon symbol). For the Michelin star, the focus is on five food-related criteria: quality of the ingredients, mastery of flavour and cooking technique, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits. Restaurants may only receive zero to 3 stars. The guide is quite concise and indicates one star as “High quality cooking, worth a stop”, two stars as “Excellent cooking worth a detour” and three stars as “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. (Read more)
It is hard to imagine, based on these criteria, that there are restaurant with more stars than the restaurants we visited this week. The food was of unbelievable quality and while it is not part of the official star criteria, the ambience and service were of an impeccable standard and the attention to detail remarkable!
Other than being very satisfied, what did I take away from these Michelin-star dining experiences?
It reaffirmed that quality is non-negotiable. When it comes to the top-end of the game, there is no short cuts. There is no compromise and no excuse. On every plate and in every bite, there is something of the thought, detailed planning and meticulous execution, but then as a whole, it is just delicious. Lesson one, quality is a given. (Also read: A stand-off: Experience vs Product)
I found it remarkable that despite being presented with an exquisitely presented plate of food, ultimately, rather than focusing on the exceptional quality produce, the implicit attention to detail, the ultimate taste sensations, each beautiful forkful both reawakened memories and created new ones. The food was more than the sum of its ingredients. Lesson two, stay authentic.
With such talented and devoted chefs at the head of a restaurant, one can also expect the rest of the experience to be exceptional. The quality of the cuisine is echoed in the impeccable service, the beauty of the dining rooms and of course the wine list and wine service. Lesson three, experience stays important.
To earn a coveted Michelin star is truly remarkable, but it is of course also a relentless privilege. Never to drop the standard, to stay creative and on top of trends and of course to stay true to the concept. With the stars allocated to the restaurant rather than the chef, chefs have an enormous responsibility towards the establishment. When this pressure becomes too much or when chefs want to offer something more informal or avant garde, they might perhaps feel that the stars are too much of a burden. And while renowned chefs like Marco Pierre White and Sébastien Bras famously wanted to ‘give back their stars’, you do not pay to get in and you can’t really opt to get out once the guide is printed. You can of course close your restaurant or change your offering and hope it is not good enough next year… (Read more) Lesson four, you have to be very brave.
The quest to be the best, the strive for perfection and quality beyond question – how can these be negative? Perhaps at the heart of it all, lies authenticity. Perhaps longevity is possible when you are not ‘putting up a show’. But yes, keeping up with expectations, especially when they are so high and when, particularly in the world of food and wine, they can be so subjective, is a tall order. I am just grateful that some are up for the challenge!
Featured image: In Restaurant Jan’s private dining room, Maria, with my wife, Hanneli, some special friends and of course, chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen.