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Is the Michelin Guide snubbing Montreal restaurants, or vice versa?

https://montrealgazette.com/life/food/is-the-michelin-guide-snubbing-montreal-restaurants-or-vice-versa

The world-renowned restaurant rater has come to Canada, handing out stars to top Toronto and Vancouver eateries. Why is Montreal not on the radar?

Jean-Christophe Poirier never dreamed he would one day be the owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant. “In my whole career, which is over 26 years of cooking, I never thought I would touch a Michelin star. I never thought they would come to Canada. It’s surreal,” said the chef and owner of St. Lawrence, a French- and Quebec-inspired restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., which was one of eight restaurants to receive one star when the prestigious Michelin Guide revealed its Vancouver edition at the end of October.

The Michelin Guide has indeed come to Canada, but not everywhere in Canada. The Michelin Guide Toronto was published online at the end of September, followed by Vancouver. So far, that’s it. All of which begs the question: What about Montreal?

Our city has long prided itself on being the hippest, coolest and most cultured of Canadian metropolises, and our restaurant scene is no exception. Without the flash and cash of high-end eateries in Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal’s many chef-owned and operated restaurants have flair, and savoir faire, you won’t find anywhere else.

Poirier, who was born in St-Jérôme and cut his teeth at Montreal’s Toqué! before moving to Vancouver in 2004 and opening St. Lawrence in 2017, knows if he had remained in Montreal he wouldn’t have even had a chance at a Michelin star — at least not yet.

“In a way, (moving here) was like a blessing,” he said. “I’ve had so much success with St. Lawrence because it’s totally different from what’s going on in the restaurant scene in Vancouver. If I was in Quebec, it wouldn’t be that much of a big deal. People are so used to that style of cuisine.”

St. Lawrence “is an opportunity for me to showcase our Québécois culture, the way we think about food and our approach to it.”

Is the Michelin Guide snubbing Montreal? Or is Montreal snubbing the Michelin Guide?

Montrealers should not feel slighted that the Michelin Guide went to Toronto first, or Vancouver second, according to former Montreal Gazette fine-dining critic Lesley Chesterman — for one very simple reason: those cities paid for the privilege.

Michelin requires a hefty fee to cover the costs of a partnership with a city. Amounts can range from a few hundred thousand dollars into the millions. Such deals raise big questions about where Michelin decides to go and when.

“(Michelin going to Toronto first) is really just a matter of Toronto paying first,” said Chesterman, who is the author of two new cookbooks, Make Every Dish Delicious and Un week-end chez Lesley. “It doesn’t make Toronto a better city; people in Toronto know Montreal is a better restaurant city.”

Chesterman is more critical of the restaurants that made the Michelin Guide’s Toronto list. The top Toronto restaurant, according to the guide — and the only one to receive two stars — is Sushi Masaki Saito, headed by star chef Masaki Saito, who was flown in from New York (where his Sushi Ginza Onodera restaurant also has two stars). Five of the 13 Toronto restaurants to receive Michelin stars are Japanese.

“What happened to local flavour?” Chesterman wondered. “Toronto is more Chinese than Japanese, but people are coming in and opening high-end sushi places, and Michelin likes expensive restaurants.”

Michelin has tried to offset its snooty reputation with the addition of “Michelin recommended” and “Bib Gourmand” non-starred restaurant mentions in its guides, the latter reserved for “great food at great value.”

The Michelin Guide Toronto features 74 restaurants, in total, and 27 types of cuisine. Among the city’s 17 Bib Gourmands is SumiLicious Smoked Meat & Deli, opened in Scarborough in 2018 by Sri Lankan-Canadian Sumith Fernando, who spent 16 years learning the tricks of the trade at Montreal’s Schwartz’s before setting out to perfect his own recipe.

Feel-good stories aside, anyone can buy their way to a Michelin-starred restaurant, Chesterman opines — even if they’re not paying Michelin directly.

“You need a fantastic chef,” she said, “an amazing location, beautiful china, an amazing wine list and incredible service.”

Montreal’s top gastronomic venue has long been Toqué!, but Chesterman wonders if pioneering chef Normand Laprise’s famed restaurant would obtain even two stars, according to Michelin’s exacting requirements.

“It depends if you hit it on a good day,” she said.

“I think a lot of Montreal restaurants are excellent, but because we don’t have a tradition of Michelin Guides here, we didn’t build restaurants based on the Michelin goal. In France, the Michelin Guides have existed for over 100 years, so a lot of young chefs build their restaurant according to what gets a star.

“Take a Montreal restaurant like Foxy, which is a great restaurant but not according to what gets a star. So it’s odd to think of Michelin coming, when they’re not part of our culture. It’s a strange situation — a guide coming in and evaluating us according to their standards, not ours.”

Despite her reservations, Chesterman believes Montreal could benefit from the prestige of the Michelin Guide. Our city’s restaurants have long been overlooked, internationally, remaining something of a best-kept secret.

“In the end, I’m happy if Michelin gives us more clout on the international gastronomic stage,” Chesterman said. “Then it’s worth it.”

The Michelin Guide was founded in France in 1900 “to accompany travelers and food lovers into their journey, by providing them with a selection of outstanding restaurants, following our criteria and methodology,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, by email.

Others have pointed out it was an initiative of the tire company, founded in 1889 by brothers Édouard and André Michelin, to get French people to drive their cars more and thereby use their tires.

