Friday, April 21, 2017

The coveted Michelin star

I have a few pet peeves. Lately my biggest one is where people claim a local restaurant has Michelin stars when it does not.

For the record: there are no Michelin star restaurants in Vietnam. None. There are quite a few chefs who worked in a different country (like France), or helmed another restaurant elsewhere which was a Michelin star venue.  But when a chef leaves that restaurant, he can’t take or transfer the stars with him to a new place and call that a Michelin star restaurant.

Sure, you market yourself as a Michelin Star Chef - if you’re the exec, absolutely you should. Impressive on the resumé. But it comes across as misleading when you’re now working somewhere else and people talk about your new restaurant having Michelin stars just because you’re now working there.

There are two sides to this. 1. You’re banking on people being somewhat stupid and not knowing that the chef can’t take stars with him elsewhere,  and 2. You’re a marketing genius and using this to help bring people in.

This is coming across as snarky. It’s not meant to be. And neither am I jealous; I have no desire to work someplace to earn stars - but I’m also not that kind of chef. I have different culinary ambitions.

People are quick to point out that La Maison 1888 in Danang is Michelin starred - but it isn’t. It’s run by a chef who earned 3 stars for his restaurant in Paris.   Although I’m sure the restaurant is fantastic and superb and OTT, it does not have stars, no matter what people write (for example, see the misleadingly titled Top Five Michelin-Starred Restaurants in SE Asia).

The French restaurants here of late, including but not limited to the one where I used to work, are marketing themselves as having Michelin Star chefs at their helm.  In a lot of cases it’s not true - at my old workplace, the kid worked the salad station at a 1-Star restaurant - that doesn’t make him a Michelin Star Chef.  But the owner is banking on people flocking in droves to his restaurant because of his ambiguous marketing.

In Saigon, wine-paired dinners are all the rage; there’s at least one a week these days and I do attend quite a few for work, research, and pleasure. Not all are successful; I went to one last year where the food was just abysmal (thank God the wine, Yangarra from Australia’s McLaren Vale, was fantastic, but it still doesn’t make me feel better about having shelled out 2 M VND for the dinner). At times there also seems to be a huge disconnect between chef and sommelier, where the chef will do whatever the hell he wants and doesn’t really work on the pairing aspect. Or the somm spends 5 minutes thinking about it and phones it in. “Oh, fish? Yeah we’ll do white wine with that. Beef? Throw in any cabernet, that will do”.  That’s pretty lazy, and I know of one somm who does this constantly.  On my Facebook timeline I saw an upcoming event titled “Michelin Star Wine Dinner”, and of course they’re charging heaps of money for it. This grinds my gears. The event ought to be renamed to something else, even "Wine Dinner with a Michelin Star Chef" would do. But I can visualize what will take place: some deconstructed overthought dish strewn about artistically on a plate (perfect for Instagramming!) paired with some heavy French wine; men in suits and cigars guffaw and puff out their chests and take selfies tagged with “Me at the Michelin Star Wine Dinner with Chef So-and So!”. No. Too much money for food that’s lost its soul by being taken apart, analyzed, and curated by a chef who’s lost his way.  In cases like this the food is greater than the sum of its parts. Though I’m sure the wine will be excellent.

Although there are plenty of fantastic restaurants in Vietnam, I don’t know if I’d qualify any as being worthy of a Michelin star yet. After all, Vietnam is an emerging market; having woken up from a long slumber, it’s slowly and steadily catching up to the rest of the world, but there is still a lot of work to do.  Someone I once worked for told me that culinarily, Vietnam was 10 to 15 years behind places like New York or San Francisco, and I have to agree. But we’ll get there.

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