Simon Wilson debunks the myth of the Michelin star system.
Why do restaurants keep telling us their chefs have worked somewhere with a Michelin star?
I reviewed an Auckland restaurant once in the company of a man who, in my view, has all the attributes needed to be a fine Michelin inspector. Food knowledge: vast and intricately detailed. Obsessed with technicality: oh yes.
He was already there when I arrived, sitting at a table in the doorway, where there was a draft and waiters and customers constantly bumped their way past. Pity about the table they gave us, I said.
Oh, he said, I asked to sit here.
I ordered vitello tonnato, which is an Italian dish of veal with a tuna sauce that depends on the quality of the meat, the rather precisely piquant quality of the sauce, and the presentation – which is difficult. There was a photo doing the rounds of social media recently of a plate of meat with what looked like a large pile of vomit on top.
That evening at our restaurant it looked fabulous, and tasted that way too. My dining companion leaned over with his fork, took a mouthful, chewed thoughtfully and pronounced it the best vitello tonnato he had ever eaten in a restaurant.
He did not take another bite. Despite my best efforts to share, he would not. He already knew what he thought so what was the point?
I don't want to say he didn't actually like food, because I know he does. But me, judging a meal or just out for dinner, if I like it I'll eat it.
I have, I know it, a simpler understanding of what means to like food.
Good on him, though. Respect. We can't all live like Michelin judges and it's probably good that some people do so we don't have to.
ACTUALLY, I don't believe that. The Michelin star system is a blight on hospitality. The so-called standards it has imposed on dining have constricted the restaurant trade for decades, propping up a self-aggrandising, archly conservative and – worst sin of all – deeply boring style of eating out.
Michelin judging is not what it was, but the bleak heart of the Michelin system remains. It's an idea born of people who pick at this and that and don't really eat. It says dining should happen in a room that sounds like a library and looks like it belongs in a French chateau, preferably one with slaves in the kitchen. It thinks of food as a technical creation to be measured by arcane rules invented before time began. Or at least, before the 20th century.
It's the idea that a great restaurant is a temple, not to hedonism, but to propriety.
We're so lucky Michelin judges don't operate in New Zealand. Free from their dead weight, our best restaurants – not all of them or even most, but our best – have developed an appealing local style. The food is exquisitely cooked, often with local artisanal ingredients, and served in an atmosphere that combines folksy friendliness with impeccable attention to detail.
You have fun and there's some fancy.
That's what we're really good at and much of the reason for it – the boldness in the kitchen and the warmth of the service – would not even register in the tick box lists of a Michelin judge.
Michelin still makes its inspectors identify 23 ingredients, or whatever it is, cooked into a dish, which is both mind-blowingly impressive and only minimally related, in my view, to anyone's ability to judge a restaurant.
I know, it's not what it was. Michelin is open to new cuisines, it's big in Asia now, and it says it's open to new styles of eating too. Good old Michelin.
There's a yakitori bar in Tokyo that seats half a dozen diners a time, eating snacks with their beer, and it has some Michelin stars. Which means it also has a queue round the block.
Maybe that's amazing. To me, that sounds like a gesture of anti-restaurantism: the place has become the opposite of itself. Although I haven't been there so I can't judge how good it really is.
I'm happy to judge the Michelin-starred restaurant I ate at once in Hong Kong, though. The food was a showy mess, like it had been designed to be laughed at on television. Which could have been true, the chef was a celebrity buffoon.
One of the dishes looked like a beach, complete with a little fake edible condom on a bed of fake edible sand.
It seems Michelin, in its modern incarnation, may have veered slightly off course. I suppose I should be applauding, but I'm not.
Michelin is also awful for the world it helped create. Gordon Ramsay once said losing Michelin stars was like losing a girlfriend or losing football's European Champions League. Apparently those two things equate as well.
He also said if he discovered an individual staffer had been responsible for one of his restaurants having lost stars, he would take them to a Norwegian fjord and drown them.
Who the hell needs Gordon Ramsay? Who, in the world of creating restaurants with scrumptious food, warmly attentive service and a wonderful atmosphere, needs their standards to be driven in any way at all by blowhard celebrities?
STILL, I'M not saying no to everything. Michelin eating can be great.
