“I cannot believe the Michelin inspectors did not find a single restaurant in Dubai worthy of a three-star rating,” said one guest when the debut Michelin Guide DXB was unveiled at Dubai Opera on Tuesday.
Food — and culinary awards — are, by their nature, polarising. One foodie’s paella passion is another’s pet peeve. There will always be those who believe a particular restaurant did or did not deserve an accolade, be it a place on Mena’s 50 Best Restaurants list, a Gault Millau toque or a star from the latest and, arguably, most prestigious F&B rating to come to the UAE, the Michelin Guide.
Case in point: the shocked hush that fell upon the audience at the opera house when it was announced that Ossiano was the recipient of but a single Michelin star. The Atlantis, The Palm restaurant, run by chef Gregoire Berger, was a favourite contender for at least two, if not three stars.
Despite the objectivity my job demands, I was admittedly surprised by Ossiano’s single-star status, as well as by the non-inclusion of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the line-up of star-worthy venues (although the restaurant has been given an honorary mention in the Dubai guide alongside dozens of others).
What I am wholly unsurprised — and even somewhat relieved — by, however, is the lack of any tri-starred restaurants in Dubai.
Allow me to explain.
When Michelin first started its guide, in the year 1900, it was so the tyre company could get more people to drive longer distances and visit the restaurants its reviewers deemed worthy of travelling to.
The guide defined a one-star establishment as a restaurant “worth a stop”, two stars as “worth a detour”, and three stars represent “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey”. That journey, mind, has come to span continents, as air travel became more common and several jet-setting gastro-tourists started planning trips specifically to cities that have Michelin-starred restaurants.
What started out as an aspirational sales strategy (the more you drive, the faster your tyres are likely to wear out) has come to represent reliability. If Michelin says it’s good / great / exceptional, chances are it is.
That, perhaps, explains why in every conversation I’ve had with Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, he has emphasised the painstaking responsibility that underlies a Michelin reviewer’s delicious-on-paper job.
“The inspectors are required to travel the world and familiarise themselves with all cuisine types. They need a minimum of three years in the field and to eat 300 meals a year. Given how quickly the food scene evolves, it is a never-ending process. And this is why a restaurant that has even just one star, it means a lot to the industry,” Poullennec says.
What it all boils down to is this: getting three Michelin stars is a rarity, one that the guide obviously hands out very sparingly. Of the 3,272 restaurants worldwide that have a Michelin star, only 137 have three stars; that’s less than 5 per cent. Without committing to specifics, Poullennec tells me the percentage of cities that have been honoured with a three-star restaurant the first time a guide was introduced there, too, “is negligible”. Even France, which was the country in which the first Michelin Guide was published, got its first three-star restaurant only in 1965.
Dubai’s food scene may have gone from budding to burgeoning in a very short time, but it has some way to go before it makes a long-lasting mark on the global culinary map. Given a choice between chef Yannick Alleno’s Stay in Dubai (which won two stars this year) and Le 1947 in Courchevel (which has retained its three-star status since 2017), I am more likely to be tempted by the latter.
Furthermore, the city may have more than its fair share of Michelin-lauded restaurateurs opening outposts here, but very few of these award-winning chef patrons actually run day-to-day operations in the emirate.
The one thing chefs and restaurateurs agree on is that having a dedicated Michelin Guide for Dubai will push restaurants to up their game. “The arrival of Michelin will ultimately set higher standards for the city,” Berger says, while Ce La Vi executive chef Howard Ko says the guide will “encourage restaurants to push boundaries and make chefs more adventurous”.
“Will”; future being the operative tense here.
As with the hundreds of hours the Michelin inspectors put in, a restaurant, too, needs to deliver plate after plate of perfection, day in and day out for it to get even a single star, forget three. And while I’m sure a Dubai venue (or two) will ultimately attain this benchmark of culinary perfection, we’re obviously not there just yet, according to Michelin. Even Ossiano will have to contend with a single star — for now.