Michelin must tread a new line

29 March 2005 by
Michelin must tread a new line

The pulping of Michelin's Benelux edition, following the discovery that one establishment newly awarded a Bib Gourmand had not actually opened, is a discomforting thought.

Each year, come publication, the unsettling reality for all involved in producing a restaurant guide is that, no matter what energy has been expended on checks, double-checks, proofing and reproofing, there will be a handful of errors. The thought of some of the bloomers made under my stewardship still makes me squirm.

Usually, it's a case of mistaken identity, one restaurant's entry getting confused with another, or more frequently an error in the spelling of either the chef's or the establishment's name. In a book of 1,800 entries, these are genuine oversights caused by the sheer weight of information being processed.

This most recent embarrassment for Michelin, though, is more serious because it appears to have revealed something troubling about the way Michelin conducts its business. This isn't a case of a typographical slip-up, and it raises questions of credibility and legitimacy.

It seems that Michelin's relationship with the business in question was cosy enough for someone within the organisation to be prepared to award a Bib Gourmand on the basis of the track record of those involved. Of course, it turned out that, at the point of publication, the restaurant had not yet served a single dish.

If the place had opened sometime between the completion of the guide and the actual publication, we'd probably never have known that the restaurant hadn't been inspected. And that's the most worrying aspect of all - how many other decisions are being made in similar ad hoc fashion that we simply don't know about?

I confess that, in many ways, I envied Michelin its mystery when I was at the AA. That detachment makes life much easier for editors and inspectors alike, and it's important that some of it is maintained for the sake of independence. On the other hand, secrecy can cover up a multitude of sins, and the industry and the reader both deserve substantially more transparency about the whole process.

I don't think, given the weight attached to their pronouncements by the industry, that it's unreasonable to demand answers to key questions.

For instance, how many inspectors are employed to cover the country? What are the qualifications needed to get one of these jobs, and what experience do members of the current inspection teams have? How much initial training takes place, and what is done to ensure consistency of decision-making? What is the frequency and volume of inspections carried out for each year's guide, and how are these places chosen for inspection?

In the case of the AA Restaurant Guide, there is also the question of what other commercial pressures are brought to bear on the process. The fact that, in comparison with the other major guides, the AA has a much higher proportion of hotel restaurants represented begs questions about the relationship between the "independent" Restaurant Guide, where there is no payment for entry, and the fees paid by hotels for recognition.

If a hotel has a restaurant that would normally warrant an inspection for inclusion in the Restaurant Guide, but opts not to pay to become recognised by the AA Hotel Guide, does this have any bearing on its chances of inclusion? The answer a few years ago was broadly no, but there was no shortage of pressure to make that connection.

To be fair to the AA, its is a slightly peculiar situation because, as well as assessing, it has always had another role in providing support and guidance to those seeking to improve their product. The latter is a fine line, though, and mitigates against maintaining the proper degree of independence.

It's my feeling that the best a guide can do is to offer clear criteria for its awards, so at least chefs have an idea what they are being judged against. Here, the AA has a good track record, whereas Michelin offers virtually nothing in the way of guidance.

The result is that those in search of Michelin recognition have little to go on beyond rumour and speculation - a situation that encourages expensive excursions into blind alleys that sometimes lead neither to success with Michelin nor, more importantly, with the customer.

All the major guides serve a useful purpose, and I have no doubt that they have broadly been a force for good in helping to push up standards in British cooking. Michelin, in particular, has a proud history in this respect, but it and its competitors need to realise that their heavy cloak of secrecy looks increasingly archaic and unreasonable.

There are far too many unanswered questions, and the industry deserves the answers. n

CAPTION: The guidebooks have helped push up standards of cooking in the UK - but some are better than others at making their judging criteria clear to chefs

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