Michelin In Seoul: Disaster Guaranteed? (Combined Edition)

Finally, the news has been announced: Micheline Red guide in Seoul will launch in 2017. It means that the guide will actually launch in late 2016, possibly with the guide for other cities. In fact, I have heard recently that the inspectors have already visited restaurants, and contacted the owner for the information. It seems to have been happening for a while.

To celebrate(!) the confirming news of launch, I am posting combined edition of the article about the guide I wrote recently. In fact, I just want to see how long it is, before the news broke: I am not a big fan of ‘longform’, which is said to be reemerged in the era of internet journalism. However exactly by that reason, I want to see it combined. Simply this is the longest article I have ever written for last 12 years of blogging.

One last note: the launch comes sooner than I expected, but I do not change my position. In short, I do not think this will benefit Korean culinary culture essentially. Maybe Koreans will have one more (and very strong and assuring) reason to believe and justify that doing good, but that will eventually be detrimental.

Anyway, good luck Michelin. Good luck Korea.

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.

IMG_8011Moreover, 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 if 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.

IMG_80020Before getting into the topic, few notes:

  1. It is still not clear that the launch of Green guide has been confirmed. In fact, I found out that the recent news about the launch with specific timeline disappeared mostly on internet, when I had started writing the article about a month ago. I do not really know why. While I am not a big fan of any kind of conspiracy theory, what does this possibly mean? Does the representative of guide wants it to be under the water for desired period of time? Or has the plan been rescinded? I don’t know.
  2. How about marketing, the potential outcome of guide’s launching? The origin of the guide is, as you might know, to sell of the tires at the dawn of automobile era. The guide can help the expansion of tire brand, the main business sector of Michelin. However, Korea is the rare exception as the domestic brands are dominating. In other words, it wouldn’t be much help to sell tires even if the guide launches. This might affect the decision.

With that mind, let’s get into the topic. Yes, it was about candidacy: how the restaurants in Seoul would fare if the guide launches? I want to present both of the perspective: mine and Michelin’s(***/***). It is a kind of breakdown, but please be noted that I focus only on Korean and Western cuisine.

Pierre Gagniere Seoul: this should be the test case, a so-called ‘litmus’ of the guide upon launching. Will the guide give out three stars?  Think about it: it is the only restaurant managed by star (and French) chef with worldwide popularity. Why is it the only one after all those years? How about other chefs? It is a great question, but not for this article, and to be honest, I think that always tells something about the culinary culture of Seoul (there are always rumors of some brand of chefs launching, and I heard about some recently but… ) Anyway, I have never felt this one keeps up with whatever value or philosophy the old chef has established over fifty years.

When I had an interview last year, he was nice and diplomatic about keeping quality of all of his global post, but I could read between the lines that he didn’t enjoy the current situation. After first couple years, it always fails to guarantee certain level of quality and detail. However, it is a still Pierre Gagniere restaurant-something from iconic French Chef whose brand has spread out globally. In addition to that, atmosphere of the restaurant is great with that luxury interior(not my taste, anyway). These factors should be counted for the stars. I do not think it deserves three, but if the guide launches, it seems that they don’t have the choice but to give them out. Simply put, threes stars or bust. ( */*** )

L’espoir: this can be another ‘litmus.’ What kind of restaurants or genre the guide and inspectors prefer to focus in Seoul? Should that be related to Korean cuisine, however loose the tie or the concept might be? Considering the scale of the city, it doesn’t need to be if I were to them. They should be open to everything, as do for other cities. Therefore, L’espoir should be considered long and hard, considering its relative longevity and quality of food. I do not think their food is no longer belongs to emulation or representation of French bistro cuisine; more refined and reinterpreted with modern touch, except dessert(please, make them better for the sake of savory food you serve). Anyway, they cook the food certainly and firmly belongs to western cuisine, which is very rare in Seoul. (**/*   )

Merciel: they should be considered, no matter what.

Speaking of Korean oriented ones…

IMG_6117Jungsik: Oh, they still retain two stars in New York… Good for them. In Seoul, they will always be remembered as a bad precedent, with perpetually imperfect concept after all those years. I believe their ‘New Korean’ concept had hit the wall in last year’s visits. Don’t get me wrong; I still believe there are plenty of undeveloped ideas in Korean *traditional* cuisine, awating reinterpretation and modernization. All the issues I believe these “crossover” restaurants have are stemmed from their intentional negligence from *tradition*. In other words, I don’t think they know Korean cuisine enough to reinterpret for contemporary fine dining context. However with good wine list and modern atmosphere, I believe they will be considered, for more than one star. Doesn’t Michelin want to match stars in New York at least? This is their home ground. And it is unfortunate. (  /**)

2016-02-05 20.41.50
Mingles: I was really surprised when I heard that there are many to consider Mingles as a legitimate Michelin material. For me, it is simply an abomination. I actually write the review for this month’s Olive Magazine Korea. If you are curious about my opinion, please see for yourself. I would’ve been much happier if all the unpleasantness I had tasted in their food was the outcome of poor execution. However, they weren’t. The whole concept is just wrong. Collectively, they were certainly the worst dining experience in terms of pure flavor.  I wouldn’t give any stars to them if I were the inspector. But hey! Who am I to judge? I am anything but. My overall impression: it seems to be a strategic decision to cook such kind of food and develop such kind of flavor to please rankings and guides, and I believe they are successful, but to the expense of  tastebuds. Sad. ( /*)

