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Friday, April 6, 2018

Michelin Guide Taipei

“Michelin is the only guide that counts," said Paul Bocuse. The great chef might be a little biased since he is French and his restaurant has been rated three stars continuously by Michelin for over 50 years. Since Michelin's inception in 1900, its supremacy has constantly been challenged by other restaurant guides: Gault and Millau, Zagat, Gambero Rosso, World's Best 50, La Liste, Dianping...etc. In cities around the world, local arbiters of tastes, such as the New York Times Restaurant Critic, may hold more sway with their local diners. While these different guides, crowd-sourced websites, and critics have all garnered enormous power, none of them have the same global influence and prestige as the Michelin Guide. The stars of Michelin is a global currency that doesn't require any translation.

The general public may debate the importance of the Michelin Guide, but chefs care deeply about their Michelin stars. Gordon Ramsay claimed to have cried when he lost his two Michelin stars in New York City. I didn't see the tears but I believe him. Last year, the Japanese sushi chef Mitsuhiro Araki wept openly at the Michelin ceremony in London. He had regained his three-star rating, but it felt like he found his lost child. When he hugged his wife and his lone assistant, they were all beside themselves; their hard work has been validated. It was an extremely moving scene. I didn't know a Japanese chef cared that much about the Michelin Guide.

The Michelin Guide is also the only guide that governments in Asia are willing to pay to come evaluate their restaurants. The Guides in Seoul, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, and Singapore are all commissioned. The specific terms of each sponsorship are not known. The press in Korea reported that the Korean Tourism Organization pays Michelin around US$370,000 a year for four years to release a guide for Seoul. The press in Thailand claimed the Tourism Authority of Thailand pays Michelin close to US$1 million a year for five years to release a guide for Bangkok. The public may never know the real cost of the sponsorship as the deals with Michelin are kept secret. But clearly the governments in Asia see the benefit of commissioning the Guide to attract tourists and to market themselves to the world.

Despite the sponsorship, Michelin Guide is not a money-making business. The Financial Times once reported that the Guide loses US$20 to 30 million a year. This is a small amount for the Guide's parent company, which has net sales of over US$20 billion a year. However, the continuous losses mean, similar to other traditional publications, Michelin has not figured out a way to monetize its digital content to compensate for the decrease in sales of physical guidebooks. As such, Michelin likely will continue to rely on sponsorships to offset the cost of issuing the new Guides.

Ever since Michelin launched the Guide in Hong Kong and Macau in 2008 there had been rumors that the Guide would come to Taipei. Instead, Michelin went to Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, and Bangkok. The persistent chatter in Taipei was the local government had been unwilling to pay for the Guide. Finally in late 2017 Michelin held a press conference to launch the Guide for Taipei, with sponsorship from the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan. The press in Taiwan reported the cost ranging from NT$50 to 80 million. While the money for Michelin is from the taxpayers, the exact price of the sponsorship is not made public. The government only says Michelin will be in Taipei for at least five years.

What did all the money buy? The inaugural Guide for Taipei, published in March of 2018, recommended a total of 126 restaurants and 25 hotels. Of the 126 restaurants, 20 are starred (1 three-star, 2 two-star and 17 one-star). When the list was announced, many people were surprised, shocked, or incredulous. This was inevitable because Michelin's list will never match anyone's own list. I had my own knee jerk reaction to the result. But the reality is, like most residents of Taipei, I have not been to all of the starred restaurants. Even for some of the ones I have dined at before, the visits were not recent. For instance, I have been to RyuGin only once and it was three years ago. At that time I thought the restaurant was a solid one-star. Has the restaurant improved to two-star as shown in the Guide? I cannot say. Until I visit all the restaurants in a limited span of time, I cannot judge fairly whether the restaurants deserve the stars or not. Nevertheless, I still have some problems with the list produced by Michelin.

Michelin defines one-star as a very good restaurant in its category. When Michelin was rating just the restaurants in France, the categorization of restaurants was quite simple. But ever since Michelin ventured outside of Europe, the idea of a starred restaurant expanded and no longer means a fancy or formal place. Interior design, tableware, and service, which had previously been thought of as an integral part of the criteria for Michelin star, have been downplayed.

This gave rise to casual restaurants being ranked the same as fine dining restaurants. In the first New York City Guide in 2005, the gastropub Spotted Pig was awarded one star, the same rank as Babbo, at that time the best Italian restaurant in the City. For chef Mario Batali who partly owns both restaurants, this was inconceivable. He said at the time, “[Michelin is] blowing it. They can’t put the Spotted Pig on the same level as Babbo.” Little did Batali know, Michelin was about to greatly expand the range of the one-star restaurant.

