Gaining a Michelin star, or three, isn’t simply a mark of excellence, it means your restaurant status goes automatically from a great choice to a must. We had the great pleasure to speak to Chris Watson, ex-Michelin Guide inspector, about the complexity of this rating system, the weight of allocating stars, what it takes to get the highly-coveted three star rating at the oldest European hotel and restaurant reference guide. Hailing from Scotland where, as a child, he was regaled with some of the world’s best meats and produce, Chris spent his Michelin tenure covering the UK and Europe regions. He is as passionate and insightful on the topic of cuisine as ever, despite leaving the guide to become an entrepreneur, food writer and consultant, now based in Bangkok.
Can you tell us about the recruitment process to be a Michelin inspector?
It started with an interview process, which was gruelling, around 150-200 questions about food, answers should be written down in one and a half hours. Then, an interview with the deputy editor and various other staff and then the final kind of blessing, you go for lunch with the editor. We went to “La Tante Claire” which was Pierre Koffmann’s three-star restaurant, two-stars at that time. So you are asked questions during lunch, it was daunting, but I got through it.
You don’t get rich when you are a Michelin inspector, obviously, it’s about quality of life and the experience. The average length of stay in the position is 5 years, very few do more than that. Largely your seniority comes from length of service, you join as an inspector, you leave as an inspector. But your opinions and the restaurants you visit, you gain more experience and you get better restaurants to go to, or have more complicated decisions to take. I did about 4.5 years, after that time you’ve nearly reached the end.
You don’t get rich when you are a Michelin inspector, obviously, it’s about quality of life and the experience.
What does an inspector’s schedule look like?
The schedule is very tight. You have to do largely two weeks away per month, with almost no weekends. If you go to Ireland or Channel islands, those are expected to be three-week trips. three weeks alone, with probably the only highlight, in the middle of your trip – you will do a Michelin star restaurant in your region, and one of the other inspectors will come and join you. Usually, I had to dine alone, for breakfast, lunch and dinner…
And the restaurants you would go, are not the most fabulous as we all imagine…
There are many good restaurants without a star which you are quite happy to go to. And there are great opportunities, you go and stay in country house hotels, small establishments, where the room, in those days (20 years ago) was 150-200 pounds a night, these days 500-600 pounds a night. You are staying there, your expenses covered with “American Express”. My expenses were 2000-3000 pounds per month, my salary was 600-700 pounds. You are kind of in a different world, it’s truly a fabulous experience!
What people don’t understand fully, your 10 meals a week, you are probably lucky to get one starred restaurant a week or a star contender, and the other meals are pretty mediocre. And that’s kind of a drudge. And you get into awkward situations, when at the end of you finishing your region, you have an extra restaurant to go to where you haven’t factored it in. So you do dinner at 6 pm, and you do another dinner at 8 pm. So it’s lunch, dinner and dinner. I have done it a couple of times. You know, you are careful, you eat half of the dessert, you eat sensibly. I’m not talking about eating at Michelin starred restaurants twice in a row, usually, these are fairly ordinary restaurants.
What people don’t understand fully, your 10 meals a week, you are probably lucky to get one starred restaurant a week or a star contender, and the other meals are pretty mediocre.
Did you feel that sometimes there is too much food? That your health would be affected…
Yes, it was a lot of food. Obviously, when you are younger, you don’t feel it as much. I know older inspectors who were mentoring me, because you are not allowed to go alone for the first 6 months, you always go with two or three different ones. And the older guys who are more senior, you know, when you are over say 35 years old, it’s harder to shed the weight. In those days, drink and driving wasn’t a factor, so half a bottle of wine with dinner every night, and if you have a sexy restaurant for lunch the next day, you have something similar there…
What makes a difference for Michelin to award one, two or three stars?You enter a restaurant which you don’t know, and what is the most important for a Michelin inspector? What do you look at first?
Of course, over the years Michelin has spoken more and more about the fact that the stars are a reflection of the cuisine, not the service, it’s all about what is on the plate. However, I would kind of temper that, because what they say, they do, because there are, for example, pubs who have one or two stars. It is about what is on the plate. Even nowadays and equally 20 years ago, chefs built their resumes, and if they acquired stars before or were in “50 Best ”, they would doubtless end up in a high calibre restaurant. So of course, you kind of know when you are visiting a brand new restaurant. You have done your homework and what calibre is the chef, where he came from. But still, the most important thing is what is on the plate. And yes, trends come and go, to be classic or the more modern approach, like Heston Blumenthal’s style. You know, when I met Heston, “Fat Duck” was a pub serving steak and chips, later he moved in a different direction, to much more modern techniques. But it’s still all about what is on the plate.
