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Food and Drink

FOOD / Michelin? I swear by it

I WOULD like to offer a defence of the Michelin guides. The argument was made in these pages on 30 January that the Michelin has things in England wrong, that while in France there are 19 three-star restaurants, 81 two- star and 502 one-star, in Great Britain and Ireland, there are, respectively, just two, five and 42. That, given the striking progress made by our restaurants in the past two decades is simply unfair, and the Michelin is not rewarding the inventiveness and variety of our cooking.

Let me declare immediately that I have no interest in the company, and also that I've been around the guides since well before the war. My father, who was no gastronome but was strong on motoring (the Ritz in Paris to the Golden Arrow in Calais in two hours and 15 minutes, I swear]) would not have dreamt of setting out on any expedition, however trivial, without his Michelin. I myself have sworn by it - often, as gastronomical standards shifted and the batty brigade of 'star' chefs took over from the great French tradition of cuisine bourgeoise, with rage and fury - for at least five decades.

My view is that the figures are wrong in the opposite respect. Where the Michelin has taken root, where it is based on a solid culinary culture, a natural inflation has set in. Thus it is the French figures that are too high, rather than the English that are too low.

When the Michelin began, it was essentially a route guide. It assumed, and rightly for the times, that there was a large body of regular eaters-out. These were people of settled habits, of a lunch-time disposition, and when for one reason or another they moved from within their daily circle of eating, they needed to know where they could go. The old Michelin reasoned that one could, for reasons of business, or holiday, or because Uncle Jacques had died, find oneself in an unfamiliar part of Paris, in Rennes or Lyons. If so, where did one eat?

It was not long before people started travelling to listed and recommended restaurants on purpose, without the excuse of Uncle Jacques' death. You could say that that the argument over Michelin has its roots here. Customers ate out more frequently in diverse places and became less certain of the standards against which to judge the food they were eating. The restaurant became a 'phenomenon', not just a place where one ate.

But the Michelin stars still stand, in their own rather stubborn way, for those earlier standards. Non-starred restaurants aplenty exist that are good or decent places to eat; there are even some excellent ones that are undecorated. That is because, as I understand it, the Michelin does not send its inspectors out to sample until a substantial number of recommendations from the public has come in. Most of the Michelin's 'missing' stars are, in fact, restaurants in excessively out of the way places.

The Michelin is a compact, detailed guide for peripatetic gastronomes; it rewards tradition and invention, not necessarily the satisfaction of our second most basic appetite. It is not about cadre, or ambience. That many starred establishments are pretentious (in England as in France) has nothing to do with the Michelin, and a lot to do with the elevation of a basic art to celebrity status.

There has always been a problem at the heart of restaurant reviewing and guides in general. It takes both judgement and experience to say that X is better than Y. That is why in the Michelin those who dine out for their own pleasure may propose restaurants, but professional eaters dispose of the stars. And if I come to the defence of the Michelin guide, it is precisely because it gets around the difficulty of fallible judgement or individual taste. The standards by which it operates, its underlying assumptions, are embodied in a genuine tradition of gastronomy. It takes time to develop checks and balances.

And here lies the rub. It is quite true that the Michelin is French-based, and France is its forte. There is reason for that. France has a gastronomical tradition; we are only at the beginnings of creating our own, highly eclectic style, a good deal of it still French-based. It takes time to develop an inspectorate up to the task. That is why the Michelin guides are less reliable outside France than within: excellent for the Benelux countries (where the tradition is also strong), sturdy for Germany, but slow to develop in Italy (it needs more inspectors steeped in Italian regional cuisine.)

It may have England wrong, but this could be for the right reason: from its awareness that a real gastronomical culture is not built in a few decades. It is bad to cook for a Michelin star (it distorts what cooking is for, ie the customer), but it is also silly to throw out the only universal guide we have.