Reaching for the (Michelin) Stars

The Michelin guides, seen as a bible by many in the food industry, have yet to honor Israel with a visit from its anonymous inspectors. Why the famine?

Local chefs who feel that Israel is too provincial for their abilities dream of relocating to a country surveyed by the Michelin Red Guides, and finally receiving a star or two of recognition maybe even three. This secret fantasy is usually revealed in an interview they give after their restaurant shuts down. Their indictment is against the Israeli customer.

In spite of the problematic status of the restaurant guide, which began as a means of promoting the veteran Michelin tire company, some of Israel’s leading chefs still kick-start the morning with the question: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, doesn’t my food deserve a Michelin star?” In order to recover from the silence of the mirror, they prepare an espresso for themselves and count “Likes” for the red tuna picture they took the previous evening on Instagram. Afterward they go to their own kitchen, where every failing cook will be unfavorably compared to his colleagues from the internship in the Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, from which he received inspiration and the recipes for half the dishes on the menu.

Despite genuine progress on the Israeli culinary scene, the epicureans from the tire company never spat in our direction, and show no signs of interest in the region. When we asked whether they are considering closer ties with Israel, there was no reply by press time.

But this hypothetical discussion is not entirely groundless. For years the red guide, which was first published in 1900, has been covering kitchens outside of France too. The anonymous Michelin critics inspect restaurants in the United States (San Francisco, New York and Chicago); Asia (Tokyo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Shonan, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Hong Kong and Macao) and 44 European cities. (There are also separate books on France, Germany, Great Britain & Ireland, Italy, London, Spain & Portugal, and Paris.)

On the margins of the periphery of the international culinary industry, our talented chefs enumerate many reasons that are keeping Israel away from the desired star, even in the event that Michelin will deign to cover the region. Others ask, who needs it?

Only when it’s good

While some are busy asking questions, others act. Writer and translator Avital Inbar published the Israeli version of the Gault & Millau restaurant guide, but his initial idea had been to bring Michelin here. In 1995 he found himself in Paris’ Seventh District and, on his own initiative, met with the team responsible for the red guide: “They explained to me that there was no chance that a red Michelin guide would be published about Israel, and there was no point in trying,” he recalls. “I pretty much agreed with them, and still do. Five one-star restaurants in Tel Aviv and maybe one in the Galilee don’t justify an entire Michelin guide.”

Let’s use our imagination. Where would Israel be placed geographically in a Michelin guide? Would we easily fit into a Mediterranean guide?

Inbar: “That belongs to dreams of Mediterranean cooperation and to nonexistent brotherhood. A guide to the coastal Mediterranean cities is relevant mainly for the northern coasts: Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, maybe Turkey. And in the south maybe also in Morocco, Lebanon and Israel. But if there are 30 Israeli restaurants and two Egyptian ones, there will be a problem. And if Tel Aviv is included in the guide of the major European cities, 50 pages will be devoted to Paris and four to Tel Aviv.

“I’ve learned from experience that you publish a restaurant guide only when things are good,” Inbar says. “And today in Israel, and in countries in the region such as Syria and Egypt, there is an absence of the peace and quiet that make it possible to be preoccupied with the good life. That’s why I don’t see any chance at the moment for a Mediterranean guide with an emphasis on the Middle East. During the period when the Gault & Millau guides were published, [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, the intifada raged and restaurants were blown up. In 2003, after seven years and six issues, we discontinued the guide.

“Emotionally speaking, I couldn’t continue. The national mood was bad, the tourists weren’t coming and the Israeli consumer had difficulty purchasing a guide every year. The guide was expensive to produce, because we surveyed hundreds of restaurants each year some of them several times. The Restaurant of the Year was checked 10 times, for example. It was exhausting.”

Why Hungary is included

All over the world, restaurateurs and chefs who crave a Michelin star do everything possible so that the white men in gray suits who dine alone (that’s how the anonymous inspectors are described) will appreciate them. They synethesize complicated dishes that will flatter the palate the so-called “cuisine de snob”), fill the kitchen with chefs and “bake 20 types of bread and ... 15 pre-desserts. They think that’s required because that’s what they’ve seen at other restaurants usually three star places,” is how chef Graham Garrett described the culture in a 2011 Guardian article, that marked the 100th anniversary of the Michelin Guide in the UK.

Michelin stars can enhance or destroy the reputation of the restaurant and the chef behind it. In addition to bringing honor and publicity, they are of financial significance: a well-to-do clientele waiting in line to spend its money on a meal recommended by the book, and a guaranteed increase in income. The newest member of Michelin, Hungary, joined the legion of starred restaurants with earnest enthusiasm.

