NYT: Michelin rankings and the alleged inability for NJ to rate Japanese food


Hi Blog. Here’s something a bit rich, and I’m not talking about the food or the clientele. The fact that some Japanese chefs don’t like to be judged by foreigners (even if they are culinary experts)–as if their palettes apparently aren’t attuned properly to Japanese tastes. (Kinda in the same vein when Moody’s downgraded Japan’s financial rating some years ago, and the GOJ questioned their ranking abilities as well. How dare foreigners comment unfavorably about Japan?)

I also heard a rumor that one of the restaurants that received some stars refuses foreign customers entry. But that’s just a rumor.

Can’t comment further on the issue, as I’m not an expensive diner. But all the best meals I’ve ever had have been in Japan. And it was only two nights ago I actually had a bad meal in Japan (in Susukino, where even the drinks were like sex in a canoe) for the first time in many years–yes, it’s that rare. Debito in Sapporo

Michelin Gives Stars, but Tokyo Turns Up Nose
New York Times February 24, 2008

TOKYO — The Michelin guide recently ventured into Asia for the first time in its 108-year history to research and publish a Japanese-language guide to Tokyo restaurants. To gain credibility, it hired Japanese restaurant judges to work with its European experts and adapted its standards to the nation’s special culinary culture.

It found much to like, even love, and showered the city’s restaurants with more of its coveted stars than those in New York and Paris combined.

Michelin, based in France, made the splash it had hoped for, and has sold more than 290,000 copies of its familiar red-colored guides since November.

Many prominent figures of the Tokyo food world, however, are saying to Michelin, in effect, thanks for all the attention (which we deserve), but you still do not know us or our cuisine.

Food critics, magazines and even the governor of Tokyo have questioned the guide’s choice of restaurants and ratings. A handful of chefs proudly proclaimed that they had turned down chances to be listed. One, Toshiya Kadowaki, said his nouveau Japonais dishes, including a French-inspired rice with truffles, did not need a Gallic seal of approval.

“Japanese food was created here, and only Japanese know it,” Mr. Kadowaki said in an interview. “How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?”

The mixed welcome reflects the challenges Michelin faces as the guide and its star-based ranking system enter a gastronomical milieu as far removed from Paris as teriyaki is from tête de veau.

Michelin is expanding to new markets to compensate for its declining influence in Europe, where it has lost readership to the Internet and the shifting demands of consumers who no longer want their tastes dictated to them. Michelin says it sells about one million guides a year worldwide, of which a growing proportion has been outside Europe.

Michelin took its first step abroad two years ago with a guide to New York, and followed quickly with versions for Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, Michelin is looking for success in Tokyo before possibly venturing into other Asian cities to tap some of the world’s wealthiest consumers.

Michelin said it chose Tokyo because it was the largest and one of the most sophisticated restaurant markets in the world. The Tokyo metropolitan area, with some 30 million residents, has roughly 160,000 restaurants, versus about 25,000 in greater New York City and 13,000 in Paris, according to Michelin.

Michelin awarded 191 stars to 150 restaurants in Tokyo, most of them serving either French or Japanese cuisine. Eight received three stars, the Michelin guide’s highest rating. That compares with three three-star restaurants in New York, which received a total of just 54 stars. Paris, with 10 three-star eateries, received 97 stars.

But many Tokyoites grumbled that the guide gave high ratings to unremarkable restaurants, prompting wide speculation that the large number of stars was just a marketing ploy.

“Anybody who knows restaurants in Tokyo knows that these stars are ridiculous,” said Toru Kenjo, president of Gentosha publishing house, whose men’s fashion magazine, Goethe, published a lengthy critique of the Tokyo guide last month. “Michelin has debased its brand. It won’t sell as well here in the future.”

Mr. Kenjo said the magazine, which included alternative restaurant ratings and a skeptical opinion article by Tokyo’s nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, sold out all 85,000 copies.

Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin guides, dismissed such criticisms as unfair, saying Tokyo received more stars simply because it has more restaurants. He said Michelin’s five undercover judges in Tokyo, two Japanese and three Europeans, spent a year and a half sampling 1,500 restaurants.

