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We shouldn’t be so focused on Michelin-starred chefs

The one question I am asked again and again is: why doesn’t India have any Michelin star chefs?

I have tried answering this again and again but the confusion still seems to persist. So, here goes one more time!


The Michelin guide was started decades ago by the eponymous tire company as a way of helping motorists stop off and have a good meal while they were driving. To be listed in the guide was an achievement. And if the restaurant was very good it got stars. One star meant you were guaranteed a good meal. Two stars meant that the restaurant was excellent. And three meant that it was so exceptional that you should make a special trip just to eat there.


   Over the years, the guide has evolved. Whereas it once just listed restaurants, it now offers descriptions of each place. And though it started out in France, and then spread to the rest of Europe, it has now gone international with guides to many of the world’s great cities: London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and soon, Dubai.


   The stars, however, have remained the same. And that’s where some of the confusion comes from. To be a Michelin starred restaurant, you have to be located in a city where there is a Michelin guide. Because there is no Michelin guide to any Indian city, there can be no restaurants with Michelin stars in India.


   That is why there are no Michelin starred restaurants in India. Not because our restaurants are not good enough but because there is no guide in which they could feature.


   More confusing, Michelin is clear that the stars are for the restaurant and not the chef. If a chef leaves a restaurant, he or she does not automatically take the stars with him or her. They remain with the restaurant. But if the food deteriorates once the chef has left, Michelin may reconsider the stars. However other things being equal, they are the restaurants’ stars, not the chef’s.


   The Michelin guide comes out every year and the stars are awarded afresh annually. A restaurant that got a star one year may lose it the next. So it cannot continue to call itself a Michelin-starred restaurant on the basis of some past glory if the star has not been awarded in the year in question.


   But because, outside of Europe, people don’t often realize this, many restaurants that have lost their stars, continue to describe themselves as Michelin starred. Some seek refuge in the phrase ‘Michelin rated’ which only means that they feature in the guide, not that they have stars.


   Most confusing of all these days, is the distinction between the restaurant’s stars and the chef himself. Though the stars are given to the restaurant, many great restaurants in France were (and still are) known only for their chefs. For instance, the first three star restaurant I ever ate at (in the Champagne district of France) was called Les Crayères but locally it was known as Chez Boyer after its chef Gerard Boyer. The legendary French chef Paul Bocuse’s L'Auberge Du Pont de Collonges first got three stars in 1965. But nobody called it by its full name. It was just ‘Paul Bocuse’.


   Because many (if not most) of the great restaurants of France are so closely associated with their chefs, the term ‘Michelin-star chef’ came to be used. Originally it was indirect references like “Bocuse, who has three stars, is one of France’s greatest chefs. And then it just became, “the Michelin starred Chef Paul Bocuse.”


  "Sadly, in recent times, there has been a decline in standards and the term ‘Michelin star chef‘ is thrown around with reckless abandon."

   Does it matter? Not, in France, it doesn’t. Foodies are always up to date with what is happening. For instance Les Crayères lost its three stars after Boyer sold it. (It now has regained two.) Bocuse’s restaurant lost its three stars after he died. Foodies keep up with changes in the chef world and relate them to the restaurant’s Michelin stars.


   Chefs themselves are careful to make a distance between themselves and their restaurants. For instance Gordon Ramsay has three stars for his flagship restaurant in London. But his other restaurants may have fewer stars or no stars at all. He does not claim that everything he owns is the work of a ‘Michelin star chef’. Similarly, Alain Ducasse runs three star restaurants in Paris, Monte Carlo and London. But not all his restaurants have Michelin stars, a fact he readily accepts.


   The problem is not in Europe where people are knowledgeable about Michelin. It is in countries where Michelin is less known.  It is here that chefs who may once have worked at a Michelin starred restaurant are passed off as ‘Michelin-starred chefs’.


   Till recently, hotels were responsible in how they labelled visiting chefs. The Taj, which has brought everyone from Pierre Troisgros to Paul Bocuse himself to India has been careful with how it labels its visiting chefs. The Oberois who have hosted Alain Passard, Georges Blanc etc. have been careful to use the term correctly.


   Sadly, in recent times, there has been a decline in standards and the term ‘Michelin star chef‘ is thrown around with reckless abandon. At one Mumbai pop-up, a man who had been a stagier (like an intern) at a Michelin starred restaurant was described as serving a ‘Michelin star meal.” Often chefs who previously worked at Michelin-starred restaurants at some stage in their careers are described as “Michelin starred chefs.”  A couple of weeks ago, a Belgian chef who does not cook at a Michelin starred restaurant was described at expensive pop-ups in Delhi and Mumbai as “Michelin-starred”.


   Why do restaurants and hotels do this? Sometimes it is because they want to exploit the ignorance of customers and rip them off by charging high prices. And because there is so much confusion about Michelin stars, they get away with it.


   In my view, we should not be so focused on Michelin-starred chefs. There are many great chefs who had Michelin stars and then lost them because of circumstances. Vineet Bhatia’s Michelin-starred Rasoi closed after impatient partners pulled the plug even as Michelin had given it a star again. Atul Kochhar left Benares where he had won his Michelin star. Vikas Khanna left the Michelin-starred Junoon where he had been the chef.


   But that does not make them lesser chefs. They are still giants of the profession. To reduce their culinary careers to whether they once got stars or not, serves no purpose. For instance, there was a time when Gaggan Anand’s restaurant had two stars, the only Indian restaurant in the world to earn that distinction. (That year, Campton Place had one star).


   This year, Gaggan’s restaurant has been closed because of the Pandemic and so it was not eligible to be judged by Michelin and was not on the list. But Gaggan does not call himself ‘Michelin starred’ --- actually he did not even use the term when he had two stars. He is content to let his food speak for itself. The stars make no difference.


   Or take Andrew Wong, whose London restaurant A. Wong may be the only Chinese restaurant outside East Asia to get two Michelin stars. Andrew does not describe himself as ‘Michelin starred’. And his excellent Baoshuan restaurant at the Delhi Oberoi is a success because of the food, not because of the stars he won in another city.


   So here’s a golden rule: if a foreign chef you have never heard of is described as Michelin starred by the hotel or restaurant where he is doing a pop-up, then it is time to get suspicious. Google before you book!



Posted On: 19 Apr 2022 08:30 PM
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