According to Anna Niszkács, of Budapest’s Onyx restaurant only the second restaurant in Hungary to receive a star last year “We embarked on a gastronomic adventure and have yet to cover the initial expenses. Our chefs, Szabina Szulló and Tamás Szell, are interested in only the finest ingredients, with no compromises. My family runs a catering business, a pub and a cafe [the famous Gerbeaud] in order to pay for the investment in the restaurant. We hope to get a return on the capital we invested, thanks to the restaurant’s good name.”

I met Anna at Onyx for a business lunch that was good value (about NIS 70 for two courses, NIS 80 or so for three) and which observed all the protocol waiters in white gloves and a formal atmosphere in order to talk about the Michelin effect. “Even before Michelin we were full, but now we’ve had to expand the restaurant to the back room as well,” she says, “and now you have to order a table a week in advance.

“Thanks to Michelin, many people come to the restaurant from all over Europe, but still half our customers are Hungarians. They’re crazy about the new interpretation of traditional dishes, especially the 21st-century version of somlói galuska, a traditional sponge cake that we serve, untypically, in a glass.”

Moshik Roth, a chef in the acclaimed ’t Brouwerskolkje restaurant in Overveen, Holland, may not be the most famous Israeli chef in the world, but he’s the only one whose restaurant has two Michelin stars. From the moment he received the second star, in 2009, many young Israeli chefs have been volunteering to do their internships in his “molecular kitchen.”

Last winter he was invited to prepare a meal at the Herods Hotel in Tel Aviv for the grand opening of the Israfood exhibition. Roth described the experience of cooking in a kosher Israeli kitchen as very hard work. “I’m never restricted, and suddenly I’m restricted,” he recalls. “It was strange to see how they ‘koshered’ all the machines I brought. I had to transform the food with an emphasis on kashrut. It’s lucky that I’m originally an Israeli, because it was kind of strange, but in the end everything worked out beautifully.”

Starring on the menu was pté de foie gras with pomegranates, raspberries, roses and almonds in a strong red color, designed in the form of lips (inspired by the Salvador Dali sofa). Horseradish and fish roe in a cone made of a dried beet leaf was served as an appetizer. Some of the food industry executives present didn’t know how to digest it.

An Israeli chef has already been recognized by Michelin, but not an Israeli restaurant. Chef Victor Gloger, of Chloélys restaurant in Ramat Gan, believes it’s now time. “I think we’ve reached the required level; we certainly deserve a star,” he declares. But he says various factors are keeping Israel away from the international culinary front line.

“The problem is not the restaurants or those engaged in the profession,” Gloger says. “We have tremendous potential in terms of manpower, but you don’t eat potential. You eat olive oil, steaks and fish, and the law of supply and demand determines their prices.

“Today, the Israeli public is unwilling to pay for the pleasure of an expensive meal here,” he argues, “while people brag about the large amount they spend in Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide. The result is that we are forced to focus our menus on simple pullets, calamari, shrimps with yogurt, foccacia and hamburgers.”

Gloger mentions additional factors that stop Israel from realizing its potential. “There are serious problems here: laws that forbid the import of meat; kashrut restrictions; the emptying Mediterranean, with its paucity of fish and seafood; a market that relies on imports; and insane prices,” he says. “The instability is also problematic. Restaurants here are a temporary thing. They open and close very quickly. How many restaurants still employ their original chef? Only the likes of Mul Yam, Catit and Rafael.

“Another problem: Will the French inspectors understand our food? Even in Italy the Michelin guide screws up, because they don’t understand the Italians. That’s why I rely only on local guides there. The idea of a Mediterranean Basin guide is far more fitting than preparing a guide for Israel. If local teams and foreign groups work together and rank the restaurants in the region, that would be very interesting. But producing such a guide is expensive. How many people would buy it? Two thousand?” [As a point of comparison, the European guide only sells 7,000 copies in the UK.]

As Gloger politely remarked, a Michelin guide tends to get it wrong. The status of the guide is the subject of a lively discussion. The Michelin tire man whose rotund image beautifully illustrates what happens to someone who eats too well has for years been accused of elitism, snobbery, appreciation of form rather than essence, a preference for French style and cuisine, and an uncompromising pretentiousness that is not based on a well-developed sense of taste, understanding, experience or objectivity qualities that the guide claims to have.

In a forthright article by British journalist Jonathan Meades in the Telegraph this February, he writes that the Michelin guide is not relevant to our times. Its inspectors graduates of hotel schools are poorly paid. And its readers are people with no idea of gastronomy, who expect a “fine dining experience” which he considers a horrific concept. He refers to them as “This army of fine diners ... drinks whatever is expensive and relishes the fact that it takes five flunkies to open the bottle.”

