Michelin Guide: an interview with Elizabeth on Food

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd October 2016

Ahead of this year’s live launch of the Michelin Guide UK, we spoke to Elizabeth Auerbach, more commonly known as Elizabeth on Food.

As a passionate champion of all things Michelin we thought she would be the ideal candidate to quiz on what to expect from the new guide, who she would like to see receiving new or more stars and whether she thinks there will always be a place for a paper guide in this digital age.

It was 15 years ago when Elizabeth Auerbach first developed an interest in fine dining and she admits she quickly found out that Michelin ‘is a reliable source of information, both for restaurants and for hotels’.

She said: “In my experience Michelin is still the most reliable source in most countries. They probably get it right more than 90% of the time. If they do get it wrong, it’s particularly disappointing in the 2 and 3-star categories.

“In recent years Michelin has made some puzzling decisions in the two-star category, especially in Germany and in the Netherlands. Germany has experienced a Michelin star boom in the past decade and as a result the quality in the two-star category has become very variable. All their three-star restaurants are solid, though.”

On the subject of three stars we are probably not alone in expecting the Fat Duck to regain this enviable status but Elizabeth would also like to see L’Enclume join this elite club too.

“A third star for l’Enclume would be well-deserved,” she explained. “And based on my meal from last June, a second star for The Clove Club wouldn’t be out of place.”

Michelin is still the oracle for chefs and restaurants, it came as no surprise that this was the restaurant guide which topped our own poll about which guide chefs took most notice of. Despite everything now being online, it seems this book has not lost its appeal.

“The combination of Michelin’s independence, generally high standards and its century-long heritage, makes a Michelin star the definitive quality stamp for a restaurant,” said Elizabeth. “It obviously generates business, but perhaps even more importantly for chefs personally, by earning a star they gain the respect of their peers more than by almost any other accolade. Who doesn’t want to follow in Paul Bocuse’s footsteps?”

Elizabeth is an international traveller and well informed due to these travels on the consistency of stars around the world. So, is a one star in France the same as a one star in the UK?

“If you look at the European guides, you see that individual country teams have their own approach. You get the impression that up to two-star level, the teams are pretty autonomous, and they definitely consider local standards and traditions, e.g. the UK team awarding stars to pubs.

“I think Michelin’s 1, 2 and 3 star rating system is struggling to rate today’s incredible variety of restaurants. The star system dates back to a time when there was much less diversity in France and in Europe in general. There are some really good restaurants around that fall in the wide gap between a Bib Gourmand and a Michelin star. I get the impression that Michelin deals with this issue differently in different guides; some are more conservative and cautious than others.” 

She added: “An important issue, however, is that all the guides are too slow in withdrawing stars.  There are plenty of examples in Europe of restaurants, whose one, two or three star glory days are long gone. Take The Waterside Inn in Bray for example: it’s still a fine restaurant where you can have a good meal, but the three star sparkle is no longer there.”

Asia has seen an influx of Michelin stars, but it’s highly plausible for people to question if this is a reflection of the food or commercially driven.

“I honestly don’t know. Michael Ellis said in an interview earlier this year about the new Asian and US guides: “We’ve been brought to these cities by governments, tourist boards and local industry. We don’t go anywhere without financial partners”. It makes you wonder how they are able to maintain their independence.”

Despite being online and easily accessible, Michelin remains one of few publications which people still want a printed copy of in their hands and for on their shelves.

The question is, will this always be the case or will it succumb completely to the digital era? Elizabeth says the online presence of Michelin varies per country.

“Michelin used to have a really crappy website,” she explained. “But that has changed a lot in recent years and there is now an app of all the European guides – I use it a lot.

“The UK and France are active on social media, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are not. Some countries only have a “viamichelin” website, others have special restaurant websites which also feature a blog. Particularly the German website is very useful and interesting, but unfortunately it’s in German only. But in general you have to know where to look, because Michelin isn’t very active in promoting their online presence. This is a missed opportunity.”

It’s obvious Elizabeth has a passion for the Michelin Guide and she still vehemently believes in its credibility. She openly defended the guide against an article by Tom Doorley, last month saying ‘Michelin is not above criticism, but Tom Doorley’s articles do not give the impression that he’s done any research at all’.

