First off, I would like to offer my congratulations to all the recipients. No, I don’t think all the stars can be justified, and there are quite ridiculous picks (JinJin? Come on), but it wouldn’t hurt to start the review with a little celebration; some for the deserving restaurants, chefs and staffs and other for this inauguration of Michelin Red Guide in Seoul, or the event itself.
For this English version of review, I will consider the announced list only, including all the stars and Bib Gourmand. After the guide is released (which is tomorrow-I have already ordered a copy), I will come up with Korean version with probably more detailed analysis, as time allows, sometime later this week or the early next. In any case, however, I don’t intend to offer detailed pick-by-pick commentary for the list or the entire guide. As mentioned, I don’t believe that all the picks can be justified no matter what. Therefore, I will just focus on the big picture which the selection process paints.
For starters, let me be clear: I don’t necessarily agree with the list, but I don’t have any hard time to understand their decision either. For the most part, I am convinced. I have kept chewing the list ever since the moment it came out, and the more I chew, the more I get convinced by their decision and thought process. Here is my breakdown:
A twitter user (@eunderbar) pointed out a valuable fact: 24 restaurants were awarded stars for this inaugural Seoul guide, while 217 for Japan. What does this mean? Firstly, it represents, whether you want to believe or not, the discrepancy between culinary culture between Korea and Japan. Is Japan nine times better than Korea in terms of food and cooking? It may or may not, but I would say 3-5 times at least. Koreans would never admit and argue that it is just culturally different but sadly, it is not. We are clearly inferior to Japan in terms of culinary asset.
Secondly, for that matter, I understand this is a wise decision for Michelin to give out the stars not many more than they did. They are not what they used to be, as everybody including myself has written myriad times, but seemingly they didn’t want to give away stars likes free candies. I expected all the stars of Seoul guide are effective only within the context or confinement of Korea, meaning that three star recipient in Seoul isn’t really comparable to that of Paris (which I believe true, even truer after the list came out), but still they weren’t so generous. I believe this addresses something: we still have long ways to go. We need to get better.
2. Consistency > Fairness
We can argue with each other forever with all the picks they made, and I’ve already heard complains about their fairness. While I can understand why they feel that way, I am inclined to believe that the list shows some level of consistency, and it shares the same base from the first breakdown. They wanted to enter Korea with couple years of deliberation (or hesitation, rather), but found out, as they had expected all along, it wasn’t really rich environment for the guide to root firmly and flourish from the very beginning. Therefore they didn’t give many stars, and while doing that, focused on Korean-oriented restaurants.
Why? Consider this: as much as we can be excited with the inception of the guide, we should understand that we may not be the target readers for the guide. They want to sell the guide to the tourist visiting Korea. For them, what can appeal more? Korean food, obviously. However, it doesn’t mean or I don’t believe it means that Korean food is superior to others in Korea right now. I suspect they see this market barren altogether, regardless of culinary genre, and just chose to focus on Korean for the better appeal as a result.
What does this mean? More than anything, I don’t think the chefs cooking western food should be discouraged by the selection. It doesn’t mean that Korean food prevails; it is just some kind of political consideration. They chose Korean restaurants more because it is just native, not superior in this circumstance. I do believe we have a long, long way to go to taste really delicious food, but that job doesn’t belong to western chefs only. On the contrary, I am afraid that the misunderstanding the selections would stun the growth of native or modern Korean food and cooking. For me, they are more vulnerable as not many really understands Korean culinary grammar conceptually and try to either modify or enhance it. Only Rayeon and Kwonsooksoo seem to be capable of doing the task well at this juncture.
3. (A)Political Considerations and/or Bold Decisions
Speaking of politics, I can also see how they had weighed possible ramifications of the selection, but don’t seems to be swayed by them entirely. In fact, I was literally stunned by some decisions. The most surprising one is the two stars for Pierre Gagnaire. As I predicted in the past article, I never believed in their food after the brief period since opening, but I had never doubted that they would be awarded less than three stars with the inception of the guide as it is either that or bust for such an honored chef like him. Boy, was I wrong: they weren’t. He has been the only french celebrity chef owning his restaurant in Seoul, but they still gave two stars only.
And for the one starts, I see a couple of troikas tells the story: Jungsik–Mingles–Soigne and Ristorante Eo–Votre Maison–L’amitie. As much as I don’t trust any of the restaurants, I don’t oppose some are destined to get stars considering the context, especially the former ones(rising young chefs with “Modern” Korean cuisine). Therefore one star is about right for them. To be honest, I am a little bit disappointed by the outcome for Mingles as they had only a star. It is not that I believe they deserve more, but all the insults I have had with my review are not justified with mere one star. For me, the restaurant cries out “Project Michelin”, so one star doesn’t mean that much. I feel almost sorry for them. The guide’s decision to separate Kwonsooksoo and the others is right.
On the contrary, I don’t agree with the other troika garners a star each. Ristorante Eo once served beautiful modern Italian, but those days are long gone and it only offers mere shell of it. And the other two? They are worse. They barely emulate diluted version of Western Food and even less deserving than Eo. At least Chef Eo once showed what he is capable of. But these older chefs have endured and survived for a considerably long time in ever-changing Korean culinary landscape, and I suspect the guide gave the credit for it, especially considering La Saveur, where owns by the chef of same generation but serves slightly inferior food, didn’t get any.
4. Two Glaring Omissions
Where is Lespoir? They cook better food for a long time with consistency so I am curious why they are not considered. Is it too French? Or isn’t the chef not to old? I could care less for any ridiculous selections, but this one stings. Wooraewok’s absence is rather surprising as well. Maybe they didn’t like their service but not even in Bib Gourmand? Hmm.
5. Last Words
Two and three star ones are not without weakness. As much as I am happy with the two stars for Kwonsooksoo, they haven’t renew the menu for too long. They have surely made minor changes with seasonal ingredients, but concept and approach has been the same. And while Rayeon is a very deserving recipients among all the fine dining restaurant in Korea, but their service always come up short. Oh, and I basically don’t care much about Gwangjuyo related restaurants.
All in all, here is the bottom line: I don’t know Michelin Seoul is fairer than other domestic guides, but for me they seem more credible than them at least. The outcome could be a lot worse that this, but they prevented it from happening knowingly. Michelin will not gain more trust for me with Seoul guide, but will not lose more, either. I think that is net gain.
Closing question: how many recipients do you think can earn the status of ‘destination restaurant’ as the Michelin originally defines?