The first restaurant of a Michelin-starred chef I ever ate at was L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, in Paris. It was 2004 and the place itself was too informal for Michelin stars back then: we ate at the counter, for heaven's sake. But Robuchon himself was star-studded. By the time he died last year he'd won 31, making him the most Michelinned chef in the world.
At L'Atelier we ate slices of jellied terrine and an intensely aromatic soup but the dish I remember most was individual chocolate fondants, the molten chocolate gushing extravagantly from the chocolate-cake casing.
It was decadent, tasty and crunchy-soft mouthfeely good beyond belief. Within a year or two every bog-standard bistro in the world was doing it.
Not as well, naturally. I'm glad I experienced the dish at what I choose to believe, sentimentally, was its apex. But I am still paying off the bill.
Those stars should tell you where to find impeccable cooking. Perhaps they do – that sand in Hong Kong tasted better than it looked. But they are a poor guide to the quality of the restaurant experience.
For that, you need something better. Sadly, you won't get it from the assurance of some PR flak that a chef has "worked in Michelin-starred restaurants".
EVERY OTHER week in New Zealand, a new restaurant pops up boasting it has a chef with Michelin-star experience. It could mean anything.
In the legendary Auckland fine-dining restaurant The French Cafe one night, where you can see through the pass into the kitchen, I watched a man in full chef's whites stand in a corner for three straight hours. He didn't move.
Was he an intern on his first month, and in the second would be allowed to start peeling potatoes? Was he the sous chef being punished for the previous night when he burnt the bechamel sauce?
I don't know, but I guarantee that even if that was his first day on the job and he quit in tears the very same night, his CV will still carry the phrase "worked at the French Cafe".
That's what "worked at a Michelin restaurant" can mean.
On the other hand, it can mean Josh Emett. He's a bona fide Michelin-starred guy: head chef at The Savoy Grill in London when it won a star; senior chef de partie at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant when it won three stars, executive chef at two other Ramsay restaurants that won three stars between them.
Emett made Ramsay look good. Emett is a Michelin maestro, no question.
But that's his personal history. When he returned to New Zealand he opened Rātā in Queenstown, then Ostro in Auckland, then Madam Woo, which now has five locations. As a MasterChef judge he was like a man who lives in the rarefied upper air of elite achievement, but none of his New Zealand restaurants is Michelin quality. None of them aspires to be.
Rātā's the best and well worth a visit. Madam Woo is cheap and cheerful, in a process-focused barn kind of way.
All Emett's restaurants here have dishes on the menu that I really hope one day I will eat again. But his Michelin pedigree is irrelevant. Those dishes are not "good" in a Michelin way. And, in case you were wondering, his heat-and-eat supermarket meals aren't meant to be Michelin quality either.
Even if you were told some chef "worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant" but then discovered they got sacked after six months, you can't know what that means.
Possibly they couldn't make a decent stock. But possibly they couldn't stand being slowly boiled alive in the broth of boring, and were happy to run off to an exciting, more adventurous kitchen.
Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson both know how to make perfect stocks. Neither of them could be remotely bothered with the properness required to cook in a Michelin style. In New Zealand that's also true for Al Brown and the many proteges his quality-with-panache recipe for success has helped to breed.
It's tempting to think that a better guide to quality might be "worked for Al Brown" or "worked in [insert your favourite restaurant]". But even that's unreliable. I know several top Auckland restaurateurs who are a little annoyed that a few others, having worked for them, now trade on their name when the relationship ended badly.
We need all kinds of restaurants. Fun, fancy, fun and fancy - and all the others. Some people enjoy fine dining immensely, and who's to say they shouldn't. But it's nonsense to think their preference defines quality for everyone else.
The best meal you'll ever have in your life? For some people it will indeed be in a Michelin-starred restaurant. For most, it will be that barbecue you had one time with loved ones on the beach; or takeways with a bottle of cheap bubbly, sitting on the floor of your first home. Context isn't all, but it's an awful lot.
And if you want help choosing a place to eat, forget that Michelin stuff. Let a decent critic guide your way. The Herald has a few, as do others. Read them and decide whose judgment sounds right for you.
The best critic is the one who tells you what you need to know. Just like the best restaurant, which is not the one that just gained another star from some fancy judging outfit. It's the one you like the most.
Herald writer Simon Wilson is a former editor of Metro and Cuisine magazines, where he wrote restaurant reviews and led the restaurant awards judging panels. He remains an occasional restaurant critic and food writer.