One star restaurant versus no star restaurant, you know one star restaurant carefully uses produce, that should be seasonal. It’s not about sustainability (that is a different topic), it’s about what is the best available locally. Being in London you can of course, use Scottish langoustine. In London, for a pseudo-French style restaurant, I don’t think it would be appropriate to use a Japanese fish. But simply put, it’s expected in Japanese restaurants in London to use Japanese fish. I think over the years the Guide has become much more receptive to not just European cooking but also tried to highlight the best Indian, the best Thai, the best Chinese, the best Japanese. 20 years ago it was all a little bit more limited.
So just in short, what does it take to get one, two or three stars?
For one star, definitely should use local products, care, good depth of flavour in the sauces, careful presentation and service that matches.
The most important thing is what is on the plate.
Two stars is a step up, you are looking for more complexity in a dish. You’re looking for sometimes multiple ingredients, or techniques that are very difficult to do: make something that is incredibly complex, but that looks incredibly simple. Taste and balance. I look at the difference between the sauce of a one-star dish and the sauce of a two star dish. Nothing is ever written in stone. When you or I go for dinner, the difference between a one-star dish and two-star dish, when you look at it, you can look at the plate and say wow! At one star you don’t necessarily say that. Secondly, saucewise, when you taste the sauce at a one star, it should be deep, clearly identified taste, good flavour, umami. In a two star dish, it should have multilayers, you should be tasting different components, there should be an aftertaste, which was not there in perhaps the one star dish. It is a little difficult to answer. In short, it should be a more complex dish.
Three stars, for me… I still travel a lot and eat at two or three star restaurants on a regular basis. For me, three stars is all about consistency. Of course, getting three stars for a simple rustic pub – no, they are not gonna do that. It’s the grand class, Crillon, Tour d’Argent, Bocuse, Hotel de Paris,… I don’t think rustic pubs are ready to get three stars. But then again, you look at the French guide, issued very recently, there is Alexandre Mazzia, that is a good example. There is always an exception, I think you always have to look to a guide, which has to evolve, like the first vegan star… They have to keep up to date, the green award, the green star… I think they are recognizing sustainability, they have to keep pace, at the end of the day there is a huge population of vegans and vegetarians. Now all serious restaurants offer vegetarian menus, before, if you are a vegetarian, you would be happy to get an omelette. So I think the whole world is changing and a Guide must adapt to the trends.
The challenge is getting a third star. Between one and two is very easy to identify from a diner’s perspective, in my opinion. Where there are much more complex dishes, a much more elevated experience, more complicated, more depth. It’s all about cooking. The difference between two stars and three stars, for me, is about consistency, for most, menus themselves don’t change very much. If you look at the restaurants who are awarded three stars it’s all about consistency, between two and three stars. It’s faultless, absolutely faultless, all the time.
How has the guide changed? You were an inspector in the nineties. Those old-school days we imagine Pierre Koffmann, Joel Robuchon still had his three stars then… How do you think the guide has changed over the years? Because you still do eat out a lot.
I think that the guide has made strenuous efforts to maintain its relevance, with linkups with a table booking engine, Tablet hotels and so on. I think they also recognized that the grand palaces, a large number of which particularly exist in France, have perhaps not maintained their standards or perhaps standards have naturally elevated so not today as worthy of three stars as they perhaps were. They have tried to be sensitive to the removal of the third star and how they handle that to avoid potentially tragic consequences. Where fathers handed over to sons or daughters, they used that opportunity to demote them to two stars and said as a second-generation, you need to earn it by yourself rather than taking it away. There are several examples. Bocuse was another sad but perhaps needed change.
I think classics have their place. I believe that there is still a place for these restaurants, for traditional recipes, which truly haven’t changed, like L’Ambroisie.
He had his stars for decades, right?
Yes, and particularly sad for me as it was arguably the best meal of my entire life.
I must say I was lucky to go there a year ago before lockdown, it was my third time, and it was brilliant. Even, if they were already demoted to two stars.
