Will Michelin Guide change culinary landscape of Chinese mainland?

The Michelin Guide Shanghai 2017 will be published in September 2016. Photo: Michelin

Next time you dine at a restaurant in Shanghai, be aware that the person you share the table with might be an anonymous Michelin Guide inspector who is assessing the quality of food, the entire menu and services offered by the restaurant.

On May 20, the French tire maker announced its plans to bring to the Chinese financial hub the Michelin Guide Shanghai 2017, which will be the 28th edition of its international restaurant guide slated to be published in September 2016.

The culinary bible's Shanghai edition will be the first restaurant guide for the Chinese mainland after the Hong Kong & Macau edition was first released in 2009.

Why Shanghai?

In a statement, Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin guides, highly praised Shanghai's rich culinary scene, gastronomic heritage and its role as a melting pot for different cultures, which were the factors behind Michelin's decision to publish a restaurant guide for the city.

The Michelin Guide's foray into the Chinese mainland comes as the company is enhancing its presence in Asia where it competes with a similar restaurant ranking list called the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, an offshoot of the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards presented by British magazine Restaurant, which has made a great number of Chinese cuisines widely known across the region.

This year, the Asia's Best Restaurants list, which covers 26 nations and regions, crowned 15 Chinese restaurants including Amber in Hong Kong and Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet in Shanghai.

An article on jiemian.com, a Chinese business news portal, cited a local catering industry insider as saying that Michelin's move to cut the time used for compiling the Shanghai edition to four months from 8-10 months set for previous editions might be a response to ctrip.com, a big Shanghai-based travel services provider, which issued its self-branded restaurant ranking list titled Smilin one week after the French player's announcement.

With a list of more than 800 restaurants from home and abroad, the Smilin list adopts a rating system similar to the Michelin Guide's three-star rating system, in which one star means good cooking in its category, two stars represent excellent cooking deserving a detour and three stars symbolize exceptional cuisine worthy of a special journey.

Ctrip President Fan Min characterized Smilin as a list recommending the most reliable restaurants which are worth a visit during travel and appeal to the Chinese taste, despite the Michelin Guide's dominant position in the restaurant rating system.

"There are some gastronomy guides based on Western standards in the world. But with an increasing number of Chinese people choosing outbound travel, China needs a restaurant guide based on its own criteria," said Fan.

Facing the criticism over the Michelin Guide's preference for French and European delicacies, Ellis compared the guide's rating system to a scientific analytical approach, which is different from feedback of ordinary eaters who determine whether the food is good based on personal taste.

Earlier this year, Ctrip and Taiwan's table-booking app EZTable established a partnership, allowing diners to book tables at upscale restaurants in Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan through Ctrip's mobile app.

Distinctive local features

There has long been a view that the reason why the Michelin Guide is debuting so late in the Chinese mainland is that the Chinese cuisine cannot be judged easily, especially by the Michelin inspectors who specialize in evaluating the French dishes.

Having been trained at Michelin's headquarters in France, a Michelin inspector who is required to have 10 years of experience in hotel management or in the catering industry has to have 250 meals at different restaurants, experience 150 hotels and write about 1,000 assessment reports every year.

"The Shanghai edition of the Michelin Guide will have to cover many Chinese restaurants. After all, the Chinese people tend to be face-conscious, and they will feel embarrassed if their restaurants are not listed in the Michelin Guide," said Liu Xiao, editor-in-chief of Penguin Dining and Wining Guide, a self-owned Chinese media dedicated to introducing delicious food to diners. The organization has published several influential restaurant lists.

The Michelin Guide Shanghai 2017 will have a great impact on domestic diners as its quondam luster is darkening among foreign tourists. It will also facilitate the formation of a professional Western restaurant assessment system, which will be more reliable than those established by local food-themed media, said Liu.

Stefano Censi, who came to Beijing in 2015 and now serves as the general manager at The Georg, a Scandinavian restaurant in the Chinese capital, has a different view, saying that the Michelin Guide Shanghai 2017 had better put more focus on localization in China.

"It is difficult to make a judgment on why Michelin brings its guide to the Chinese mainland at this moment. Is it for selling more Michelin Guides? Or is it a result of recognition of the Chinese food? If the latter, I hope that more Chinese restaurants could be included in the Shanghai edition. Otherwise, it will be boring and meaningless if it serves as a testimonial for the French food," said Censi.

Chefs at work in a French restaurant kitchen in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

Liu suggested that Michelin should incorporate more locals into its restaurant assessment process, citing the fact that the Asian restaurants recommended by the Michelin Guide New York only satisfy the imagination of foreigners about Chinese cuisine. "They offer no simon-pure Chinese food."

The announcement of the launch of the Michelin Guide Shanghai 2017 followed the announcement of editions covering Singapore and Seoul, which indicates that the French tire producer is expanding its sights to the emerging markets, especially after Europe's high-end catering industry took a hit in the 2008 financial crisis, leading to the exodus of French chefs to the emerging Asian markets.

Mixed blessing 

Hung's Delicacies, an eatery in Hong Kong, drew renewed attention from investors after it was rewarded as the Michelin one star restaurant in 2009 for the first time. Lai Wai Hung, the founder of the Hong Kong eatery, has turned his small restaurant into a chain, and he plans to set up his first inland branch in Changsha, southern China's Hunan province in June.

However, Hung also expressed concern over some small restaurants, which would have their sales halved due to the rise of rent, which Hung attributed to the recognition by the Michelin Guide.

According to a report published by Cornell University, more than half of the 36 restaurants surveyed failed to earn profits after being proclaimed as star restaurants by the Michelin Guide.

In 2014, Julio Biosca, the fourth-generation owner of Casa Julio, a restaurant in a small Spanish town on the border between Valencia and Alicante, handed back its Michelin stars after being in the prestigious culinary guide for four years, a decision he said could help him save money and time to develop new dishes lightheartedly.

In short, the guide is coming at a time when personal preferences play a key role in consumption decisions and the Michelin Guide might not serve as the only tool for people to select a restaurant.

"Nowadays, people consider more about a restaurant which can make them relaxed…Every time I came across a Michelin starred restaurant in a small city, my intuition would tell me it would be a boring place. And my judgment always turned out to be right," commented French connoisseur Franois Simon.

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