Opinion: The Fault in Our Stars


Despite its Michelin stars, Joel Robuchon has closed its Singapore outpost. What gives?


by

Opinion: The Fault in Our Stars
Dining July 25th, 2018

My phone has been heating up with curious and impassioned texts over the last two weeks.

“How could a three-star restaurant close?”

“Doesn’t he have a large following?”

“He charges so much, surely the restaurant is making money?!”

UPDATE: Joel Robuchon, the chef with the world’s most Michelin stars, has passed away from cancer on 6 August 2018, at the age of 73. The award-winning chef was a mentor to British chef Gordon Ramsay. 

They are referring to the recent closure of Singapore’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Joel Robuchon. The French chef-restaurateur closed both his Resorts World Sentosa outfits last month after seven years in Singapore, though he is considering re-opening L’Atelier in Orchard next year.

This follows the loss of popular restaurants Hashida Sushi and Osteria Mozza in Marina Bay Sands, as well as former two-starred Restaurant Andre by chef Andre Chiang earlier this year.

The Taiwan native announced that he wished to “return (his) Michelin stars and not be included in the 2018 edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore.” Chiang also requested for his Taipei restaurant, Raw, not to be included in the red guide should it launch a Taiwan edition. He was the first Singapore-based chef to return both his Michelin stars.

Beyond the usual reasons of prohibitive rental costs and lack of quality manpower, a famous restaurant’s closing is easy fodder for yet another Michelin debate. Aren’t the stars supposed to be an immunity shield, a Holy Grail, from the reality of business? Aren’t stars supposed to be a talisman against commercial failure?

Taiwan-born chef Andre Chiang returned his two Michelin stars after closing Restaurant Andre this year. Photo by Getty Images

Yet Chiang isn’t the only chef to return his Michelin stars. Alain Senderens, the French chef behind three-Michelin-starred restaurants l’Archestrate and Lucas Carton in France, announced in 2005 that he was giving back his stars. “I feel like having fun. I don’t want to feed my ego anymore,” he told The New York Times.

“I can do beautiful cuisine without all the tra-la-la and chichi, and put the money into what’s on the plate.”

It’s time to recognise how guides like this are a marketing franchise. The Michelin Guide emphasises independence, but the French tyre company has become increasingly commercial. Reports show the Tourism Authority of Thailand forked out 144 million Thai baht (S$5.8 million) to bring in the guide for Bangkok. A South Korean media outlet also revealed Korea Tourism Organisation is paying 400 million won (around US$350,000) a year to commission the Seoul guide, which first came out in 2016.

“It’s all mickey mouse. (Michelin) is in the business of selling guides,” shared English chef Marco Pierre White when we met at a dinner held at InterContinental Singapore a couple of years ago. White was the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1994. Five years later, the enfant terrible also became the first chef to return his stars.

Marco Pierre White on how the business of Michelin stars is all "mickey mouse".

Marco Pierre White on how the business of Michelin stars is all “mickey mouse”. 

Says White: “They know that giving a hawker a star will get Michelin on the front page of all newspapers. And those judges, do they have more knowledge than these chefs?”

Awards like the Michelin Guide elevate brands and build a conversation around restaurants. They create, for better or for worse, buzz. But how long are we going to buy into this marketing spiel? The validation of great food should not come from awards alone. Michelin stars are not the be all and end all of the restaurants.

“If the people giving the award have less knowledge than you, what is the award worth?”

– Chef Marco Pierre White, on why he returned his three Michelin stars

I’m a strong advocate of loyalty. Customers return to places they love, because they’re happy spending money there. We need to ask ourselves, are chefs and restaurants doing everything in their power to cultivate loyalty? Or are they creating menus and investing in silverware to chase stars? Your guess is as good as mine.

Since the little red book dropped into town in 2016, I’ve nursed coffees — sometimes, a glass of something stronger — with chefs-turned-friends. Our conversations run the gamut, from wondering how a hawker selling S$2.50 chicken rice got a star to questioning why the inspectors never once dropped in on certain restaurants.

I tell them the same thing: It’s not about the awards. It’s about the ones who return to your restaurant night after night. Cultivate these. Stars alone can’t do the talking, because stars lack stamina in the hyper-competitive field of dining.

It’s the same on the flip side. You can’t question why a restaurant with a Michelin star is closing if you don’t even turn up for dinner.

Because a star won’t matter if the seats aren’t filled.

Make loyalty a trend. Invest in places you love.

When choosing dinner spots, I lean towards reliable, familiar haunts that I know won’t let me down. My tried-and-tested include Braci and Cheek by Jowl for date nights, and Kamoshita — a hole-in-the-wall izakaya along Neil Road where I go to for oden and sake past midnight.

Braci

Star or not, I can always count on the food at Braci to be stellar. Photo by Wong Weiliang

These aren’t picked from a guidebook. These are just places I’m happy to support, because they give me rock-solid experiences, time after time. Star or no stars, I’ll happily send friends their way whenever I’m asked for recommendations. I’ve never failed to impress.

Awards are coming under fire for transparency. When the Michelin Guide debuted in Singapore in 2016, eyebrows were raised when four restaurants in title sponsor Resorts World Sentosa received stars. Coincidence? Questionable.

Now, more than ever, insider recommendations count.

“Regular customers keep our place alive,” says Rishi Naleendra, chef-owner of Cheek by Jowl. “Even before the stars, our regulars would come and bring friends. Nearly 40 per cent of our business is made up of regular diners.”

“That’s how we became successful.”

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