The French tire maker, Michelin created the “Michelin Man” mascot back in Y 1894. But its most famous global brand is the highly respected Michelin Guide which is updated each year.
Originally created in Y 1900 to stimulate demand for cars and tires, the Michelin Guide provided motorists with maps, tire repair instructions, hotels and gasoline station locations.
Then, in Y 1931, the publishers changed the book’s cover from Blue to Red and focused on creating a hierarchy evaluation system to rate restaurants and their cuisine, coming up with the now globally known 1, 2 and 3 Star rating system.
Now France and Japan have the same number of 3-Star establishments. But look deeper into the figures and you see that while Paris has a total of 134 Stars, it is Tokyo that holds the title of the world’s most highly awarded city with 304 Stars.
The Big Q: What are Japan’s secrets, what do the French, who created Guide, feel about Japan’s dominance of the cuisine kingdom, and how do food critics arrive at their results?
The Big A: Japan’s foremost food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto tells all about the Stars.
“The secret to any 3-Star restaurant lies in the quality of its ingredients. That is why 3-Star restaurants are so expensive, it is their ingredients,” he says.
But the ingredients are just 1 Key part of the puzzle. What is most important in any restaurant is the Chef.
“More than 80% of the French chefs that get 3 Stars are geniuses. In fact, if you are not a genius, then you cannot get 3 Stars,” he says.
When asked to compare French chefs to Japanese ones, he said that the main difference lies in the education system.
“Of course there are genius chefs in Japan, but the probability of creating a larger proportion of great cooking talents is higher in France. In French schools, students are strongly encouraged to raise their hands, ask questions, give their opinions and are told not to copy others. In Japan, individuality and uniqueness are not pushed and conformity has higher priority than creativity.
According to Mr. Yamamoto, it is the French education system which promotes uniqueness and creativity that drives the French to pioneer such evolutionary new food culture using new ingredients.
“Without this strong sense of individuality and creativity, chefs would not receive 3-SStars. When you look at the cuisine prepared by a 3-Star Chef, you ask yourself ‘where does this chef get the idea for such an inspired dish?’ It’s because no normal person could conceive of such dishes that I call them geniuses.”
So, let us summarize what we have so far.
- It is the Japanese, specifically Tokyo, which has the most Michelin Stars on the planet, and
- The French have an education system that is set up to seemingly create more genius chefs than most other countries.
So, Big Q2: Even though Japan has more Stars, does Mr. Yamamoto think France is leading the cuisine world when it comes to chefs?
The Big A2: “No, the country leading the world right now is not Japan or France, but Spain. In fact the epicenter for the best chefs right now is Barcelona. Just look at the legendary artists associated with that region—Gaudi, Dali, Miro, Picasso just to name a few. The inspiration for much of their work came out of their opposition to the oppressive Franco dictatorship that took hold around the time WWII started.”
When Franco’s reign ended in 1975, a wave of freedom, passion and creativity swept across the Catalonia region giving rise to many great chefs and artists. “In fact, the El Bulli restaurant gained a 3-Star rating in 1997 and became the world’s best restaurant and its chef Ferran Adria changed the world of fine dining. He was a Chef who was told from a very young age ‘not to copy anyone, to be yourself.” El Bulli closed in Y 2011.
As a Master Chef who would trace the origins of ingredients, reinvent traditional recipes and then conjure up inspired new dishes, artists would flock to Adria’s restaurant in awe of his creations. His artistry is recognized as 1 Key driving force that influenced Spanish art, music, literature and fashion of the time and stimulated the birth of many of the country’s genius Chefs. This influence has reached as far afield as South America, a place Mr. Yamamoto says has some of the world’s best Chefs.
Mr. Yamamoto credit Japan with having some of the best chefs and restaurants, and suggeststhat perhaps some Michelin reviewers here are a little too generous in their evaluations. “Japan has 13 3-Star restaurants,” he says. “But by my reckoning, I think there are only 3”
Once a chef achieves a 3-Star rating, they must work hard to keep it. And the criteria that must be met are challenging to say the least. Michelin reviewers, who are anonymous, rate restaurants on criteria ranging from quality of ingredients, presentation and flavor of dishes, service, decor and value for money.
He compares Japan to Europe.
“…the Japanese Michelin Guide evaluates and awards Stars to sushi and soba noodle restaurants whereas the same guide in France does not rate crape eateries or pizza restaurants in Italy. I think that is lopsided.”
However, he admits that Japan vies with France as the cuisine capital of the world and is an acknowledged creator of some of the world’s greatest Chefs, or geniuses. Because as he says, “it takes a genius to capture 3 Stars”.
Have a terrific weekend