Michelin in Seoul: Disaster Guaranteed? (2)
*NOTE: This is the second of three piece installments. If you haven’t read the first one, please follow the link above. In the third and the last one, I will propose my idea of qualification and criteria, and/or criticism.
Moreover, stars have to be given out when launching, no matter what the quality of overall culinary culture is. Can you imagine that the Michelin Seoul comes out but without two or three star restaurants, the guide claiming that there are no worthy candidates for the honor? I will be very happy it that is the case. It is the sign for them wanting to do the job well, but I am sure that I will be a minority. The gesture will draw the ire of majority, foodie or not. Ultimately, it will be worse than not publishing at all and thus can’t be the scenario the guide has in mind.
Therefore when launching, it is highly likely that the guide will give out the stars generously. All the candidates are evaluated only within the boundary of Seoul, without putting entire Michelin universe in perspective. In other words, they will compete only against each other. As a result, a two star in Seoul may not be really equal to two stars of other cities, say, Paris or Tokyo. As a result, the restaurant is awarded star but not in the kind of class it would want to be. This potential irony can’t be beneficial to restaurant or even culture, and what I fear the most.
In fact, it is widely believed that Michelin’s star awarding criteria is neither consistent or transparent. It varies from country to country: the more they think the market is important, they more they get generous. As a result, more or higher stars will be given. For example, while Tokyo boasts thirteen three star establishments per 2016 guide, the entire country of Italy has only eight. What does this mean? Is Italy a less of country in terms of culinary excellence? Nobody would think so.
For them, simply Tokyo or Japan is more important market. They have been more generous to Japan than any other country since its launch there. Even though they can’t avoid the decline even in Japan, the relationship between the guide and the country is still the most symbiotic, outside France. Even in France, some of the relationships between the guide and the restaurants have long been questioned with its overly symbiotic nature. The guide is believed to be to very generous to the iconic figures such as Paul Bocuse. In other words, they don’t do a respectable job of keeping distance of criticism.
Can Korea digest all these when Michelin really comes out? Can they accept Michelin’s entrance with grain of salt, that it is more of business decision, less cultural one? I don’t believe so. This country has always been thirst for international reputation in every possible aspect, to a degree even the native like me feels obsessive and unnecessary.
It might sound like a very blunt analogy, but sometimes I can’t help but feeling that the country is very similar to abusing parents with good social reputation; they are never good to their children with abusing nature, but they don’t care if keeping reputation immaculate. The perception of their children is not important. Same for this country’s obsession. To make the matter worse, Korean cuisine has not been recognized as much as they want, with all the futile attempts of the previous regime. Therefore, the guide will be almost unequivocally welcomed. At last, Korean cuisine has risen to international level! Let’s celebrate!
That is, precisely my concern: vague confidence, which hinders objective self-assessment. Things are getting better for sure, but with very low probability. One or two out of ten is better or new. In other words, the change is very slow and there is a pattern: the lack of conceptual understanding. If there is something Korean culinary scene really needs from France, that is not the form of guidebook, which is condensed and accumulated, or even two-dimensional version of their famed culture, but the culture itself, the nurturing ground makes the existence of the guide possible.
Consider this: Michelin is not a singular media comes out of nowhere and listing the restaurants and awarding stars to them. As I mentioned, it has done the job for ninety long years with the system, and inception was even prior to that. They launched in 1900. It means that there had been growth of culinary culture, including not only cooking side with Carem and Escoffier, but criticism side with Brilliat-Savarin and others. In other words, Michelin could thrive on the soil of already matured culinary culture, not just the simple accumulation of time which we misunderstand as tradition.
Do Korea have that kind of culinary culture? The cooking side has been present anyway, as we have to eat but not to the level on which makes the discussion about refinement possible. In other words, the collective culture is very crude, leaving a lot to be desired. It still prioritize the satiation with quantity, over the pleasure with quality. Even worse, criticism is next to nonexistence. More than anything, there is not even a consensus that food, or culinary art for that matter, is the object of criticism.
To a degree, Michelin is condensed form of criticism, but most who are interested neither seem to care, nor take a look at the context closely. All they want is stars, without learning anything. Remember all the craze when the Green comes out. It will be much more worse than that with the Red. If Korea really wishes to import and graft the authority of Michelin, it should consider what kind of soil is needed firsthand, and try to incubate it. Otherwise, the skin of Michelin-worthy city to this barren landscape can suffocate the ecosystem, and as a result some promising, burgeoning restaurants and young chefs altogether.
Tsuta, the ramen-ya mentioned above, suffered by demand since the news broke out. Waiting skyrocketed to 3 hours. It has a sister ramen-ya, but it has to be closed due to neighborhood complaints stemmed from the crowds. It is quite a different situation including culture but imagine once Michelin starred restaurant is revealed in Seoul. With all the pouring media interest, it is absolutely obvious that some restaurants to be suffered with overloading demand. Can or will they compromise the quality to make the most out of the situation, or just shut it down? What kind of scenario is more likely considering all the well-known issues with unnecessary media attention?
The answer is very obvious. Even worse, fine dining restaurants has permanently suffered by the lack of profit stemmed from absence of beverage order. When the restaurant is exposed to domestic cable food show, soon it is crowded with newcomers with skimpy on beverage. As a result, it gains very little or even loses money. In this culture, it is hard not to be pessimistic: the restaurants filled with the crowd of empty promise.
The demand of another, yes, another guidebook is also questionable. Do Korea really need them, just because it is Michelin? Beside wilted Zagat(it no longer list Seoul per website), there are still domestic ones such as Blue Ribbon and KorEAT, the latter of which hilariously claiming and positioning itself as ‘Korean Michelin.’ Other than building the laughable troika of food guide, I don’t think it is really needed. The only scenario I can think as positive is all three competes until only one remains, possibly with authority. In this city and country, three guidebook covering same restaurants is redundant. Once again, Korea needs better soil not the fruits, or even trees at this juncture for the better culinary culture.
Lastly, the real value of Michelin guide. Is it useless? I don’t think so. It is quite fun to eat following the stars, but with caveat: no preconception. It is not wise for the guide to determine the value of restaurants you visit. I have met stars that can’t be justified, even without knowing all the past troubles I listed above. If you are interested in food enough that take the guide by your side when visiting the restaurant, you should have your own vision and criticism that keeps safe distance from the guide. In short, don’t let it come close enough so that cloud your judgement, for your own good.