In 2009, Michelin Tyres, one of world’s leading tyre manufacturing companies, announced its plan to set up a 290-acre manufacturing unit in Chennai by 2012 with an investment of Rs. 4,000 crore. Reports were this might be Michelin’s biggest plant in the world. Certainly big for India, this unleashed obvious ripples in one of the most anticipative segments – the restaurants!
In 2009, Michelin Tyres, one of world’s leading tyre manufacturing companies, announced its plan to set up a 290-acre manufacturing unit in Chennai by 2012 with an investment of Rs. 4,000 crore. Reports were this might be Michelin’s biggest plant in the world. Certainly big for India, this unleashed obvious ripples in one of the most anticipative segments – the restaurants! The buzz in the concerned circles ever since had been whether the Michelin Restaurant Rating Guide (Red Guide) too would follow suit? And if it does, how ready and willing would we be for this should-not but can-do-without kind of skill-endorsement raved by restaurateurs and chefs world over?
India Hospitality Review explores:
For those who wonder, Michelin Rating Status is regarded as a top-notch honor in the profession of fine dining experience world over – like the Oscars for movies. And the reason for it being so coveted is that most restaurants receive no stars at all, even if they seem exceptionally overboard. Take Michelin Guide to France 2009 for instance. Out of 3,531 restaurants considered, only 548 received the Star: 449 one-Star, 73 two, and 26 three.
Indian Michelin Heroes
So far there are around only seven Indian chefs around the globe to have won the Michelin stars. There are five in UK (Karunesh Khanna, Amaya; Alfred Prasdad, Tamarind; Sriram Aylur, Quilon; Vineet Bhatia, Rasoi and Atul Kochhar, Benares) and two in US (Vikas Khanna, Junoon and Hemant Mathur, Tulsi).It is not that that Michelin is not present in Asia, it is just not here in India. It released its Tokyo guide in 2007 and Hong Kong Macau guide in 2009 and might soon launch one for Singapore as announced in 2008.
So would it then steer its way towards India? To figure out the possibilities, we spoke to some of the renowned chefs in India and abroad and found clear differences in their opinions.
India already has some of the best restaurants in the world showcasing the evolution of its diverse and vast culinary tradition alongwith its immense indigenous and acquired cooking skills. Still there is a long way to go, not only for our own market but also for the Michelin reviewers to develop an accurate understanding of the Indian cuisine.
Food Critic and Writer, Anoothi Vishal, notes that India has a fairly sophisticated market in terms of F&B which is growing steadily. We have enough restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai, possibly Bangalore and Chennai to qualify for a One-star and handful excellent ones that merit three. The area of concern, however, is that in a market like India how the Michelin inspectors, who do not have adequate knowledge of our local cuisines, are going to judge our restaurants. There have been allegations in the past of their predisposition towards Frenchified food that is understandable only in their own gourmet universe. Will they be able to understand the intricacies of our Dumpukht food?”
Notably, in New York Michelin was unable to garner the kind of respect it enjoys in Europe as people believed it did not understand cuisines other than French. Nevertheless, it might want to try like it did in Tokyo and Hong kong in fishing out even the smallest of nice places and awarding them stars. In 2010, Japan had some 509 Michelin starred restaurants while China had 69.
Indian Michelin Star restaurants: None in India?
Indian specialty restaurants have won Michelin stars in London, Geneva or NY but it is not certain they would have won in their homeland as well. This is because of the transformations the native food undergoes while crossing boundaries. It modifies and adapts itself as per local options and preferences. While basic technique of cooking and flavoring remains traditional, the overall product goes through a makeover with substitute raw materials. “It is like doing a Malai Chicken Tikka in white garlic instead of garam masala or doing a Lamb shank with crab meat and walnuts instead of Kesar Pulav or stewed rice,” explains Vineet Bhatia, twice Michelin starred Chef and Owner of Rasoi, London & Geneva.
Since Michelin is known to have a strong westernized palette it might be a little hard for it to like real Indian Khaana offered at Bukhara or Dumpukht.
Also, while in UK or NY Michelin is used to having meals in courses, it might be taken aback that in India there are only one course meals. For instance, at the multi-award winning restaurant Bukhara, you would get only one course meal which would be the only course meal. So it is not only a matter of taste but also of prevalent regional dining practices that Michelin would have to understand and uphold.
But has Indian food made it large enough to really interest the Michelin inspectors to come all the way to India?
Ab-original Indian food, abroad or in India itself, vis-à-vis Chinese, Oriental or Continental cuisines takes a beating in terms of appreciation and recognition. There are various myths surrounding Indian food overseas. Chef Vineet Bhatia who is accredited with breaking various myths around Indian food abroad through his simple yet innovative style of cooking Indian cuisines, says, “People abroad believe Indian food is spicy, oily, fatty and cheap. And that it is all about curry. This is extremely disrespectful towards our food and our personal expertise as professional chefs.”