Honestly, I had a fabulous meal there, I can describe you every single course. Later, five or ten years later, I was working in a Relais et Chateaux in Singapore, trying to do promotions with some chefs, so I was at Troisgros, I met the father and the son at the bar, and we chit-chatted, and they asked me some questions as a former Michelin inspector, one was “What was your best meal?”, so I described it in detail, the meal I had at Bocuse. Comprising a fantastic meal, describing absolutely awesome dishes in detail. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Paul Bocuse was standing behind me listening to my story. And then it was his 60th or 70th year birthday, so he invited me to join a family dinner. I have a picture with me, Troisgros, Bocuse and his wife.
I think classics have their place. I believe that there is still a place for these restaurants, for traditional recipes, which truly haven’t changed, like L’Ambroisie. When I go to London I invariably try to go to new restaurants, I love Claude Bosi, and Core. My favourite restaurant in the UK is Waterside Inn in Bray. It still has three stars. Is it a leading innovative cuisine? Maybe not, but for me, it is just a world class experience, classic recipes prepared faultlessly, effortless service and truly memorable.
What do you think is Michelin’s role? Is it still as relevant as it was 30 years ago?
The Michelin guide is as respected as it always has been, regardless that occasionally chefs are sending back stars or not wanting to be featured in the guide. Handing back the stars, I find it overdramatic, still until this day, regardless of what chefs say in public, 99.99% of them dream about stars. Stars are recognition for their undoubted talents, and for their team. Secondly, it fills restaurants, the minute you get a star, the restaurant is full for weeks and months. So I don’t really think that anybody doesn’t want them from the industry’s perspective. I think one of the challenges for diners is that now there are many different forms of media available, which was not the case twenty years ago.
What makes one good at this unusual profession?
You know, sometimes people ask me, what makes you a good Michelin inspector for the guide? It’s about the volume of meals you eat, not anything else. That is what enables you, if you eat every day in Michelin star restaurants, to talk knowledgeably. When I go socially, friends occasionally ask “tell me about this…”. It’s about eating at El Bulli one night and Can Roca the next and then you can talk, cause nobody does that except Michelin Inspectors, and extremely rich people who obviously don’t move in the same circles.
The Michelin guide is as respected as it always has been, regardless that occasionally chefs are sending back stars or not wanting to be featured in the guide. Handing back the stars, I find it overdramatic, still until this day, regardless of what chefs say in public, 99.99% of them dream about stars.
When you look at the food writers, these famous guys they eat in various places, if you look at all these reviewers, (take away all the drama of the article which is written, so they can sell it to the newspapers and people find it entertaining) because they eat so many meals, they are pretty intelligent about food.
What, in your opinion, should Michelin focus on now?
I think Michelin should try to maintain their relevancy by focusing solely on their star classifications and avoid adding new ones which attempt to expand their awards but I think slightly cheapen their cachet. They have always been understated, almost secretive and this mystery combined with their well earned unwavering objectivity is why they continue to succeed. They have developed a digital section as social media channels have expanded, however I don’t find the quality of writing particularly attractive nor indeed, their collaboration promotions. I also sense that their additional accolades, service of the year and young chef of the year, whilst no doubt broaden the guide’s appeal don’t for me add value to the Guide’s reputation. And in fact across many countries confusion surrounds the differences between a Plate and a Bib which they have yet to explain clearly. In Thailand, existing plate restaurants, newly awarded with Bibs, were officially referred to promotions…
I would also comment on the street food angle, because we have one street food restaurant here in Bangkok which has one star. Is it truly a benchmark, worthy of comparison with other one star restaurants; I am unconvinced. In their steps to be more appealing, they in the past introduced an award which is almost a star but not quite there yet. The problem is, when you go to eat at the restaurants, you have to be very careful. I obviously have some knowledge, but most diners can’t tell only by looking at the guide who is a contender for two stars, or a contender for three stars. I always felt, one of the weaknesses of the guides in general, you go there, you eat, and you say “that wasn’t really two stars”. You go home, you get a newly published guide and you see that it only has one star now. The guide is a snapshot in time. I think that it is one of the challenges for “100 Best”… My main concern is how you can rank restaurants from one to one hundred, you just can’t!
So for me, I think Michelin should continue their focus on the stars. You can do the green stars, recognising the trend for sustainability, you can be radical and give the first Indian restaurant three stars, if you like, Chinese, Japanese, wherever. Because they are so conservative when they give two stars to a pub or a very simple sushi bar, everyone thinks wow they are so radical. I think they should carry on doing that, but I’m not convinced about the longevity or value to diners of all the other classifications. The excitement and anticipation each year is all about the stars, and in my opinion, nothing else.