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Now That Street Food Gets Michelin Stars, What Counts As Fine Dining?

Restaurant industry insiders on the new rules of top-table eating.

In 1988, having earned his first Michelin star at Harvey’s in south London, Marco Pierre White asked Derek Brown, head inspector for Michelin, what he needed to do to win a second. “It’s not for me to tell you how to run your restaurant,” replied Brown. “But if you start serving amuse-bouches and improve your coffee, you won’t be a million miles away.”

So White bought the best possible coffee machine, refined dishes like his tagliatelle of oysters, pigeon en vessie and blanquette of scallops and langoustine that would later become classics, and commissioned the renowned designer David Collins to recast his neighbourhood restaurant in the vein of New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. By 1990, White was awarded his second star.

In 2016, it is harder to understand the demands of Michelin and precisely what its coveted stars represent. In July it launched its inaugural guide to eating out in Singapore. Of the 29 establishments awarded stars, Joel Robuchon was the only one to receive a hallowed three. This caused rather less surprise – the French chef is the world’s most decorated Michelin-starred chef, after all – than the news that one star had been awarded to a stall selling noodles in an open-air food court.

Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle does not serve coffee or amuse-bouches. Its chef, Chan Hon Meng, sells little more than the name of his stall suggests, a plate of which will cost you just two Singapore dollars (about £1.10). Even so, he is clearly doing something right: the queue to enjoy Meng’s food lasts several hours.

At one star Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, a plate of food will cost you just two Singapore dollars, clearly he’s doing something right

According to Michelin, a one-star restaurant must display, “very good cooking in its category.” Herein lies the problem. The trouble with taking such an indefinite judgment as your guide becomes clear when comparing one-starred establishments. In the UK, for instance, you might have HKK, a high-concept City-based Chinese restaurant where the tasting menu costs £88, alongside Barrafina, a Soho tapas bar with no reservations and counter service serving excellent Spanish morsels. Look a little further, to the north Kent coast, and you’ll find The Sportsman, a place its chef-owner Stephen Harris lovingly describes as “a grotty, run-down pub by the sea.” Meanwhile, back in London, The Ritz was awarded its first-ever star in the 2017 Michelin Guide. Do they really merit comparison?

By attempting to shake off a reputation for being remote, atavistic and pretentious, the Guide has instead served often to confuse the public. Skye Gyngell, formerly head chef at Petersham Nurseries Café, once described its decision to award her rustic café with a star in 2011 as “a curse” and that Petersham was “the antithesis” of a central London restaurant, a place serving fresh ingredients, unusually spiced and unfussily plated. After Michelin officially recognised her achievements, Gyngell quickly grew tired of new customers expecting starched linen and obsequious service, before leaving dissatisfied by the rickety tables and modest cheese board. In 2012 she relinquished the star and hung up her apron.

Michelin’s attempts to modernise and be more egalitarian have not won approval from those who still have a bad taste from treatment under the old system. According to one former Michelin-starred chef, who wishes to remain anonymous, “at the top end it still creates an unhelpful, pompous outlook on food. Chefs don’t really understand [Michelin’s criteria], so they end up cooking food they think will win stars as opposed to food their customers want to eat. Very few of the places I really rate these days have any stars.”

Marina O’Laughlin, restaurant critic for The Guardian, is in agreement. “I understand why people like lists and awards,” she says, “but Michelin just seems to me to be increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary diner. The people who are most excited by them are chefs. What I’ve enjoyed most about the restaurant scene in recent years is its democratisation in terms of age and income. But Michelin doesn’t even register with the 25-year-old restaurant fans I know.”

Perhaps recognising that its influence needs reinforcement, in October in London, Michelin announced, for the first time, the runners and riders in its 2017 Guide at a live event. The message of modernisation was trumpeted loud and clear: restaurants in the north of England fared better than ever and a new category, Michelin Female Chef, was won by Gordon Ramsay’s former protégé Clare Smyth.

For many in receipt of stars, the bestowal clearly still means a great deal. Sam Hart, co-owner of Barrafina, told THE STAND that, “to be internationally recognised by Michelin as a standard of excellence is very nice,” adding that it also indicated that the awards body is noticing a change in dining culture. But O’Laughlin, an avowed fan of Barrafina herself, remains withering in her assessment of the culture such awards create: “There is little more joyless in life than the provincial one-starred restaurant straining to hold onto its category.”

Marco Pierre White notoriously justified the act of handing back his three stars to Michelin in 1999 as one of lost respect. “It started to dawn on me,” he wrote, “that I had spent my whole career being judged by people who had less knowledge than me.” He meant Michelin’s inspectors, of course. Today, some would argue, the intelligent diner knows more about eating out than any of them.

Toby Wiseman is editor of Men’s Health and its gourmet food spin-off, Men’s Health Epicure.