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Michelin: Fine dining, haute cuisine and… street food?

The Michelin Star has always been the quintessential benchmarking of really incredible food. With superstars like Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal among the most decorated recipients, for many years the award has demonstrated excellence in cooking, and has been the pinnacle of achievement for many professional chefs.

As a line in the Bradley Cooper film ‘Burnt’ commented, “…to get even one Michelin star, you have to be, like, Luke Skywalker. If you manage to get three, you’re Yoda.”

However, some might question the thinking of those in charge of the award dishing out process, when they hear that a tiny street food stall in a hawker centre received one star in the inaugural Singapore edition of the guide.

The sub £2 Michelin star meal

When 51-year-old hawker stall owner, Chan Hon Meng, received his invitation to the Michelin Guide Singapore Gala Dinner, he asked if they were joking. He had heard of the guide, but did not see the relevance to his food. Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle was just a standard street food stall, offering typical Singaporean soya sauce chicken and rice for the equivalent of just £1.10.

Since receiving the award, queues at his food stall have increased in size, with a two hour wait not uncommon. Singaporeans have complained that they don’t need the French to tell them where to eat, and have raised concerns that this type of attention will only make their traditional food unaffordable. But Chan hasn’t put his prices up yet, and states he has no plans to either.

While it’s always nice to see the little guys gaining recognition, it’s understandable that many in the industry are throwing up their hands in despair. What is Michelin doing, and why?

Is Michelin losing its relevance?

To understand just how irrelevant the Michelin ratings may be becoming, we need to go back to the start. Back in the days of slow moving motorcars and no high-speed trains, travellers venturing from Paris to the warm south of France would often take a pause in small central towns for a meal and a rest. Knowing where to stop for great food and warm hospitality was something of an insider secret, until the red book came along.

Legendary tyre manufacturer Michelin embraced the opportunity to help these weary travellers make better decisions, and in 1900 they published their first guidebook for French motorists. The book directed these travellers to the hidden gems around the country, where they could find a good meal, a comfy bed and, of course, trustworthy repair shops for their vehicles.

 Over the years, the format and focus of the guide has changed immensely. Spreading their reach, first around Europe and more recently into the US and Far East as well, the guide is now viewed by many as the pinnacle of exceptional restaurants. Losing or gaining a star can make or break a restaurant, and a chef, with more than one pro chef suicide linked to fears over losing a star.

As time has worn on, some have lashed out at Michelin, claiming they are no longer relevant. Jonathan Kauffman, Restaurant Critic for SF Weekly, said that the Bay Area Michelin Guide had demonstrated its irrelevance by leaving out some of the city’s most popular and typical restaurants, in favour of, “the kind of restaurants patronized by the kind of diners who believe in stars.”

Super-chef Marco Pierre White said of the guide, “When I was a boy, winning a Michelin star was like winning an Oscar. Today they dish out stars like confetti. What does Michelin mean anymore? Not much. I don’t think Michelin understands what it’s doing itself. It's unhinged.”

Whilst this criticism may be unfairly harsh, the fact remains that since 2009 the early leak of results has been a fairly regular occurrence. Michelin have blamed everything from their web team to naughty bookshops, although cynics may feel that maybe they help generate excitement and media attention for, what is ultimately, a relatively boring list.

The struggle to reconnect

Could it be that, although Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle may well do very tasty dishes, it all smacks of being a bit of a publicity stunt. Have Michelin have sullied their reputation with uber foodies due to the sheer number of stars dished out, and are now trying to connect with a new generation, a different demographic; one with a lot less cash to flash?

Further evidence of the guides attempt to claw back their status is the introduction of their ‘Bib Gourmand’ classification; their version of ‘cheap eats’ where us regular Joes can grab a good bite to eat (without requiring a second mortgage).  The symbol was devised back in 1997, but the awards were only officially published since 2015. Is this an attempt to reach out to a younger, less affluent generation, and to remain ‘relevant’ in 2017?

The Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle fiasco has marked the climax of some difficult times for Michelin. Although it remains the ambition of many a young European chef to earn their star, you’ve got to ask yourself, what will the future hold for this century old tradition?

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