After rumours of Michelin Inspectors leaving name cards at various Singapore restaurants surfaced, the anonymity of the famous reviewers, it seemed, had been compromised. Here is the account that no one wanted to put his or her name to.
BY Celine Asril | Jul 22, 2016 | Food & Drink
No one would talk to me, at least not openly.
The lack of pick-up boiled down to four words: “About the Michelin Guide…” upon which chefs and restaurateurs across Asia immediately adopted a cautious attitude. Such is the reputation of the 116-year-old red-covered guide fronted by Bibendum, a stacked-tyre character, and its famously anonymous Michelin Inspectors—feared yet revered. It didn’t matter that most industry folk felt the lustre of the Michelin stars had diminished—they did not want to take any chances.
“The Michelin Guide is like the French mafia,” a local restaurateur involved with a big dining group whispered to me in hushed tones. The restaurateur, like most of the interviewees on my list, wanted to remain anonymous. “No one dares say anything about them.” Yet, many stories have been linked to the Michelin Guide, ranging from rumours about petty reasons for exclusion from the guides, to the suicide of three-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau.
Word gets around in Singapore. The latest through the grapevine was that Michelin’s Inspectors had been presenting name cards at Singapore restaurants. I was counting on that grapevine.
On the last day of November 2015, the Michelin Guide held a press conference to announce their entry into Singapore. Michael Ellis, International Director of the Michelin Guides, confirmed the inspectors were in town, and had been for a week.
What was to follow across restaurants in Singapore was a flux of changes: menus were tweaked, tables straightened, quality control tightened, and cooking techniques revisited and reworked. The chef of a contemporary restaurant confessed: “When we heard the Michelin Guide was coming to Singapore, we changed a few set menus to showcase our signatures. We focused on the presentation and the plating of dishes, and brought in molecular gastronomy elements to give the dishes a nicer finish.” The chef even launched his own website to showcase his personality.
Rishi Naleendra, Head Chef of Cheek by Jowl, summed up the draw of the Michelin star: “The Michelin Guide was largely exclusive to Europe. Its arrival has given chefs an opportunity to make a dream come true.” Dreams, as we know, can weigh heavy.
The reality was that the Michelin Guide’s announcement applied even more heat under the collar of a pressure-cooker environment. While some fine-dining restaurants increased manpower, others saw diners slice through the butter-thick atmosphere with jokes about their own identities as Michelin Inspectors. The sous chef of an intimate restaurant confided that diners, friends and family would repeatedly tell him that his restaurant deserved, and would get, a Michelin star. “It’s not helping. It’s driving all the chefs nuts,” he said exasperatedly. Getting rated is as much a psychological test as it is a physical one.
It’s been a gruelling eight months of being on their toes. The same chef who works in the intimate restaurant picked up on three Michelin Inspectors’ visits. He revealed the giveaway signs: “The inspectors came solo and took pictures while they dined. They ordered the standard menu, and selected one glass of wine. They would then watch the room. When they ate, they would look stressed. They talked a lot and asked many questions, yet wouldn’t leave any comments. They knew what they wanted to order, and they ate very fast.” As a restaurant reviewer who has gone to lengths to stay anonymous myself, I can relate to all the aforementioned points, except the rushing of the meal.
"It's not helping. It's driving all the chefs nuts. Getting rated is as much a psychological test as it is a physical one."
It makes sense. Contrary to popular belief, service is not part of the five judging criteria set out by the Michelin Guide. “All establishments are selected according to the same five criteria used by Michelin Inspectors around the world: quality of the ingredients used, mastery of cooking techniques and flavours, projection of the chef’s personality in his cuisine, value for money and consistency, both over time and across the entire menu. Other factors, such as place, décor, service and facilities offered, are not considered,” Michelin reiterated in their press materials and at their press conference last month.
