When the Michelin Guide launched its first Seoul edition last year, it was greeted with enthusiasm by foodies but it also spawned skepticism as well.
“First editions provoke passionate debate and we welcome that,” said Michael Ellis, international director in charge of the Michelin guides, during an interview with The Korea Herald on Nov. 8, following the launch of the second Seoul edition earlier in the day.
“It is a sign that there is a healthy, dynamic community,” he said. This year, 24 restaurants were given the highly coveted Michelin stars, including Korean restaurants Gaon and La Yeon, which maintained their three stars from last year.
Inspectors found the dining scene in Seoul more stable this year, according to Ellis, but that is not to say that things have become staid and dull. “There are a lot of chefs pushing the boundaries, pushing themselves. They are more ambitious,” said Ellis. Chefs pushing boundaries are evident in the number of restaurants that fall under the “innovative” category that were awarded Michelin stars this year, with five out of the 24 honored in the category.
Every year, chefs and food aficionados around the world anticipate with abated breath, the latest announcements from the Michelin Guide. The simple, innocuous looking red book can make or break a chef’s career. The pressure to earn and then to maintain the prized Michelin stars is so intense that some have been driven to death and some have voluntarily relinquished them.
How did the Michelin Guide become such an authority on fine dining, wielding so much influence not only on diners who refer to the guide but even more so on chefs?
Ellis points to the guidebook’s unique system of inspectors, who are full-time, salaried staff at Michelin. The annual selection process begins with thorough scouring of existing guidebooks, reviews, blogs and even Yelp and TripAdvisor postings. Then there is the simple “human intelligence.” “We ask people for their favorite restaurants,” said Ellis.
The Michelin Guide inspectors visit a restaurant at least once. There could be additional visits, as many as three visits altogether. The team of inspectors must reach a unanimous decision. “Most inspections here are done by Koreans, but we do bring in international inspectors,” Ellis said.
As for the qualifications of the Michelin Guide inspectors, Ellis said, “They must really be obsessed with food.”
“We try to discourage candidates. It could be a lonely job,” Ellis added. You can’t tell anyone that you are a Michelin Guide inspector and you are expected to be on the road a lot.
“You have to have the physiological capacity to taste, like how perfumers are described as the ‘nose.’ You then have to translate what is happening on the palate to writing,” Ellis said.
How does Seoul compare to other Asian cities in the world of fine dining?
“There is a centuries-old tradition of gastronomy that is product-based, that includes fermentation, brining and pickling,” said Ellis.
He went on to note that the thriving restaurant scene here is characterized by the presence of numerous restaurants that serve specific local dishes. For example, there are restaurants that specialize in naengmyeon, or noodles in cold broth, and places that serve hearty fare of gomtang, or beef broth. “Everyone has a favorite place for a particular dish. Koreans are really attached to food,” said Ellis. Indeed, ask any Korean and they will have a go-to place for naengmyeon. They will also be very opinionated about their choice and discuss at length the merits of the particular broth and composition of the noodle.
While Korean restaurants make up the majority of Michelin-starred restaurants in Seoul, Ellis noted that chefs here are also running great Italian and French restaurants. Elaborating on the diversity of the talent of Korean chefs, Ellis explained that it is unusual for non-Japanese chefs to produce sushi at the two-star level, referring to Kojima, a sushi restaurant in Apgujeong-dong.
Improving people’s understanding of Korean food is one positive impact of the Michelin Guide Seoul edition. While most Koreans prefer to dine out at non-Korean restaurants, in the belief that best Korean food is homemade, winning what are considered the highest accolades in dining have imbued Korean restaurants with new legitimacy and respectability.
“A star changes the perception of you in the community. It is a stamp of approval for the kitchen staff and this improves the quality of cooking. It is a virtuous circle,” said Ellis, describing what a Michelin Star means to chefs.
Noting that chefs stay at the same establishment for an average of 18 months, Ellis pointed out that keeping head chefs is a challenge for restaurateurs. “The key is to take care of employees,” he said. “Some New York restaurants understand that. They now have big open kitchens, air-conditioned, which was unheard of before, and no shouting,” said Ellis, a very different scene from when he was a young chef.
A positive impact of the restaurant business, one that is not often discussed, is its impact on the local economy. “Influx of young chefs revitalizes the city,” said Ellis, citing Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh as examples.
As for the Michelin Guide entering the Korean market, Ellis said, “Seoul is taking its rightful place in the gastronomical scene. It is being taken seriously. There is subtle, sophisticated depth of flavor that is not intuitively obvious.”
Drawing similarities between the importance of flavoring broths in Korean cuisine and French cuisine, Ellis said, “That is a sign of sophistication.”
The latest trend in the foodie world is a move to using local products. “They are doing it in a very intimate way with private farms, traceability of products, knowing where they are coming from,” said Ellis. Given such a movement, it is only natural that menus are more ingredient-based, another major trend. Old cooking techniques such as pickling and smoking with hay are making a comeback.
“(A) restaurant is a business and competition is part of life. (The ratings) might motivate chefs to be better,” Ellis said. “The goal should be to fill your restaurant with happy customers. To achieve this, you have to know what the customers want, how much they are willing to spend and what kind of atmosphere they want.”
By Kim Hoo-ran (firstname.lastname@example.org