Michelin Misguided 1: The Fiasco in Asia Shows its Corporate Culture.

Since the publication in January of the 2019 “Michelin Guide France”, the major French media such as “Le Monde”, “Figaro”, “Le Point”, and “Les Echos” among them, have written several critical articles about Michelin. Alway through the pronouncements  of International Michelin Guide Director Gwendal Poullennec, the company so far is incapable of making  full-throated, convincing responses. It appears that opinion is starting to turn significantly against the guides’ parent company Michelin Travel Partner.

The following story recently appeared in “Les Echos”, France’s “Wall Street Journal”. I am glad to have come across this not-widely-circulated story as I feel that the Hong Kong-based journalist Julie Zaugg, who wrote the story titled “La Cuisine Douteuse du Guide Michelin en Asie/The Doubtful Cuisine of Michelin’s Asian Guides” and did the research, deserves a wider readership. That her reportage is about Michelin’s activities half a world away doesn’t obviate the fact that Michelin Guides’ corporate culture isn’t overly concerned about integrity no matter where. In other words, what plays in Asia doesn’t stay in Asia. Because this article is copyrighted and behind a pay wall, I provide this fulsome summary:

There is nothing in Julie Zaugg’s research and article that is positive for the publisher of the Michelin Guides. The remarks offered by Gwendal Poullennec, the International Director of Michelin Guides, are standard issue.”We use the same criteria to judge Asian and Western cuisine, and these are applied all over the world with the same rigor, which gives a real homogeneity to our selection process.” And,“Our inspectors are all salaried and trained by us”. “This is a rigorous process. They are not considered confirmed until after three years with us. They travel a lot and never go to the same place twice.”

Zaugg’s findings show otherwise. To write her article, she visited dozens of restaurants, interviewed 15 restaurant critics, bloggers, chefs and restaurateurs who know the geographic areas in question because they live and work there. She also writes about the murky financing and ‘pay for play” that created, with the exception of the Japan guide, the seven other Asian guides.

Among the one-star restaurants visited, she cites one in Hong Kong that served her salty noodles. a bland goose and pig “with the consistency of rubber”. Another has a decor reminiscent of off-track-betting cafes in France, white table clothes with holes, a large-screen TV and shark fin soup, which has been banned in the European Union since 2013 because of cruel fishing methods. Also receiving a star was a curry stall unknown to local critics serving Indian dishes prepared by a Hong Kong chef. After people posted on-line videos of rats in the windows and complaining of food poisoning, the stall closed

Zaugg’s research and interviews determined that undeserving restaurant received stars, and that “recognized institution are deprived of them” She mentions two dim sum “factories” that serve several hundred people a day (“When serving 300 customers several times a day, how can you claim to be doing meticulous work with the product, as the criteria of the Michelin Guide require?” asks a Hong Kong restaurateur who wishes to remain anonymous), while in Shanghai the situation with two and three-star restaurants is indicative of star inflation. Renown restaurant critic Andy Hayler who has dined throughout the world in more restaurants with Michelin stars than anyone states, “I recently went to Shanghai to test the Michelin-starred restaurants and they all have one star too many” Similarly, the two establishments with three stars in Seoul, ‘Gaon’ and ‘La Yeon’, are “shockingly disappointing.” Hayler also goes on to say that a one-star in Europe systematically becomes a two or a three-star in Asia.” It’s a point disputed by Michelin’s Poullennec who said, “A three-star always has the same value whether it is in China, Japan, France or the United States.”

Disconcerting to chefs and critics is the rapidity with which some newer restaurants in the Asia guides receive stars in contrast to ones in Europe, some of which have waited years to be rewarded. Conversely, restaurants that have been in existence  for a long time received none. The inclusion of food stalls, some with stars, also baffled some food critics. For example, how could  Michelin decide which to include when there are thousands. “In Singapore, locals don’t understand why two stalls serving simple noodles with chicken or pork each received a star. “This means that they are the two best street food vendors in the city when it is physically impossible for Michelin inspectors to test the thousands of stalls there as they would for restaurants. notes Aun Koh, a food critic based in Singapore.”This sounds like an arbitrary choice. Poullennec defended the inclusion of food stalls this way: “In Hong Kong, Singapore or Thailand, there is a real street food culture. We wanted to promote this local particularity”. He also defends Michelin’s rather rapid expansion in Asia (Other than Japan, all the other Asia guides have been created only in the last three to four years) and elsewhere stating, “Choosing a new destination is a careful process. The city must have a gastronomic ecosystem that has reached a certain level and an audience for this cuisine,” he says. However, the Shanghai food critic Zhong Nin laments the omission of Beijing among the Asia guides, stating “it has the most diverse and sophisticated Chinese cuisine in the country,” in comparison to Guangzhou (Canton) which has its own Michelin guide.

Serious observers also complain that the Asia guides are geared toward tourists who are passing through, and described the inspectors as being ignorant of local culinary traditions. One such person in Bangkok called the guide for Thailand”outdated and touristy, as if the inspectors had simply copied and pasted the list of restaurants appearing in TripAdvisor.”

Other complaints centered around “safe” establishments as exemplified by the majority of starred restaurants in Shanghai being in hotels, having menus in English and serving Cantonese dishes. Some restaurants that have branches in other cities where they also received stars. One chef in Shanghai even called it “playing the safety card”.

As is almost always the case, filthy lucre raises the biggest stench. Unlike the self-financed Michelin guides of the past, the Asian ones among the recently-created other ones are being financed by national and regional organizations promoting tourism, and corporate sponsors including hotel chains with restaurants. Not surprising, they have created conflicts of interest. The government of Thailand signed a five-year deal for close to $5,000,000 for five years; Seoul around $1,700,000 to produce its own book. Michelin falsely stated that the Hong Kong tourist board financed its guide, only to retract the statement becaue it was sponsors that included Melco casino hotels; Mercedes-AMG, the restaurant booking site Chope. Badoit, Evian and Nespresso. In Singapore, “the sponsor list includes Resorts World Sentoas, whose restaurants garnered in 2016 seven of the 29 stars awaded in Singapore; Chope; American Express; Badoit; Evian; and Nespresso”.

The tourist offices in Hong Kong and Singapore are ‘also bound by a marketing contract to the Robert Parker Wine Advocate newsletter, which is 40% owned by Michelin. The contract provides that these bodies will contribute to the costs of promoting the guide. These arrangements were created because of a financial imperative’ brought on by the Internet virtually destroying the demand for printed guidebooks. Despite these entanglements, Poullennec states that Michelin ” maintains absolute editorial independence” and that the choice of destinations “remains entirely within the purview of Michelin”.

In its constant search for revenue sources, Michelin is no longer the hands-off institution it used to be. With the participation of the tourist boards and sponsors, Michelin is firmly in the paid- events business. As Julie Zaugg  documented, “Tickets for a gala held in 2016 at a Macau casino that was attended by a coterie of Michelin-starred chefs and Manuel Albarran, a costume designer who worked for Madonna and Beyoncé, cost 2,000 euros per couple that included a night in a hotel.” She also writes that, as many experts believe, that this sponsorship system has led to star inflation. ” And to quote Andy Hayler,”When Michelin decides to launch a guide in a city, you have to find (create) Michelin-starred restaurants to include.”

Zaugg concludes her story with the foreboding news for Michelin that two companies have launched restaurant guides that are based on anonymous inspections, local critics and consensus algorithms. “Enough to make Michelin break into a cold sweat”.