Michelin in Seoul: Disaster Guaranteed? (1)
I still have not lost any bit of interest to mock those who overreacted to the publish of Michelin Green Guide Korea. Hey, it is just a tour guide: the real one is Red, and even that is not as good as you think. They didn’t listen anyway. Even the minority who had recognized the difference, tended to be mistaken; it is OK to regard the green is the precursor to the Red, but that doesn’t mean the situation is ripe. They can test the waters with the Green, but that doesn’t mean the Red will come out any time soon. Even if Michelin really wanted to.
Finally, they seem to be determined. Recently the news has broken out that the red guide to be published next year(*). The inspectors would visit Seoul (or entire country) to eat the food and grade restaurants. Even though I am not really interested in them, it is not so hard to hear the whisper that they have mulled over. More than anything, Michelin guide is a business. They pursue the profit. All the arguments about its value in Seoul should be focused on that. However, people tend to forget. Some truly believe that it is the culinary savior puts Korea on the coordinates of gastronomy excellence, neighboring France, United States, or Japan (Italia doesn’t care about it anyway).
Is it really possible? Once again, let me reiterate: Michelin Guide is a business, and a failing one. The decline of the guide is not even news these days; it has been well-chronicled throughout media since 2000s. There have been several well-known scandals tarnishing the guide’s reputation, such as Bernard Loiseau’s suicide over the demotion of the restaurant(2003, La Côte d’Or, from three to two star), Pascal Remy’s confession that undermined the credibility of inspection (2004, L’Inspecteur se met à table: not many inspections, too many restaurants to cover, etc), and more recent news of their financial loss up to $24 million(Up to $30 million in 2015).
Simply put, Michelin’s decline is chronic; culinary world no longer depends on a single source to discern excellence. Today, the world is much more complicated than 1920s when they first issued the stars. Competition is getting fiercer, and the guide is always an easy target when new competitor arises. Why not targeting number one, just to get attention? To some extent, it seems even natural that the guide has lost its luster and power gradually. For more than three quarters of the century, it had depended the throne well. That is more than enough.
You need put all these on perspective when understanding their attempt to enter Korean culinary landscape. Why Korea? First, they are kind of desperate. The sustainability, or even survival is their priority now. They have to find ways, either developing the new market, or putting new item into the coordinates of their star system. The latter is easier. You can always shift focus to more ethnic or domestic cuisine, not just limited to western. I see the one star awarded Tsuta, the first Michelin ramenya in Japan is the example of the latter case.
But the former, finding viable market is more difficult. More than anything, it should have certain scale, to be a global tourist attraction with self-sustaining, diverse culinary landscape. In other words, the bigger the city, the better for the guide. That is why not all the cities with reputation of culinary relevance don’t have their own Michelin, or just the one with national coverage. With over 10 million of population and metropolitan area, Seoul seems to fit the bill, right?
Not really. I believe scale itself can attract the guide, but Seoul is neither a genuine tourist attraction nor the epitome of diverse and thriving culinary scene. In essence, it is just a densely populated city with poor culinary heritage. I suspect the guide has known it all along, and that is why it has been hesitant. In short, they don’t see the opportunity valuable, up until now. If they have really decided, I can’t help but regarding that as the sign of true desperation.
-To be continued