The Michelin Guide began attributing single stars in 1926, with two- and three-star rankings introduced five years later. The Guide now rates over 30,000 establishments (including over 16,000 restaurants) in more than 30 territories on three continents. The foray into North America began in 2005, in New York City. (Michelin no longer publishes printed guides in North America; it’s all digital on guide.michelin.com and a free app.)

Each restaurant is visited by several inspectors over the course of a year. Michelin inspectors remain anonymous and independent, and review restaurants based on five criteria, which Poullennec lists as: “quality of products, mastery of cooking techniques, harmony and balance of flavours, personality of the chef as expressed in the plate, and consistency both through time and the menu as a whole.”

The selection of every new destination by the Michelin Guide is “the result of a long-term process,” he said. “For years now, we’ve been observing the culinary potential of Toronto and Vancouver, and for us, those cities’ culinary scenes were mature enough, with many diverse and high-quality offers … to be highlighted.”

Asked if a Montreal edition of the Michelin Guide is on the horizon, Poullennec responded: “We don’t currently have any news to share about upcoming Canadian destinations. … If a Montreal selection would be made, it would be done collegially by our anonymous and independent inspectors, based on the culinary potential of the city.”

As for the fees demanded from cities by the Michelin Guide, Poullennec said, “We do work with tourism organizations on marketing and promotional efforts” to “promote the culinary offerings in the area.”

These organizations contribute “a certain amount to cover some of the costs incurred in establishing a Guide in a new location,” he acknowledged, without providing specifics. “We cannot discuss commercial terms of partnerships for competitive reasons.”

Toronto paid initial fees for Michelin inspectors to visit the city for months at a time beginning in late 2017 and early 2018, Destination Toronto’s executive vice-president Andrew Weir told Toronto Life. The arrangement “evolved into a broader marketing partnership,” with the money coming from Destination Toronto, Destination Ontario and Destination Canada. Weir calls it “a long-term opportunity for Toronto.”

While tourism bureaus are integral to the process, they have no control over the content of the Michelin Guide, Poullennec said, noting the company has developed “a unique methodology … to ensure that each selection is done equitably.”

The financial requirement of securing a partnership with Michelin means any path to attracting the guide to our city would have to pass through official channels — Michelin only works with publicly funded organizations that have a mandate from the city.

There is no sign of imminent action from Montreal. The city did not respond to the Gazette’s request for comment for this story.

“Tourism Montreal is committed to promoting Montreal as a gastronomic city, and we’re proud to appear on different best-of lists,” said Aurélie de Blois, spokesperson for Tourism Montreal, in a statement via email.

“While we’re not against the Michelin Guide, or any other culinary recognition, the will to bring the Michelin Guide to Montreal must come from the milieu. It’s up to the restaurateurs to demonstrate the need and desire for such recognition. We remain open, and we will be there to support restaurant owners on the star-lit path, should the need arise.”

De Blois says Tourism Montreal has had no communication with the Michelin Guide about a possible partnership or the financial implications thereof.

Dyan Solomon couldn’t care less about the Michelin Guide.

“I’ll be straight-up honest, I’m not a Michelin Guide person,” said the chef and co-owner of Montreal’s Foxy restaurant, bakery Olive + Gourmando and café Un Po Di Più alongside Éric Girard, whom she met and trained with at Toqué!

“It’s not my favourite way of eating,” Solomon continued. “A restaurant that would be a classic three-star restaurant — I’m not interested in eating in that kind of restaurant. I really like rustic, neighbourhood dining spots, chef-owned places driven by local flavours and cuisine. That’s been consistent through my whole culinary journey.”

Solomon points to the controversies surrounding the Michelin Guide in recent years, with some famous chefs symbolically refusing their stars, saying they don’t need the pressure.

“Yes, (a Michelin star) brings business, but it also brings a tremendous amount of stress for many people,” Solomon said. “My god, I am so over all of the ways to rate and categorize a restaurant. We are the most scrutinized business in the world. If there’s one more f—ing rating system, I’m going to shoot myself.

“We’re just cooks, we’re artisans, most of us are barely business people but we have to figure that out. And now there’s Canada’s 100 best, San Pellegrino’s best, En Route’s Best New Restaurants guide, it never ends.”

The challenges of running a restaurant have only increased in recent years, according to Solomon, who points to the COVID-19 pandemic and the staff shortages and rising wages that have resulted from it, along with the soaring price of food.

“Montreal is already on its own, in an underground way,” she said. “We are the culinary city of Canada. People know — real eaters, not foodies, people who really enjoy eating a myriad of types of cuisines and really like restaurants know this is a chef-driven city. We have a lot of restaurants owned by chefs, whereas bigger cities have restaurants owned by corporate groups.

“Montreal is less expensive, with a restaurant scene that is quite beautiful. I just hope all that doesn’t get destroyed by Michelin. We have a beautiful ecosystem here.”

“I don’t think we have many three-star restaurants in Montreal,” said Frédéric Morin, chef and co-owner of Montreal institution Joe Beef, Vin Papillon, Liverpool House and McKiernan. “I don’t think we have many two-star restaurants. But I do think that what makes Montreal a city people want to come visit, what makes it a city I want to live in and have restaurants in, and that I enjoy dining out in, is that a lot of our restaurants are one-star. ..................

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The full article:

https://montrealgazette.com/life/food/is-the-michelin-guide-snubbing-montreal-restaurants-or-vice-versa

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