Sun, Jan 11, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Reaching for the stars

Michelin recently launched a restaurant guide for Hong Kong and Macau. Does Taiwan, which is more famous for its street food than its fine-dining scene, have what it takes to get its own version of the ‘little red book’?

By Alison Jenner  /  CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Out of the 12 anonymous inspectors who made the selections for the Michelin Guide Hong Kong and Macau, only two were ethnic Chinese. As with the Tokyo guide, the Hong Kong Macau edition ruffled feathers as local foodies debated how a mostly European team of inspectors could accurately judge Asian cuisines. In Tokyo, the guide was criticized for favoring French restaurants, while the Hong Kong and Macau version was attacked for focusing on hotel restaurants.

Here in Taiwan, one wonders, how would a team of mostly non-Mandarin-speaking foreigners who were not well-versed in Chinese culinary traditions navigate their way through Taiwan’s restaurants and menus? And, cultural and linguistic barriers aside, does Taiwan measure up to Michelin’s standards?

“Frankly, I don’t think Taiwan is ready for Michelin yet,” said Justin Quek (郭文秀), an award-winning chef and owner of La Petite Cuisine at the Evergreen Laurel Hotel (長榮桂冠酒店) in Taipei. “I’ve worked in Michelin restaurants before. Their criteria in the past were very simple, but times have changed and getting three stars is no longer like those days. The focus has shifted and is no longer just about food.”

Michelin, however, asserts that stars are based on the food on the plate and “do not take into account the decor and service which are the categories of comfort and [are designated] by the couverts pictograms (the spoon and fork),” Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin guides, told the Taipei Times in an e-mail interview. (The spoon and fork symbols in Michelin guides signify “restaurant classification according to comfort.”)

Still, when readers visit a three-star establishment recommended by Michelin, they expect the best: the finest ingredients, flawless service, luxurious settings. A cursory glance at the starred restaurants listed in various Michelin guides invariably reveals lavish interiors.

“[Michelin-starred restaurants] invest millions; silverware, crockery — all these are not cheap,” said Quek. “That’s why chefs who want three stars are slaves to the trade. They might get three stars but their pockets are empty.”

MAKING A MEAL OF IT

There have been many chefs who have fallen into depression or run their funds dry to maintain their Michelin status. In 1995, Pierre Gagnaire became the first chef to go bankrupt running a three-star restaurant. When Marc Meneau of L’Esperance in Vezelay, France, lost his third star in 1999, he told Dining in France that, “It’s like losing a child.”

Because of the high level of investment necessary to reach and maintain three-star status, more than a few chefs have turned their backs on Michelin at the pinnacle of their success. In 2005, Alain Senderens returned the three Michelin stars he earned for his Parisian restaurant Lucas Carton. More recently, in November last year, Olivier Roellinger announced plans to close his three-star restaurant, La Maison du Bricourt, in Brittany, France.

French chef Bernard Loiseau, the late owner of La Cote d’Or restaurant in Burgundy, committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a rifle in 2003 shortly after another respected guide, the Gault Millau, downgraded his restaurant by two points. There were also rumors that he might lose one of his three stars from Michelin (it later emerged that this was not the case). According to a BBC dispatch, earlier the same year Loiseau told another three-star chef, Jacques Lameloise, “If I lose a star, I’ll kill myself.”

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