Michelin Stars And Science Fiction
Sad-faced iconoclast and retired restaurant critic Jonathan Meades reckons Michelin stars are over-rated:
Whatever claims it may make to the contrary, these awards are based on Michelin’s idea of probity, which has less to do with an establishment’s standard of cooking than with its cutlery, glassware and the dimensions of the vats of starch in which its napkins have been steeped. The guide’s ill-paid inspectors, callow graduates of hotel schools, are at an even greater loss when faced with casual, informal restaurants which audaciously allow customers to pour their own wine and which serve excellent cooking without “fine dining’s” presentational fuss, where a dozen spotty sous-chefs have touched the multipartite components as they sought to create a Mondrian on the plate.
He thinks the only people interested in Michelin stars are chefs, journalists and devotees of fine dining, “a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers.” I guess I fall into that last category. Well, it is balls; I take an interest in Michelin-starred restaurants because they tend to serve bloody good food. As I’ve mentioned in passing, the best meal I’ve ever had was at Pied A Terre which had two stars at the time. The reason it was the best meal I’ve ever had was not because I’m a pretentious twat (that is unrelated) but because Shane Osborn’s cooking was simply breathtaking. None of Meades’s criticisms even register. The only place I’ve been to that has even approached his fine dining stereotype was Le Manoir – where the bogs are nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – but then Raymond Blanc is deliberately working in a classic French tradition. Elsewhere, modernity prevails.
The week before Christmas I went up to Morecambe for a short break with my wife to open our stockings and spend a bit of time together before the onslaught of family festivities. Whilst up there I had the second best meal I’ve ever had at the one star L’Enclume. Tucked away in the little village of Cartmel (birthplace of sticky toffee pudding), it is about as far from the London restaurant scene as you can get; we had to drive down windy roads round Morecambe Bay for an hour to reach it. There are two menus, nine or thirteen courses, and once safely ensconced with a kir royale we opted for the latter. It was appropriate for the season since the tasting menu is like a culinary stocking: lots of little delicious surprises to be unwrapped one at a time. One of the early courses that has lodged in my mind was a sort of deconstructed fish and chips, a cod ‘yolk’ with salt and vinegar rice. The concept is exciting, it looks exciting and it tastes exciting. For me, this balance of skill, innovation and flavour is what Michelin-starred cooking is all about. Even better and the stand out of a very good meal was deceptively simple sounding dish of Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone cream, tarragon and malt. The presentation is very a clever, a sort of terrarium in a bowl with the vegetable and herb rising plant-like from the malt soil which conceals the cheese that binds it all together, and the beauty to eye is matched on the tongue. Hats off to Simon Rogan.
Nuno Mendes gained a Michelin star last year for attempting something similar in the much more conviently located Bethnal Green. Viajante specialises in innovative cooking but on our visit in February innovative pushed over into challenging. As it happened, Jay Rayner had visited the week before and his review a similar experience:
Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.
It was not a bad meal but it over-promised and under-delivered and that isn’t something you want to say when the bill for two was a shade over £400. None of the courses stayed with me in the same way Rogan’s did. Sometimes by palatte was utterly confused, sometimes textures were actively unpleasant and, as we discovered previously at Corner Room (Mendes’s casual restaurant at the back of the building), sous vide is not a magic spell that you can simply cast over a carrot. A wonderful, simple dish of roasted snow crown, parsley and English cultivated mushrooms at L’Enclume knocked this faffery into a cocked hat. So the Michelin guide isn’t infallible. To hammer this home, a couple of days latter we had a far better and much more fun meal at Morito. This is exactly the sort of informal restaurant that Meades talks about stealing a march on the dinosaurs of fine dining. But it isn’t all or nothing and I’m very glad both exist.
Elsewhere Patrick Wolohan proposes a Michelin star system for SF. The driver for this is his disatisfaction with demarcation within numerical ratings and the fact that “with such a wide range of subgenres and styles in the genre, I found it increasingly impossible to compare books on a numeric basis.” The Michelin-style ratings he intends to use instead are:
No stars: bad or nothing special. (“No longer do I need to worry about slotting a mediocre high fantasy above or below a fun, if flawed steampunk adventure.”)
One star: a great example of its subgenre and one that is highly recommended for those who enjoy that specific subgenre or are looking to break into the subgenre.
Two star: a standout novel that demonstrates a unique approach or exceptional execution, likely to be one of the year’s best and definitely worth reading, regardless of subgenre or preference. Strengths outweigh the weakness by a large margin.
Three stars: an instant classic in my mind, a soul crushing work of such brilliance that it annihilates any hope of every writing a novel as good, and an absolute must read. Virtually flawless.
Now, I have never given a review a grade or a score. When others have attempted to apply a numerical rating to my reviews, I’ve found the whole thing a bit baffling. So perhaps I’m not the best person to comment on such a system but, whilst I think the concept is sound, I do wonder about the application. The criteria Wolohan is using are already watered down from the actual Michelin descriptions and it is hard not to see him succumbing to grade inflation in the same way he complains happens with other systems. For example, there are currently only 106 three-star restaurants in the whole world of which only ten in US (there are 4 in the UK). It is a tiny, tiny proportion and that is through active searching rather than lone happenstance. Wolohan does set out his likely limits – “I could see myself giving out 10-15 starred reviews a year (if the books are good enough), 5 or fewer two star reviews, and no more than 2 (probably 0) three star reviews.” – but, although these seem like modest numbers, I still think they are too high. Even leaving aside our radically different ideas about what consitutes good literature, the vast majority of books will fall under the no star category. I’d have thought having a ratings system without being able to actually use would be too strong a temptation.
I’ll be interested in the experiment though, because he is surely right that there is much too much over-inflated angels-on-a-pinhead rating of books within the SF community. I still think that words matter more than number (and I wish people took a bit more care over their words) but focussing on the truly exceptional, whether literature or food, is a positive thing and encourages both producers and consumers to want the best. And wanting the best is never pretentious.