When Michelin Guide arrived in Tokyo, not only can casual restaurants receive a star, but even yakitori, ramen, tonkatsu joints have garnered one star. They have the same number of star as Maison Paul Bocuse in Daikanyama, Tokyo, a restaurant with a battalion of cooks in the kitchen and tuxedo-clad waiters in the dining room. In Hong Kong, the dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan became the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. This was superseded later in Singapore when Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle received a star; forget tableware, the place doesn't even have a dining room. The signature dish chicken with rice costs less than US$2.

The need to separate restaurants into categories is understandable and perhaps necessary. Similar to the Academy Awards for Motion Pictures, the Oscars are awarded in different categories. It is not necessary to compare a short documentary with a feature film. Both can be great and both can have an award. Similarly there is no point in comparing restaurants across categories. But if one cannot compare restaurants across categories, how does Michelin determine if a restaurant is worth one star or not? The criteria for the one-star restaurant is too wide and random for the public to understand. If we simply accept Michelin's idea that any type of food establishment (including hawker stalls) can get a star, then surely there are more one-star restaurants in Taipei than Michelin has found.

Of the 20 restaurants with stars: six are Japanese, seven are Western, and seven are Chinese. The number of starred Western and Chinese restaurants seem disproportionate to the restaurant scene in Taipei. Compared to other cities with Michelin guides, Taipei is not a city with a strong western food scene.  Instead, Taipei has more varieties in Chinese food than others, including Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Chinese food culture is far more established than Western cuisine. Yet a visitor from abroad would not understand by looking at the list of starred restaurants in Taipei.

Michelin always seems to have a hard time judging Chinese restaurants. Part of the problem may be that the dining format of most Chinese restaurants simply don't suit the operation of Michelin inspectors. The majority of Chinese restaurants are not setup for single or two-person diners. Furthermore, most Chinese don't order tasting menus of little individual portions; most restaurants don't even offer a tasting menu. Instead, the typical Chinese diners share a variety of dishes that provide an overall balance and contrast of different ingredients, textures, and flavors.

Sometimes, I am simply puzzled by Michelin's choices for starred Chinese restaurants. This is especially pronounced for the starred Chinese restaurants outside of Greater China. For instance, currently there is only one Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in New York City, Café China. The restaurant has maintained its one-star rating for several years. Last summer I purposely made a trip to try the restaurant. The food was a bit disappointing. There was very little refinement nor elegance. If Café China can earn one star, many restaurants in Taipei should certainly have one star as well.

The Director of Michelin Guide, Michael Ellis, says Taipei shouldn't feel there are too few starred restaurants (20), because the initial guide for Hong Kong only contains 22 starred restaurants. However, he fails to mention the discrepancy in the number of two-star restaurants. Hong Kong's first Guide contains seven two-star restaurants, while Taipei only has two: the Guest House and RyuGin. Close to one-third of the starred restaurants in Hong Kong has two stars. In contrast, the percentage in Taipei is just one-tenth. A comparison with the introductory Guide to Shanghai yields a similar discrepancy. Shanghai has a total of 26 starred restaurants, of which seven are awarded two stars. This is more than one-quarter of the total, also far more than Taipei.

The small number of restaurants in the two-star level is my biggest objection to the inaugural Michelin Guide for Taipei. Two restaurants in particular, Ya Ge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at Bellavita, deserve more than one star. They are both superior to the other restaurants in their categories.

Ya Ge and Three Coins are in the same category as both restaurants serve Cantonese food. Michelin awards both with one star and this is simply misguided. The food at Ya Ge is more refined than at Three Coins. Even without considering service and decor, Ya Ge is a superior restaurant. Furthermore, Ya Ge is on par with the two-star Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong that I have visited.

The same problem exists in the French Contemporary category, where La Cocotte by Fabien Vergé and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon both have one star. La Cocotte is a very good restaurant. Vergé and his wife surely deserve the one star. They have toiled for years doing things their own ways, and it is heartwarming to see their efforts recognized. Nevertheless, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is clearly the better of the two, starting from the bread all the way to the dessert and the wine list. Moreover, L'Atelier in Taipei is comparable to its two-star sister restaurant in Shanghai. Many of the dishes, such as the Beef Rossini and Caviar with Crab and Lobster Jelly, are the same.

Before Michelin launched the Guide for Taipei, I didn't think there was a three-star restaurant. But Michelin found one at Le Palais in Palais de Chine Hotel. The conspiracy theorist inside of me thinks it was imperative for Michelin to find a three-star restaurant in Taipei. The reason is Shanghai's first Michelin Guide has a three-star restaurant. It would be inconceivable for the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan to spend millions on commissioning Michelin to come to Taipei, only to tell the local taxpayers that the restaurants in Taipei (Taiwan) is not as good as the ones in Shanghai (China). Nevertheless, it takes two to tango. Michelin's desire or need to find a three-star restaurant still required a credible candidate.