Mr. Naret said the judges, who graded restaurants on criteria like presentation, originality and taste, were amazed by the perfectionism of Japanese chefs.

“In terms of quality, Tokyo is No. 1 in the world,” said Mr. Naret, who added that he visited Tokyo 15 times and sampled 100 of the starred restaurants himself. “We never expected that we’d find so many stars here.”

Mr. Naret said Michelin tried to adjust for differences in Tokyo’s restaurant culture, like the large number of tiny but excellent eateries tucked away in unlikely corners of this crowded city.

While Michelin usually reserves its highest rating of three stars for large elegant restaurants, in Tokyo it gave the top grade to a closet-size sushi bar, called Sukiyabashi Jiro, that sat in a basement and lacked a menu or even its own toilet, a first for the guide, Mr. Naret said.

Tokyo’s strong showing generated an initial wave of excitement here, helping Michelin sell more than twice as many copies than the first edition of its New York guide, which sold 125,000 copies. Many Tokyoites took Michelin’s praise as long-deserved recognition of Tokyo as a global gastronomical capital.

Food critics also say Michelin succeeded in tapping the enormous popularity here of French brands. Few countries are as passionate about French designers, whose handbags, dresses and watches are more common in Ginza than along the Champs-Élysées. Food critics and rival publishers say the French connection helped Michelin generate more buzz than the last international guide to land here, the New York-based Zagat Survey in 2000.

“Michelin made a splash here because of its association with brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel,” said Akihiko Takada, editor of Zagat’s Tokyo guide.

For their part, consumers here offer mixed reviews of Michelin. Yukihiro Nagatomi, a banker in his late 30s, said he recently spent about $200 to try a Japanese-style restaurant called Kanda because of its three-star rating in Michelin.

He said he was dismayed to find what he called egregious violations of Japanese cuisine’s minimalist tenets, like an overly large slice of eel sushi that disrupted the dish’s balance.

“You needed a knife and fork to eat that,” Mr. Nagatomi said. “I can see why it would appeal to Frenchmen who don’t use chopsticks.”

With all the doubts about Michelin’s understanding of Japanese tastes, some chefs say a rating in the guide has become a liability. Kunio Tokuoka, head chef at the high-end restaurant Kitcho, said the main Tokyo branch of his restaurant refused a listing in Michelin for fear of turning off customers seeking authentic Japanese cuisine.

Mr. Kadowaki, the nouveau Japonais chef, said he turned down a Michelin rating for his restaurant, Kadowaki, partly because the idea of ranking restaurants offended Japanese sensibility against bragging and putting others down.

Mr. Naret said a few places did turn down ratings, which they could do by refusing Michelin permission to take photographs for use in the guide.

But even among critics, there is a grudging recognition that Michelin did provide a service in one regard: giving younger Japanese chefs recognition that would otherwise be hard to get in this rigidly hierarchical society.

The only Japanese chef of French cuisine given three stars was Shuzo Kishida, a 33-year-old whose restaurant, Quintessence, opened less than two years ago. Since being listed in the guide, Mr. Kishida has suddenly received wide acclaim here as representing a new generation of Japanese chefs who show more personality in their cooking.

“Thanks to Michelin, originality is being recognized in Japan,” Mr. Kishida said.

11 comments on “NYT: Michelin rankings and the alleged inability for NJ to rate Japanese food

  • Toshiya Kadowaki, said his nouveau Japonais dishes, including a French-inspired rice with truffles, did not need a Gallic seal of approval.
    “Japanese food was created here, and only Japanese know it,” Mr. Kadowaki said in an interview. “How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?”

    So what’s he doing using French truffles? Only the French can appreciate truffles, and only the French know (sic) it.
    What he means is that the Japanese are sophisticated enough to appreciate whether or not French food is good, but only the Yamato race (sic) can tell whether or not Japanese food is any good. This is hypocrisy born of racism. The man’s a bigot.

  • I bought the guide and I think Michelin was somewhat off the mark with quite a few of their choices. Anyone who is well read on the Tokyo culinary scene would know that they passed up quite a few of Tokyo’s best for some less notable establishments that are generally overhyped. I think they would have been better received if they had done some more research and had more notable Japanese/Japan-based critics on board.

