When I wrote to a food expert recently to express my dismay that my favourite Parisian restaurant might not get a star this year, his answer was telling.
“Adrian, who cares about Michelin stars?” said Alexandre Cammas, founder of the Le Fooding, the popular culinary movement set up in 2000 to shake up the French food scene.
Although I pretty much subscribe to his view, I couldn’t help checking the buzz in the blogosphere to see how much other people cared what the Michelin guide says these days.
For a few hours, people seemed to be falling all over themselves to be the first to mention this or that promotion or demotion of certain restaurants. But by the end of the day, the buzz had evaporated. The Guide Rouge seems to have left the dining public cold. The venerable Michelin Guide Rouge, so long the bedrock of gastronomic ratings, has taken a beating lately. One book by a former restaurant inspector fuelled negative publicity over how so few inspectors could visit all of the addresses listed, the bias in favour of certain “untouchable” chefs and the favouritism towards traditional French establishments.
And then there’s the growing menace of online food blogging. The Michelin institution has fallen out of favour with the cutting-edge foodies and more than a few of the knowledgeable dining public. As Anna Polonsky, also of Le Fooding, says, “A lot of tourists are looking for Michelin coded tables, it’s like the Disney book of food.”
But has the Michelin guide tried to change with the times? Its recent launch of the bi-monthly Etoile magazine and sporadic online reviews on its website might show an initial effort at innovation, but for many it’s still rooted in the last century. Critics such as Le Figaro’s François Simon consistently criticise the guide’s “clever marketing”, saying it is stuck in a rut and ignoring some of the most important culinary trends, such as the bistronomy movement and foreign cooking.
The latest edition, however, seems to have taken note. It promoted only two tables in Paris to one star: Yam T’cha and Passage 53. The former has received more press than any other opening in 2009. The chef, Adeline Grattard, after training with two of France’s most talented chefs, the Meurice’s Yannick Alleno and the Astrance’s Pascal Barbot, did a sabbatical in Hong Kong to learn Chinese cooking techniques at Bo Innovation. When she returned, she opened Yam T’cha, a tiny 20-seater near the Louvre, where she serves a subtle fusion menu combining the best of French produce – wok or steam cooked – accompanied by pan-Asian spices and vegetables.
Passage 53, one of the most unique addresses in the city, was opened by Guillaume Guedj, a hardworking young Frenchman in a skinny tie with an easy smile, whose stepfather and main investor happens to be the famous butcher Hugo Desnoyer. Located in a fin-de-siecle covered passageway, the minimalist table serves up a thoughtful and precise, no-choice tasting menu from Japanese chef Shinichi Sato, who worked at the three-star Astrance and Aida, the capital’s only one-star Nippon. Both addresses embody the new sea change in the French culinary landscape. As the guide’s most highly decorated chef Alain Ducasse recently said when asked about the future of the French restaurant, the most important trait is “diversity”.