What really gave the inspectors away in Singapore, however, was the dropping of name cards at various restaurants. The revelations would come after a meal, generally an unusually extravagant or a lonely one. After payment, the Michelin representatives would hang around or double back and present generic Michelin name cards to the restaurant. “He said, ‘I’m from the Michelin Guide, and your restaurant was chosen for me to taste,’” the chef of the intimate restaurant recalled, having received two name cards in three visits over the course of six months. Another chef, who was similarly approached, said, “They asked to meet me and look at our kitchen.” By May 2016, one of these restaurants had already been informed that they would be included in Singapore’s first Michelin Guide.
Indeed, the inspectors’ anonymity would, for the most part, remain intact, until the meal was over.
The Straits Times confirmed the dropping of name cards with 11 restaurateurs, chefs and restaurant publicists as early as December 2015. The accounts of some of the eight industry folk who I spoke with also aligned.
French chef Joel Robuchon, who has more than 25 Michelin stars tucked under his chef blacks, confirmed this practice, as did a two-Michelin-starred chef who I spoke with. The chef, based in the Hong Kong-Macau region, said, “In four years, Michelin Guide’s representatives introduced themselves twice, after their meals. The second representative came after lunch service to get information.” The chef saw nothing wrong with this practice: “They have to introduce themselves at least once. They have to talk to the chef, to know who is in charge and get information.” In his case, the representative who asked for information had not dined at the restaurant.
When efforts to contact Michelin France’s press officer proved unsuccessful, I turned to Paul van Craenenbroeck, the former Chief Inspector and Editor-in-Chief of the Michelin Guide Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), to find out if this was common practice. Michelin has not come forward to claim Craenenbroeck, and likely never will. In our email conversations, the French-speaking retiree shared, “Until the end of the ’70s, we used to leave an anonymous Michelin card under our napkins at the end of the meal, but we never visited the premises after.”
During Craenenbroeck’s time with Michelin (1983-2005), the inspectors had a Michelin-issued identification card. “It was like what police officers have, with their photo, so they can show it to the restaurants when asked. However, they never left this card with the restaurants to maintain their anonymity,” he explained. “Generally, we can ask to visit the kitchen after paying the bill. This was to check the cleanliness, the equipment and the fridge. We can also talk to the owner if necessary, without revealing our thoughts on our experience at the restaurant. This was what we called a ‘friendly or courtesy visit’ to compare two restaurants in the same city, neighbourhood and category. This allowed us to work on a vertical classification in total anonymity.”
The 70-year-old, who authored a Dutch language memoir—De Magie Achter de Michelin Ster (The Magic of the Michelin Star)—added that the Michelin Guide does not stick to the same guidelines in different countries.
Why go through these lengths to try to maintain the inspectors’ anonymity? “The headquarters in Paris wanted to avoid being questioned about every decision,” Craenenbroeck revealed. “Above everything, Michelin adopted a profitability policy. To create a guide costs a lot of money. In the past, guides were a showcase, support for the tyre business, and the losses were overlooked. But as a multinational company, they needed to report their profitability. We therefore cheated a little. For example, we nominated Tokyo as the World’s Capital of Gastronomy. This was to capture the audience’s attention and sell more guides.” Tokyo was awarded 191 stars in 2007, two years after Craenenbroeck left his post. The number increased to 294 stars this year, maintaining the Japanese capital’s lead. Paris has 22 stars.
The first Michelin Guide was published as a shrewd marketing gimmick in the spring of 1900. The then-9.5cm by 14.6cm 400-page guidebook was “a free guide published by the Michelin tyre company to give the reader considerable information about its products, couched as instructions for use of tyres in general,” wrote Herbert R Lottman in his 2003 book, The Michelin Men. “That was the point, of course. All they wanted to do then, and later, was to sell the tyres they manufactured.” The first guides were placed in petrol stations in time for the incoming Paris World Fair travellers. “They provided [travellers] with compelling reasons to try out their cars and wear out their tyres, such as a good restaurant for lunch, a pleasant hotel in the evening.”
By 1920, the guides grew to more than double their size, inclusive of advertisements. They were also no longer free, each priced at the equivalent of about SGD8.50, a fraction of the SGD39.95 charged presently. It wasn’t until 1925, however, that the Michelin star system was quietly introduced. The lack of fanfare was deliberate—“Michelin never explained its choices [in the guides. They said,] ‘Our goal, in publishing this Guide, is to be useful and agreeable to our clientele. Thus, to avoid any suspicion of partiality… [we] make every effort to mention only establishments recognised as worthy of being recommended.’ Recognised as worthy by whom?” Lottman questioned. Secrecy was the Michelin Man’s advantage.