2015-12-08 19.30.19Soigne: I don’t care about their concept much; for me, ‘contemporary’ is some kind of umbrella term to cover up ambiguity of concept in most cases. Contemporary and fusion are the most mislead and misunderstood term, especially in cuisine(for the details, please refer the last month review of Olive Magazine Korea about Soinee). But their food is a lot more edible than Jungsik, Mingles or any other restaurants helmed by young chef. Their flavor profile falls on more reasonable territory than the other two, and when they are not ‘in the weed’, the execution is excellent. I can still savor their quail, which was cooked perfectly. With that bar setting and personal but professional service, the whole experience can be great there. (*/*)

IMG_9640Kwonsooksoo: if you want to talk about contemporary or modern in Korean cuisine, this should be the starting point. The most important fact is that there are no missing link between what we have been believing as Korean cuisine and their food. Most dots are closely and securely connected. There still are conceptual inconsistencies here and there, but they cook meaningful food in both concept and execution. I like their beverage paring overall, but their wine program should be expanded much, much more than what it is now. Still much room to grow, but it is refined and exciting as is. (**/*)

IMG_7312Rayeon: while their food is solid in execution and successful in concept, service always lacks detail. It is not just Rayeon’s issue but entire hotel’s. They look very nice in almost every aspects of experience, but always miss something. Always. It is very odd, considering that Hotel should provide a nice infrastructure for solid service, at least here in Korea. But it never happens. Still, it is a very strong candidate, with advantage on Korean-oriented cuisine to the eye of the guide. Sophisticated execution and flavor, but the wine pairing needs to be improved; very perfunctory. (*/**)

Chorokbaguni: gosh, it looks so funny spelled in English… Anyway, most would laugh just by the fact that I am trying to include this restaurant into the discussion. In fact, I have not visited them for a while, with some funky reasons I don’t want to divulge here (not my fault, for sure). However, their food is the most developed one, in terms of modernization of Korean cuisine. It is not something you take lightly, but I never feel that this restaurant has garnered the credit it surely deserves. (*/ ) (NOTE: They are no longer a worthy candidate for me after the recent visit. The review will be followed soon. 06/29/16)

For *traditional* Korean restaurants, I don’t see how many would fit for even candidacy. For me, pure Korean style grill restaurants don’t have any merit, as there is no cooking in the kitchen involved(there may be some exceptions; ones with heavy aging involved. That is cooking). Same for the Hanjeongsik, a table full of banchan extravaganza. Do anyone cares the harmony and combination of flavor when cooking and bringing out that diverse(not) kind dish at once? For the guide, it can look like legit food culture or even cuisine, so there is always a possibility. Maybe some kind of “deal” to give certain number of stars to certain kind of food and restaurant? It is also possible.

img_0247-1Pyongyang Naengmyun: maybe the only Korean dish has become a genre, truly specialized form of food? In other words, you can’t eat ‘PyongNaeng’ in almost every Korean restaurant, like Bulgogi. Most Pyongyang Naengmyun places offer bulgogi for sure, but it isn’t be the case vice versa. Therefore I will look into this category first if I were the inspector. For me, the candidacy always comes down two: Wooraeok and Byeokje Galbi. Which one is superior? Which one is the better restaurant overall ? I have long believe that the former is superior, but no more: flavor, the only advantage I believe they have, has been more harsh with garlic clouding over everything.

Overall, Wooraeok seems stuck in the past in almost every aspect of dining experience. You don’t need to change the menu if you believe that is a tradition to keep, but how about the beverage? Only with tasteless domestic beer, saccharine soju and Majuang, the worst kind of wine choice, the dining experience suffers and downgraded a notch. Moreover, they need more refinement. Have you ever ordered beef tongue? Yes, they have it… frozen. So if you order it out of curiosity or nostalgia(or sentiment), the staff will bring frozen solid slices of beef tongue on the grill. Yes, you can experience of cooking the beef tongue from the scratch, I mean thawing. The vapor coming out from the tongue, which will get rubber pretty fast… is exciting scene. Oh, and they still do not prepare half size Naengmyun in Kitchen while Byeokje Galbi does; servers divide it in the station, which is actually cabinets right below the window. No caring.

IMG_0357Meanwhile, I believe the latter, Byeokje Galbi goes exact opposite direction, meaning they are doing too much with all the brand and too many options in menu, at least they try to modernize, such as more active inclusion of wine or ‘prime’ kimchi(extra paid order). Their prime kimchi doesn’t really taste ‘prime’, but I commend their attempt. Isn’t that the way Korean cuisine should pursue? Trimming down meaningless banchans?


One last possibility: something completely unexpected, out of left field can be a surprise star awardee… such as soondae?

Ok. this is it. As I have previously mentioned, I have written about the guide much more than I want for last 4-5 years, Hopefully, the next writing about the topic is about the real guide of Seoul. However, to be completely honest, I don’t want it to happen for at least next 4-5 years. More than anything, I still don’t believe it is the time; we still need more maturing and seasoning to prevent the disaster.

8 Responses

  1. claire46 says:

    All you say about the Michelin guide may be right. It is also true that so much great information can be found on Internet. The Michelin guide may be a dying institution, but it is still relevant — at least in France. I’m very curious how Michelin people will rate the food offered in Korea, unless of course Korean nationals are part of their team. Kimchi is really different from a vinaigrette. How will they be able to judge? to appreciate?
    Still, I am sorry the guide won’t be out until late 2016. I won’t be able to use it when I visit Korea 🙂

    • bluexmas says:

      The question is valid, but I believe they are capable of understanding various cuisines of the world, including Korean.

  2. Can someone tell me who the author of this article is as I can’t find it written anywhere. Personally, I’m looking forward to reading the upcoming Michelin Guide, although it’s likely to result in even longer queues at some of the best restaurants here … hmmm … how to keep all of those food bloggers away … ??

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