The Michelin guide was founded in 1900 by brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin as a way to encourage drivers to take more road trips. It included maps and recommendations on where to sleep, fuel up, and eat. The hope was that it would encourage people to put more wear on their cars and thus buy more tires from their company. Today, restaurants covet Michelin stars. Even a single star is a tremendous honor as it denotes a quality restaurant. Excellent restaurants are awarded two stars, and the crème de la crème receive three-stars. Despite France’s reputation for fine food and it being the home of the Michelin guide, France’s 600 odd starred restaurants only put it in second place. The most Michelin star restaurants can actually be found in Japan, which has around 225 of them located in Tokyo alone, so foodies are sure to be heaven when visiting the Land of the Rising Sun.
Peter Lyon of Forbes: As I researched the background for this story, I was surprised to learn that both France and Japan—at 25 restaurants each—have the same number of 3-star establishments. But look deeper into the figures and you see that while Paris has a total of 134 stars, it is Tokyo that holds the title of the world’s most highly awarded city with 304 stars. The late celebrity chef and host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain, once said of Japan, “The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience. It was like taking acid for the first time, meaning ‘What do I do now that I see the whole world [of food] in a different way?’” I must say that as a 30-year plus veteran of life in Japan, I mirror his food experiences. My sense of taste is far more acute and heightened having lived here for three decades.
How do the Japanese feel about this new found attention?
But many Tokyoites grumbled that the guide gave high ratings to unremarkable restaurants, prompting wide speculation that the large number of stars was just a marketing ploy.
“Anybody who knows restaurants in Tokyo knows that these stars are ridiculous,” said Toru Kenjo, president of Gentosha publishing house, whose men’s fashion magazine, Goethe, published a lengthy critique of the Tokyo guide last month. “Michelin has debased its brand. It won’t sell as well here in the future.”
I tend to agree with Kenjo san. I don’t think the average so called “gourmet” customer understands the Japanese cuisine, its subtleties, and the reasons why things are done a certain way. For instance, the layer of daikon “grass” that sits under your place of sashimi is almost an art form. Chefs in training take months to master the proper method to make the “grass”, so that it not only has the right texture, but also the proper sheen, so that it glistens under the sashimi. Most people pay no attention to this when they order and eat a plate of sashimi.
The artistry of a Japanese chef extends well beyond sushi and sashimi, or the dreaded teppan yaki side show. Even fairly obvious cooking methods require skills beyond most every day kitchen experts. The tempura chef must have all the ingredient s at the proper temperature to handle the hot oil. The broth for the ramen may have been handed down for several generations. The apprenticeship in a Japanese kitchen is a time honored and important tradition.
And yes, I am sure the French has similar rules and procedures. But we have been exposed to them for centuries. Thanks to Julia Child, we can all prepare French food.
I have been fortunate to have dinner at one kaiseki restaurant in Los Angles, with two Michelin stars. With our relatives from Ohio, we enjoyed a lovely evening at n/naka in central Los Angeles. Kaiseki is a traditional multi course Japanese dinner, consisting of up to sixteen courses, along with an optional sake flight. She offers thirteen courses at $275 per person.
Los Angeles-born chef, Niki Nakayama, is a proud pioneer in the modern kaiseki tradition, yet she’s humble enough to remain a constant in her dining room, checking in on each guest to ensure their every comfort. In this way, the much-lauded restaurant feels utterly personal, as though for this moment in time, you are the only diner that matters. Set in an attractive and neutral-toned dining room, the space holds a devoted, almost cult-like reverence. It makes sense: guests don’t want to miss a morsel of Chef Nakayama’s genius. Her clever creations are delightfully unbound by Japanese tradition.
If you are ever fortunate enough to see a master chef in action, at home in your own kitchen, you will marvel at what he or she can do. A refrigerator filled with nothing but odds and ends, leftovers, and wilted greens can be transformed into a gourmet dinner in minutes. It is truly a work of genius and creativity.
That said, I can’t wait for my next trip to Japan, maybe in 2021.
My personal thanks to Jon, Olive, and Shinsuke.