    I certainly hope the rumor is just a rumor…such a refusal would be quite a shame.

  • Tavos,

    Who were the Japanese critics who were part of the Michelin team? Were they really under qualified? I would be interested to know.

  • TJJ,

    Michelin is known for being secretive about their methods. They do not reveal the identities of their inspectors. However, Jean-Luc Naret and Michel Rollier (the editor of the Tokyo guide) were no doubt influential in the selection of restaurants that were chosen for review. The guide might have faired better if they had at least enlisted a qualified Japanese co-editor. The Tokyo culinary scene is very competitive, and chefs and critics alike take their food very seriously. Michelin guides have a history of being eurocentric and the New York and UK editions were also similarly lambasted.

    The first edition of any guide of this sort is often met with controversy. I think if you give Michelin a couple of years to adjust they will become accepted in the Tokyo scene.

  • zero.abrera says:

    Toshiya Kadowaki, said his nouveau Japonais dishes, including a French-inspired rice with truffles, did not need a Gallic seal of approval.
    “Japanese food was created here, and only Japanese know it,” Mr. Kadowaki said in an interview. “How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?”

    nah i disagree with kimpatsu on this one. only the yamatos truly know what genuine nihon ryouri (cooking/cuisine) truly is. Maybe I ought to remind him to recall last year’s entourage of food-related news and events. Meat Hope, Hinai Dori, and most especially Senba Kitcho, just to name a few – all of these ascertain to the fact that the Yamato palate is exquisitely delicate and that foreigners would have never understood as to why many here have spent a great deal of money for a single bite; that is, until these companies have “shied away” from the consumer market. Truly, only they know what makes a great Japanese food item.

  • Daniel J. says:

    But even if it were true that only Japanese could judge Japanese food, this travel guide is not for the Japanese. Since tourists are foreigners, foreigners need to judge it.

  • Oh, it’s the New York Times and another one of their pieces about “Japan”.

    Let’s see. There were five people in that article who complained about the Michelin system: two chefs who refused a Michelin star because they are bigotted idiots, the author of a fairly obscure men’s magazine, the governor of Tokyo whom everybody knows is a twat and a random banker who may or may not be imaginary. On the other hand, there were 1495 restaurants mentioned in that article whose owners were ostensibly happy to receive a Michelin ranking. And yet it is the former five who are seen to be representative of “Tokyo” turning up its nose.

    The NYT is a great newspaper, but most of the stuff it writes about Japan is utter drivel、 often ripped straight from Japanese sensationalist media (which I suspect is the case here).

  • “Japanese food was created here, and only Japanese know it,” Mr. Kadowaki said in an interview. “How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?”

    I think the Michelin book’s purpose is not to tell just the Japanese if the food is good or bad. I would suppose it’s an international guide so it would be very usual for a non-Japanese person to rate Japanese food.

  • Gene van Troyer says:

    Four relatively obscure Japanese and one politician griping about the Michelin Guide for Tokyo restaurants hardly constitutes a quorum on Japanese public opinion. However, the Michelin Guide is generally meaningless to me, as I do not frequent expensive eateries. I am a low class, low brow fellow when it comes to food. I also rely more on word-of-mouth from friends about good, affordable places to dine.

  • The current front-page post about the Japanese restaurant in India reminded me of the Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro (famous for treating the POTUS to sushi, and also the subject of a fawning, well-regarded documentary) which is notorious for giving the cold shoulder to NJ guests.

    A highly respected reviewer writes:
    “From the moment we sat down, the old gentleman who runs the place, and the chef who served us, regarded us with barely concealed contempt. They spent their time glowering at us throughout.”

    “It would appear that they really don’t want foreigners to come here, in which case it would have seemed logical for them to decline being in the Michelin (as a few places in Tokyo did) and remain with their local regulars. Instead they seem happy to take gaijin money, but not to manage even the semblance of courtesy.”

    And in the comments section:
    “We went to Jiro fully knowing what to expect. I could never, however, never, ever anticipate the horrid – bordering on racist treatment – we were in for that night.”



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