Michelin launched its long-awaited restaurant guide to Tokyo with a set of rankings likely to cause some food critics – and French traditionalists – to choke on their amuse gueules.
In its first Asian guide, announced on Monday, Michelin has awarded more of its famed stars to Tokyo restaurants than any other city, with a total of 191 stars compared with 64 for Paris and 42 in New York.
In a departure from tradition, stretching back to the 1900 publication of Michelin’s first guide, to France, every one of the 150 restaurants in the Tokyo guide has been awarded stars. Eight restaurants scored Michelin’s coveted three-star rating (five Japanese restaurants and three French establishments), a surefire guarantee of instant business; 25 scored two stars; and 117 gained one star.
London, by comparison, has one three-star restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at Hospital Road, with two more three-star restaurants outside London [The Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn]; while Paris has 10 and New York just three.
It could be seen as a strategy to appeal to Japan’s enhanced sense of etiquette, which goes to great lengths to avoid giving offence. But to gourmets who regard France – and Michelin – as international standard bearers for fine cuisine, it is puzzling, notes Michel De Grandi, a long-time observer of Japan’s restaurant scene and Tokyo correspondent for Les Echos, the FT’s sister paper: ”It seems a very strange policy to hand out stars to everyone – perhaps it’s for commercial reasons, to reach as many people as possible, but it’s somehow disappointing.”
There are chefs who committed suicide because they lost a star, he notes, ”and now, they give stars here to everyone?”
Patricia Alexandre, director of Gault Millau, a rival restaurant guide, says Michelin’s rankings should be taken with a grain of salt: ”Just because Michelin gave more stars to Tokyo than Paris or New York does not mean one city is more ’gastronomic’ than the others.”
Jean Luc Naret, director of Michelin Guides, remains unruffled at the suggestion of controversy, pointing out that the field is both huge and unparalleled in quality. Tokyo has more restaurants – at least 160,000 that could be classified as proper ”restaurants” – than almost any other urban centre. Paris, by comparison, has little more than 20,000 and New York about 23,000, he says.
Furthermore, he notes, Tokyo has become a top international restaurant destination in recent years, both for fine European cuisine as well for its traditional cuisine. In recent years, at least 20 chefs who hold Michelin’s three-star rating have opened restaurants in Japan, mainly in Tokyo, and at least 40 internationally recognized chefs have also set up operations there.
In addition, says Mr Naret, Michelin’s team of two Japanese and three European inspectors covered a vast array of both Japanese and non-Japanese restaurants, narrowing down their all-star line-up from a preliminary 1,500 establishments to 150. By comparison, Michelin’s Paris guide features about 400 restaurants, of which only 64 have stars.
”We always make people happy and unhappy when we launch a guide … 60 per cent of restaurants in our Tokyo guide are Japanese cuisine, the rest are mostly French, but many have Japanese chefs, who have been trained by French chefs, so the French should be very happy about their success.”
”Anyone who complains about this has never travelled to Tokyo, because if they do, they can see for themselves the fantastic quality of restaurants here,” added Mr Naret.
Japanese critics are similarly upbeat about Michelin’s move on Tokyo. Sawako Kimijima, editor in chief of Cuisine magazine, a monthly food and wine journal, points out that Michelin only examined a comparatively small number of Tokyo’s restaurants, and was not able to include the city’s numerous, discreet, ”by introduction only” restaurants.
As the city’s first ”really serious” restaurant guide, though, it will help Tokyo’s international image and could also ”change Japanese attitudes” to choosing restaurants, which currently rely too much on word of mouth.
Yasuhiro Yamamoto, one of Japan’s leading food critics, meanwhile, says that Michelin’s choices confirmed his view, that the overall quality of Japanese restaurants is extremely high in Tokyo but there are few ”stand-out” establishments. But at least, he says, the rankings ”will show people overseas what ’real sushi’ is about”.
One might advise aspiring restaurateurs to head to Tokyo to gain a coveted Michelin star, but it is not as easy as that. For one thing, Mr Ramsay’s Gordon Ramsay at Conrad Tokyo, opened in 2005, is conspicuously absent from Michelin’s new Tokyo guide.
Additional reporting by Pan Kwan Yuk in Paris