According to Chef Manjit Gill, President, Indian Federation of Culinary Association (IFCA) and Corporate Chef, ITC WelcomGroup, the reason behind such erstwhile and flawed impressions is that Indians don’t take pride in their food. “We don’t have faith in it. We ape the West blindly, glorify their food and snub the traditional Indian. We believe that fusion food is the way to go while we don’t have to do fusion to make our food global. We just need to be the best in what we do. This is the only reason why, so far, even West has not tried to understand our food. They think it is simple and spicy. Our food is not spicy, it is spiced. And it is not simple either. It is complexly rich in taste, technique and heritage.”
Anoothi says, “Our cuisines are extremely intricate and diverse. It is not that straightforward for someone belonging to another culinary culture to understand them, forget replicating. Interestingly with time the generalized perceptions about our food are changing. Indian food is fast becoming quite a chic choice all over the world. Chefs in upscale restaurants are certainly inspired by the flavours, spices and textures of Indian cooking. The cheap Indian or Bangladeshi curry meal is now a thing of the past as far as the trends go.”
Chef Manjit says, “What is required of us today is to understand our food properly, package and present it well, in an Indian fashion. We need to tell people how to eat Indian food, Indian style because until they do that, they would never get our food right.
Our food has to be promoted at a much higher level and made a part of our culture. We should promote our country through our food. There are countries that are doing so. Countries like Singapore or Australia didn’t have any cuisine of their own but just to promote their country they created such cuisines and called it their Country Cuisine. We also have to be that extrovert and assertive.
Indian food is a confluence of various cultures: an evolved genre of various times and histories. Indian people understood and indigenized these foreign foods and their cooking techniques. And with that our food evolved brilliantly. Our knowledge of gastronomy also became so vast that today other countries can emulate our rich inheritance. I can say, Indian food is perhaps the next big thing.”
Apparently, chefs in India do not seem in much awe of the Michelin. They say that Michelin should not be the only benchmark to judge quality. Chef Kunal Kapoor, Executive Sous Chef, Leela Kempinski says, “It is not that you find good food and ambience only in a Michelin starred restaurant. In India we have Diya, Bukhara and Dumpukht and you don’t need a Michelin to tell about or verify their excellence. Anyway we should let the guests decide and not a guide book.”
Rightly so, even facts have it that in New York nobody cared much for the Michelin guide when it entered in 2005. Guests trusted the New York Times ratings more. Vir Sanghvi in his article, ‘Why Indian chefs don’t get recognition’, had mentioned that though the Guide loyally gave three stars to the French chef Alain Ducasse when he opened in New York at the Essex House hotel, this cut no ice with diners and Ducasse’s restaurant closed down. Similarly, two Michelin stars did not help Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant especially after Ramsay failed to impress the New York Times.’
India has its own rating guides and awards that are primarily taken out by media houses, yet the jury has to mature further. “There is a gap in the market for an overarching rating guide that is independent, credible and accepted all over,” says Anoothi Vishal.
Lambasting the judgment criteria followed in India, Chef Vineet Bhatia says, “In India, reviewers are mostly journalists who visit restaurants once or twice a month after an announcement. Restaurants easily pep up their service quality in the meantime and get good ratings. Now how can such results be considered credible? Michelin doesn’t make any such announcements! Reviewers are anonymous and visit the restaurant around 80 times a year. You wouldn’t even know they were there. The results that come out of such fool-proof techniques are real and authentic.”
Michelin starred Chef and Owner of Benares Restaurant and Bar, Atul Kochhar, believes that having an Indian guide that could compete with the Michelin standards in the long run would be good start. “Guides from Tata or Reliance would be a great step forward,” he quips.
The Big Picture
However, at large, there seems to be a discontent among chefs over the restaurant scenario in India. Chef Vineet Bhatia says, “There are good restaurants in India but only a handful merit Michelin stars. Most Indian restaurants, and even the best ones, do not follow the basic Quality Service Cleanliness and Value (QSCV) norms and lack consistency. I have been to premium restaurants in India and have seen that they serve you fine green tea in a cup and this cup has lipstick marks on it. Now this is disgusting! How can you even contemplate a Michelin star with that?”
At the mid-level, situation is even worse, says Chef Kunal, “The QSCV norms and the Food Safety & Standards Act of India (FSSAI) are clearly overlooked. There is no sense of hygiene and standards. And they don’t want to invest in them either. Most of them can’t even show their kitchen to the customer.”
