Once a year a group of men gather in a London function room for a clumsy, drawn-out ceremony paid for by a French tyre manufacturer. It is a curious spectacle that seems to belong to a different age.
Nowadays restaurant recommendations come from social media and Trip Advisor. Yet somehow the publication of the latest Michelin Guide red book seems as important as ever. Groucho Marx once said he wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Similarly, the Michelin club divides chefs. For some, it is out of date, out of touch and not worth the fuss.
For others it is the ultimate measure of success. In a world where everything changes all the time, Michelin appears to represent a constant standard of excellence. It sets the bar high. Except, that is, when it comes to awards ceremonies. As ever, this year’s event was an interminable muddle of confusion and ineptitude. Food critic Jay Rayner described it as a “car crash”.
Yet for those allowed inside the world of Michelin, there is a vested interest in ignoring all that and protecting the walls from the invaders of the electronic age.
When you’ve worked that hard for success, why on earth would you pull it all down? But for those on the outside, the Michelin Guide is controversial.
Scotland now has ten Michelin-starred establishments but with 159 listed throughout the UK, is that really a fair reflection of what is on offer here?
Once again Glasgow was snubbed despite boasting some promising contenders. Edinburgh now has four Michelin restaurants, which sounds impressive until you realise it has the same number as the London Borough of Shoreditch. And only two more than the market town of Newbury.
Sexism and machismo
But if the geographical spread is odd, another issue is much more troubling. Where are the women? This year’s ceremony in London was hosted by a glamorous female TV presenter but everyone else on stage was male.
Put simply, the Michelin Guide seems to have a blind spot for female talent. Of the 23 new Michelin stars, only one went to a female executive chef.
Just a few years ago, that would have been understandable. Due to a heady mix of sexism, impossible shift patterns and the macho culture of the industry, few women managed to make it to the top in the professional kitchen. However that is now history. Here in Scotland we have restaurant stars like Pam Brunton at Inver, Roberta Hall at The Little Chartroom and Rosie Healey at Alchemillia. The industry is changing and more and more female chefs are running kitchens, but at Michelin the old boys’ club is alive and well.
Last year Irish chef Clare Smyth was honoured at another event, the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards. Her prize, the title of Best Female Chef. Receiving the title she asked: “Why don’t we see more women being represented at the top level of the industry?”
Until Michelin shakes up its system so awards like Best Female Chef can be consigned to history, that is a question women in the industry will have to keep on asking.