Overseas expansion began in the ’70s. “Our rivals are scared of us. Why should we tell them something that’s going to change that?” a senior executive with Michelin told investigative journalist Pierre Pean. Michelin’s mystery contributed to the excitement: a profile was written about the “secretive, suspicious, even paranoid” Francois Michelin, then-CEO and heir of the company, stirring up interest for the first of Michelin’s green-covered English language guides on Wall Street. Tight-lipped Francois chose to let only the Green Guide be his mouthpiece, if he said anything at all. The Green Guide was yet another calculated move: Michelin representatives said that the loss-making New York City guidebook was a stepping stone to the tyre manufacturer’s entry into the US.
The profitability of the guides is now at the fore, and has been since the ’90s. The Red Guides for Asia were first published in Tokyo in 2007, and Hong Kong and Macau in 2009. Singapore and Shanghai are the latest entrants in 2016 and 2017 respectively, bringing the total number of countries that Michelin Guide covers to 28.
Singapore looks to be leading the charge for Michelin Guide’s next step to profitability: events. In addition to the book’s launch, Michelin Singapore will be holding the brand’s first gala dinner, made accessible to the public at SGD450++ per seat. Year-round dinners featuring chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants from across the world will also become the norm in Singapore, the first of which took place last month at SGD565 per person. Tickets to all the Michelin-branded events can only be purchased via the Michelin Guide Singapore website. Michelin, and their Singapore-based partner, Robert Parker Wine Advocate, are set on milking the stars.
The Singapore efforts also go towards “demystify the Michelin brand”, a spokesman announced at Michelin’s heavily-sponsored press conference last month, which turned out to be more about the events than the guide—Michelin answered no questions there. International brand director, Ellis, will host Michelin’s first trade seminar, during which he will share insights on Michelin Inspectors’ recruitment criteria and answer how the standards of the Michelin stars are maintained across markets. A series of contests—aimed at a younger set, no less—was also launched, including one that encouraged speculation about Michelin-star awardees in Singapore. Radio spots, a website and social media accounts have been set up too. The marketing gimmick that was the Michelin Guide has come full circle.
As it stands, many feel that the lustre of the stars has diminished. “I don’t know how the events are going to help,” the restaurateur who compared Michelin to the French mafia said. “If you want to make money, you have to make compromises—the Michelin brand will have to be sacrificed.”
"If you want to make money, you have to make compromises—the Michelin brand will have to be sacrificed."
There is also the case of the sponsors: in six months, Michelin Singapore jumped from zero to 15 sponsors on board, among which is Resorts World Sentosa where Joel Robuchon’s restaurants reside. “What if Joel Robuchon gets three stars? Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?” the vocal restaurateur pointed out.
Ultimately, not enough is shared about the Michelin Guide, and it is the unknown that instils both fear of the brand and a desire to be associated with it. Success stories help that cause too—the two-Michelin-starred Hong Kong-Macau chef attested to the power of the Michelin star: “I saw the difference right away, internationally. There were a lot more people coming from Taiwan and Japan because of the Michelin stars. I received 30 percent more reservations after the first year.” The marketing gimmick, it seems, works.
But the stars are a double-edged sword. “Having the Michelin Guide in Singapore will help the industry if it’s based on a fair and good system, because it will push everyone’s limits and bring standards up,” commented a chef of a restaurant in the CBD area. If the guide is another case of wheeling and dealing, however, “standards will be brought down, and everyone will be concentrating on playing the game.” Still, it’s clear: “Not having a star and having one is okay, but having one and losing one changes everything,” he acknowledged. “A Michelin star is an investment.”
The question on everyone’s mind then—and it is still one that no one will ask openly—is: whose investment?
First published in Esquire Singapore’s The Big Food And Drinks Book 2016.