Qualifying for Michelin, calls your standards and commitment to quality and hygiene to be constantly upheld. You need to have a high level of dedication and passion.
“Restaurateurs tend to make tall claims about their food service while delivering awfully less,” points Anoothi. “They have to be true to themselves and rely less on gimmicks and on importing concepts from abroad. Authentic research, passion on part of the chefs and constant pushing of boundaries is required. Sometimes restaurants (and the eating-out public) only want to stick to the safe and boring.”
Michelin status demands Originality, Quality and Consistency. Though it sounds crisp, concise and simple, this is where most restaurants even in the most developed and mature food markets of the world loose in a click! Michelin concentrates around the quality and mastery of technique, originality and creativity, personality and consistency of food, and to some extent on interior décor, table setting and service quality.
Chef Vineet Bhatia who focuses extensively on service quality believes India might sooner win a Michelin for its food, it would lose sharply over its service standards. “If you are talking about how Hong Kong and Tokyo have got the Michelin stars, it is because their service ethos are extremely gratifying. The food is amazing which is served with an equally heartwarming hospitality. India must understand fast that Michelin is not all about food, it is much more than that.
You need to make sure that your guests are treated the best way possible, that they not feel neglected. But most restaurants in Indian do not even understand the importance of Greeters (people who meet the guests at the door, receive them warmly, lead them to their table, ask them if they would have something to drink and then, hand the table over to the serving staff). This is exactly the practice at Rasoi. You ring the door bell, a greeter opens the door and receives you, leads you to your table and makes you comfortable. Restaurants in India leave you to wander around on your own.”
A case in point is when Chef Vikas Khanna, Junoon, NY, visited restaurants in Mumbai and felt totally out of place as there were no greeters anywhere. He would hang around clueless, waiting for someone to notice him and escort him to a table because it would be the practice in the West. He assumed it to be the same in India and was grossly mistaken. 
“Such lack of common courtesies would sure repel Michelin in India,” remarks Chef Vineet. “We must understand the global scenario well and train our staff specifically and efficiently. You need to invest in your managers, your manuals, procedures, systems and much more; and consistently monitor performance and service standards. Then only can you qualify for a Michelin. Consistency is the key.”
Curse of Michelin
Michelin, an erstwhile motorist guide helping motorists find decent places to eat, had started awarding stars to restaurants post 1926. Very good restaurants got one star, excellent ones got two and world’s finest got three (three stars is the highest ranking). Gradually, it got popular largely as a guide of premium quality food served in poncy restaurants. And even if quite erroneously, became famous (or rather infamous) for its predisposition towards snooty fancy restaurants on lines of French fine dining. Till date it is fighting this popular misconception.
Because of this image several restaurants that won the Michelin stars started drawing un-compatible clientele. And unable to live upto their expectations of upmarket dining experience, the restaurants preferred to surrender their stars. For instance Alain Senderens voluntarily returned his three stars for his Lucas-Carton restaurant in Paris, saying that he could not afford to run a three-star establishment. Just the cost of the flowers alone was killing him, he said. In Britain, such three-star chefs Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis also voluntarily surrendered their stars. 
Chef Vineet Bhatia elaborates, “Looking forward to a Michelin Star in food and service would demand heavy investments in food, staff training and restaurant ambiance. It is not at all cost effective and requires high maintenance and consistency. This is not possible for everyone everywhere.”
On the other hand, Chef Kunal Kapoor believes that Michelin status even for a small unheard-of restaurant can push its prices up due to high input costs and over demanding guest profile. This had happened to Chef Skye Gyngell who ran an ad hoc café in south-west London. The result of the Michelin status was that Gyngell’s café started to attract blind Michelin followers and Gyngell’s café failed to provide the kind of service they looked for and started reviling her for not standing upto Michelin benchmarks. She finally had to leave the restaurant. 
“It is not all that rosy. It is almost like you want to see a Monster and when it finally confronts you, you are freaked out,” retorts Chef Kunal. “We must have faith in ourselves and not get blind to Michelin as the only benchmark to judge quality.”
The Mood and The Message
To improve on our shortcomings and promote our strengths is the need of the hour because Indian food and restaurant scenario is improving fast. People are much well-travelled now and have better awareness about global food standards. There are niche players in the industry that are doing their bit in setting global benchmarks in India; supply chains are augmenting; world-travelled chefs are opening restaurants in India further facilitating better standards and media is promoting food to a great degree. When Michelin comes to India is not quite clear as it is not just awarding stars but also selling the guide book, in the meantime, India must hone its skills, sharpen its knives and be ready to surprise the Michelin inspectors when the time is ripe. Looking over to the West for everything is really not required. There is a lot of work at hand already.