Le Palais seemed to be clued into Michelin's intention and actively changed the restaurant to fit the bill. Le Palais opened in 2010 and was not a remarkable place. In fact, even less than a year ago the restaurant was not at the three-star level. But as Michelin was ramping up the operations in Taipei, Le Palais remade itself, starting in 2017, with luring chef Matt Chen 陳泰榮 away from Le Meridien Hotel to join forces with chef Ken Chen 陳偉強. The quality of the ingredients improved significantly. The hotel opened up the purse string and allowed the chefs to buy better ingredients. As chef Ken Chen said in an interview, as long as the owner is willing to spend money on ingredients, he can make good dishes. As such the dishes have also changed. For instance, the Shrimp Dumplings now have lobster as part of its filling, and are no longer served with the inelegant plastic syringes of red vinegar plunged through its center. More costly ingredients also mean higher prices. The dumplings used to be NT$280 a few months ago, now it is NT$360. The price of the Char Siu used to be NT$680 and is now NT$1480 and smaller in portion. After receiving the three stars, Le Palais pledged that it would not raise prices. This was a bit disingenuous since the restaurant had already increased the prices before Michelin's announcement. It was as if Le Palais anticipated the recognition.

When the Hong Kong Guide first launched, the then Director of Michelin Guide Jean-Luc Naret said the inspectors visited Lung Keen Heen in the Four Seasons Hotel 12 times before awarding the restaurant with three stars; the first Chinese restaurant to ever garnered that distinction. Did the inspectors for Taipei make that many trips to Le Palais? The current Director did not say. I have my doubts because if the inspectors went to Le Palais six months ago, they probably wouldn't have found a three-star restaurant.

I have not been to the new and improved Le Palais. I cannot say whether I agree with Michelin or not. I simply find Michelin's process of awarding three stars to Le Palais to be too casual. In France, Michelin puts chefs through the ringer before awarding them with three stars. When Alain Ducasse completely revamped the restaurant at Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, he was first downgraded to two stars before gaining back three stars. When Joël Robuchon opened the gastronomy restaurant in Bordeaux with his trusted chef de cuisine Tomonori Danzaki, who earned three stars in Tokyo and Las Vegas, he was awarded only two stars. When Marc Veyrat, who at one point had six Michelin stars total, started his comeback at La Maison des Bois, he had to settle with two stars. These superstar multi-three-star chefs must be amazed to know that a restaurant in Taipei can simply remake itself in a span of a few months and become a three-star restaurant.

Michelin works in mysterious ways. It doesn't reveal its process nor criteria. We will never understand how the inspectors arrive at their choices. Did the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan provide Michelin with a list of restaurants to start or exert any influences on behalf of any restaurants? We simply don't know. Maybe one day we will find out on Wikileaks. While we may question whether Michelin is reliable or relevant, the benefit of the Guide is very tangible. The restaurants awarded with stars and Bib Gourmand have all seen increases in their revenues. Good luck trying to make a reservation in the near future at the new three-star Le Palais. Not only has business at the restaurants picked up, the stock prices of the parent companies of the restaurants have all seen a bounce. The only restaurant that didn't benefit was La Cocotte by Fabien Vergé. Despite the recognition, Vergé and his wife have decided to close La Cocotte; Michelin came too late for them. Notwithstanding, Vergé is and will always be referred to as a Michelin-starred chef wherever he goes.

At the Michelin Gala dinner that followed the announcement of the starred restaurants, the Director of Michelin said the launch of the Michelin Guide is a very special day for the chefs. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Michelin has put a bright spotlight on the chefs of all the restaurants. This is especially important for the chefs in the Chinese restaurants. Prior to Michelin's arrival, most of the diners don't know and perhaps don't care who is cooking their food in the kitchen. None of these Chinese chefs cook in an open kitchen and are almost never seen by the guests. Stories about the chefs need to be written. While Michelin may not make 陳泰榮, 陳偉強, 林菊偉, 楊光宗, 謝文, and others into household names, they deserve more recognition than previously given. They are now part of the global network of chefs. I hope foreign, as well as local dinners, will seek them out. Instead of having Michelin-starred chefs come to Taipei to be guest chefs, perhaps we will soon see the Michelin-starred chefs of Taipei traveling abroad to showcase their talents and promote our food culture.

The arrival of the Michelin Guide to Taipei is a momentous event for the local food culture. For a city like Taipei that is without credible restaurant critics, sizable crowd-sourced websites, nor enough respect and appreciation for the people in the food industry, Michelin is a most welcomed addition. While Michelin will surely continue to confound us in the future, the Guide will drive the restaurants to improve and raise the public's awareness for restaurant professionals. If Taipei follows the pattern established by Michelin in other cities, the number of starred restaurants will only grow. And for the restaurants currently with one star or two stars, many will certainly look for ways to move up the rank. A few of them may even lose a star should the quality drops or if the chef leaves. The game of Michelin star has started and the Guide will be a positive force for the restaurant scene in Taipei.

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