Restaurants in India have been missing the M word. Many decades ago, Michelin, a French tyre company, started passing out one, two or at the max, three stars for excellence in the fine dining business. But the famous award has been absent from the Indian food scene, even though it is present in other continents and several Asian countries. Our chefs have often expressed their displeasure at this omission.
What does getting that elusive Michelin star mean for a restaurant? In simple terms, it means worldwide recognition, big bucks and superstar status for its chef. It acts as a magnet, attracting lovers of fine food the world over. And retaining that star entails much hard work and adherence to stringent standards. Chef Gordon Ramsay has famously compared it to the devastation of losing a beloved girlfriend—he should know. Food lovers obsess over these restaurants, booking months ahead and travelling long distances for the dining experience, which they pay handsomely for.
One stop during our recent European holiday was San Sebastian, a beautiful seaside city in Spain’s Basque country, known for having the second highest number of Michelin-starred establishments in the world. We decided to experience one: Akelarre, headlined by Basque chef Pedro Subijana.
Akelarre has three Michelin stars, and its eight-course tasting menu was playful, exquisite and memorable. The wine list stretched to over 500. But the star was the chef, who walked around to each table during the last course, shaking hands with diners, chatting about the meal. I haven’t seen such an aura since Amitabh Bachchan. And yes, there was an opportunity for an exclusive photo session with him after dinner (de rigueur in these days of social media). The elegant seaside restaurant, perched on a cliff, with glass walls and a gorgeous view, runs like a well-oiled machine. Subijana with his Santa-like smile and handlebar moustache, has a fine ability to deliver to his elegant clientele, many of whom fly down to San Sebastian just to dine here. It wasn’t just a meal: it was an experience.
Michelin spells the highest culinary standards, mastery of cooking techniques and innovation. But can the Michelin aura translate well in the Indian context? Can the complexity of Indian cuisines ever be understood by European-food oriented Michelin inspectors?
I asked chef Naren Thimmaiah, whose Karavalli has featured in both the Asia Top 50, as well as Glam Media’s Foodie Top 100 list of restaurants, about the whole Michelin thing. A listing would certainly make a difference, he agreed. “Gourmets the world over would learn about us, and visit. There’s already been a surge of overseas interest in Karavalli since we were first featured in the Top 50 and Top 100 lists.” And the efforts to retain Michelin stars would ensure consistency and quality. “We’d take nothing for granted.” As for appreciating complex Asian cuisines, less documented or widely understood than French, he believes things are changing. “Michelin is already present in Japan and HongKong, they have shown they understand those cuisines. Also, Indian restaurants in London have received Michelin stars. So that shouldn’t be a problem.”
So our restaurants need to wait a while for that starry recognition. On the other hand, as long as Indian diners understand and appreciate what we have, India shouldn’t miss Michelin.