Would the Israeli consumer even consider a ranking by a body such as Michelin a matter of importance? Posters on the Tapuz website’s restaurant criticism forum discussed the hypothetical question of which Israeli restaurants would receive Michelin stars. One of the arguments was encapsulated by the user Khalil Abed Rabbo: “With all due respect,” he wrote, “Michelin is not us. Not only because we’re not there yet. We will never be there. And although this may sound condescending and annoying, I actually mean to say the opposite.

“It’s not suitable for here, it’s not our culture. I don’t want to have wine poured for me. I want to pour by myself when, and as much as, I want. I don’t want to be required to be stuffed into a suit and tie in order to march to the temple of a restaurant that is supposed to serve me, and not vice versa. I hate ceremoniousness with food. I want to eat according to my rules ... I drink beer from the bottle. I put my elbows on the table when I eat, and I want real food. Not museum food. I’m an Israeli. That’s not what they award points to in Michelin.”

A Michelin star is ostensibly seen as a blessing for the business and the chef, but there are those who have decided to waive it. Australian chef Skye Gyngell resigned at the beginning of the year from Petersham Nurseries Cafe in southwest London, not before erasing the Michelin star from the restaurant’s website. She claims the Michelin rating raised diners’ expectations to a level she couldn’t match. The small restaurant, she said, was crammed with new customers who did not suit its character, and their complaints interfered with work in the kitchen.

The restaurant tried to meet the high expectations, and began covering the tables with white tablecloths and using matching glasses. After resigning, Gyngell told the Sydney Morning Herald: “This is the worst thing I’m going to say: if I ever have another restaurant, I pray we don’t get a star.”

Stardust

If we leave criticism aside for a second, many people worldwide still feel that Michelin certifies that the restaurant is of a high level. Indeed, local restaurants have already realized that hosting a starred chef for a few days of cooking and inspiration in the restaurant will fill it with local foodies, a European ambience and an international buzz.

It is quite an expensive undertaking, but in the long run if it is balanced against an internship abroad for all the members of the staff importing one person pays off. The chef’s stardust remains in the kitchen for a long time after his/her departure.

The Tapaya tapas bar in Rishon Letzion celebrated its first anniversary in February by hosting Jordi Artal, from the Cinc Sentits restaurant in Barcelona (one Michelin star). After the departure of the magician from Catalonia, they offered a “Michelin menu.” Five months later, several of Artal’s dishes have become part of the regular menu. Among them: Black paella; a caramelized brioche with chocolate sauce; and albóndigas, lamb and veal meatballs in an almond and garlic sauce. “Basically, I’m not a chef who likes to imitate,” explains Tapaya chef Einav Zaguri. “I didn’t want to recreate his dish piece by piece. In the Michelin menu, we used elements of his recipes with my own interpretation.”

Zaguri himself worked in southern France in two Michelin-starred restaurants, began as an apprentice chef and ended up as a sous-chef. “We never knew when the Michelin people came, but it happened two or three times a year,” he says indifferently.

“The truth is that I was never interested in how this system works. That was one of the reasons why I left France. I was tired of all the successes with the precise dictates. To do exactly the same thing over and over again every day, under pressure and with a lot of discipline. We were like soldiers and the chef was the commander. If you don’t do what he says, God help you. Every day they preach to you that the customer is the most important thing and you believe in that in the end, and do everything possible to satisfy him.

“As a chef in such restaurants,” he adds, “you have to understand that you’re not the issue. Sometimes the customer reserves a place a year in advance and it’s simply forbidden to spoil his meal. I learned a lot there.”

Tamar Cohen Zedek, the chef at Cucina Tamar in Tel Aviv, flew to Italy 10 years ago, worked at the Il Desco restaurant in Verona (two Michelin stars) without pay, and then went on to the Amerigo dal 1934 restaurant (one star) in the Bologna region, where she began as an intern and continued as a salaried chef.

How did they relate to your Italian experience in Israel?

Cohen Zedek: “When I looked for work and told them in which restaurants I had worked, it didn’t impress anyone. Nobody pursued me. I soon opened a place of my own.”

Do we deserve a Michelin star?

“There are several restaurants in Israel that could receive a star, such as Mul Yam and Catit, and others that maintain a very high level of food, wine, service, atmosphere and raw ingredients. But in Israel there is no Michelin, and there’s a restaurant culture that is very different from that in Europe. It’s the clientele that will say whether you’re good or not, and I don’t think we should underestimate them.”


 

Yael Bogen
Daniel Layla