“I guess he’s more interested in producing “clickbait” than in reporting facts. His outdated and insular perspective suggests that his personal reference framework when it comes to Michelin starred restaurants is extremely limited.”

This is just one example of Elizabeth flexing her social media muscle on a topic she has been a part of for quite some time. The world of food writers or critics has changed significantly since she began and it becomes increasingly difficult to remain credible now social media allows everyone an opinion.

She said: “I strongly believe that the only way forward for bloggers, food writers and journalists, is to offer full disclosure about comped meals and similar arrangements, in their publications and on social media.  In a number of countries, including the US and the UK, full disclosure is now a legal requirement.

“As far as set up reviews are concerned: apart from the often very good food photography, they’re completely pointless. But many people prefer a good story and a pretty picture over the raw reality. You’d be surprised how many bloggers and journalists, as a matter of course, inform restaurants well in advance about who they are, and when and why they are visiting.”

She added: “And yes, everyone is a critic these days. People have this urge to voice their opinions on everything, especially the things in life that have a more subjective nature such as food, wine, films or books.”

Voicing an opinion is something Elizabeth is no stranger too. Several chefs have been on the receiving end of some openly critical tweeting, often prompting reactions which are deleted as quickly as they are written.

In her defence, Elizabeth says: “I only very rarely have arguments with chefs on Twitter. If I do have an argument on Twitter it is usually about transparency in food writing. Criticism is fine, but social media, and especially Twitter, is full of negativity; it can be a real snake pit. I do encounter the occasional troll, usually it’s a guy who hides behind an anonymous account.”

With this in mind would she find it tough to receive criticism for something she had put a lot of hard work into from someone not qualified in what she does?

“Yes, who wouldn’t?”

The Michelin Guide would not exist without the passion, creativity and ambition of chefs. Many influential cooks have been a part of the guide and still remain within it today. As Elizabeth explains, over the past ten years which she has been a part of the industry, chefs have created ‘trends’ which still influence the next generation, albeit some have begun to lose their appeal.

She said: “A trend stops being a trend when it becomes more mainstream, so I believe both molecular and new Nordic cuisine have seen their heydays. These two cooking styles have had a huge impact on restaurant food and in the case of New Nordic on the whole restaurant experience too. 

Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Alain Passard, Michel Bras, and René Redzepi have been some of the more prominent, influential chefs in the last decade. Japan has certainly exerted an influence as well, although more quietly, but these days it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t use Japanese ingredients or techniques.

“As a more recent influence I’d like to mention Massimo Bottura; his free-spiritedness inspires a lot of young chefs. And don’t underestimate the influence of France. France may not be hip or cool, but lots of young chefs are still influenced by French haute cuisine. When I was travelling in France in spring of this year, I got lots of messages from chefs on social media, saying that my tweets and instagram posts were a real inspiration for them.”

Elizabeth Auerbach 

I started writing about food in 2010 when I founded my website. Before that, I had been taking a serious interest in restaurants and gastronomy for more than a decade and many people had said to me that I “really ought to do something with all that knowledge". When the New York based photographer Dana Lixenberg, whom I met in 2009, became the umpteenth person to say so, unwittingly she gave me the final push and before I knew it, I had started ElizabethOnFood.com.

Restaurant reviews feature prominently on my website. My main focus are Michelin starred restaurants in Europe. Furthermore, I limit myself to restaurants that are relevant to an international readership.

The Michelin section on ElizabethOnFood features news articles on the annual Michelin Guides and articles about Michelin in general.

ElizabethOnFood is currently getting some 30,000 unique visitors per month, with visitors coming from more than 100 countries. I am also active on Twitter (14k followers), Facebook (3k likes) and Instagram (20k followers), and occasionally I write for the American food and restaurant website www.eater.com about the restaurant scene in London, Amsterdam andBerlin.

What, you may ask, is the motivation for all this, sometimes frantic, activity? I guess it is a love of beauty – in its culinary incarnation – and also an insatiable app

 

 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd October 2016

Michelin Guide: an interview with Elizabeth on Food