VALLETTA: The news that Malta has three one Michelin star restaurants will change the gastronomy landscape on this small Mediterranean island for ever. This is a big deal for Malta and its culinary sphere.
Whether you love or hate Michelin and what it stands for, there is no question that to date this remains the most authoritative guide for restaurants worldwide. Before Michelin, there was one restaurant guide in Malta but this was survey driven and therefore did not carry the weight that Michelin or any of the other established world guides has.
Restaurants, chefs and owners were more focused on getting a high ranking on Tripadvisor, also important, but by no stretch of imagination as important in terms of driving food enthusiasts to the island.
Malta relies heavily on tourism and food over the past years has become a very important driver of tourism destinations. There are many people who centre their travel experience around food experiences worldwide and competition for this market is becoming more and more intense.
Michelin will help Maltese restaurants, owners and chefs to work towards a new benchmark. That benchmark is quality whether it comes to produce, technique, service or wine.
Today, that benchmark in Malta has been set by De Mondion in Mdina and Noni and Under Grain in Valletta who all have 1 Michelin star. 3 other restaurants got a Bib Gourmand. The latter, maybe less known in Malta is a restaurant that serves quality food and a good value (the ability to order a two-course meal or a menu and a glass of wine or dessert for less than around EUR 40).
20 other restaurants got a mention in the guide. There are two sides to the coin and one can look at the glass either as half full or half empty.
Having three restaurants awarded with a Michelin star is of course a very important step in the right direction though having only three restaurants that get a Bib Gourmand could be considered a slap in the face for quality/price ratio in restaurants around the island.
That can be rectified next year if some restaurants adjust their business model to include the ‘menu’ of the day as happens in many other restaurants around the world.
The 20 restaurants that have been mentioned in the guide have the possibility to up their game and to decide in which direction to take their restaurant.
What is sure at this stage is that Malta is ver far from having a restaurant that is capable of attaining a second Michelin star, let alone a third.
Without wanting to downplay the achievements of the three restaurants that clinched their first Michelin star because they have made history, one can safely say that the journey for them starts now. A Michelin star is not a given, the restaurant will at the very least need to retain the same quality from the previous year if it is to retain its star.
There will be some who will want to aim higher because Michelin also awards restaurants with 2 Michelin stars and with 3 Michelin stars. But these stars are considerably harder to attain and can prove to be elusive for many years. What is sure at this stage is that Malta is very far from having a restaurant that is capable of attaining a second Michelin star, let alone a third.
First, it is extremely rare for restaurants to go from one to two Michelin stars in quick succession. Second, there are many restaurants in the world including some that feature very highly on the World’s 50 Best list that are stuck at 2 Michelin stars. Noma is maybe the most famous of them but you need to remember that even Mauro Colagreco’s, currently no 1 on the list only attained three Michelin stars last year despite featuring highly in the World’s 50 Best restaurants list for successive years.
There have been exceptions. The highly acclaimed The Alchemist got two stars within the space of a few months but apart from the fact that this is a multi-million investment, it is the exception rather than the rule.
For Malta, the arrival of Michelin presents restaurants and chefs with a huge opportunity to shape things in a different direction to what exists today. What this is likely to mean for the three restaurants that have attained a star is more bookings in advance and also a more international crowd. It also means that the expectations are going to be higher and therefore the margin of error becomes narrower. What it also means is that the teams of the restaurants in question will need to put everything into question. If they want to evolve, they will need to think very carefully about the creative process, about finding a balance between signature dishes and dishes that are new. It also means that they must work on building a narrative and a story.
One thing that I’ve often heard in conversation with Maltese chefs is the difficulty to source local produce, including high quality eggs, fish, meat and more importantly vegetables. There are of course lots of challenges including those linked to mass tourism but if restaurants are to progress they will need to be able to work in a complete eco-system working with producers and ensuring they can find the quality produce they need.
This may not come cheap but it is not only essential but necessary if the whole culinary scene on the island is to improve. There are of course choices that can be made. There are other countries and regions around the world which focus purely on top quality ingredients that are imported from all corners of the world. But that we believe is an outdated trend and one that is not likely to age very well.
So Maltese chefs and restaurants will need to think very carefully before adding fois gras, lobster, wagyu beef and caviar on their menus in the hope of clinching a star or more.
The good thing is that chefs like Jonathan Brincat, Kevin Bonello and Victor Borg will get more international recognition in the weeks and months to come. Jonathan Brincat has already spoken in an international symposium in the past but the three are likely to get more invitations abroad. While they needed no introduction locally, their status will help them to make new connections that can help them grow both as individuals and as chefs.
There are others ready to push the bar including some that have been involved in very recent openings of restaurants or the much anticipated restaurant by Iniala which is set to open in June.
What I am interested in seeing is a drive to showcase local ingredients that put the producer or the fishermen at the forefront of what needs to be done. Maltese chefs would do well to follow the example of the North Sea Chefs, a collective that encourages chefs to use fish that are not commonly used in restaurants.
There needs to be a conversation between chefs and farmers, chefs and fishermen, chefs and growers.
Michelin has presented the island with a unique opportunity to shape the way Malta’s gastronomy evolves over the next five to 10 years. This is a unique opportunity for ambitious chefs and restaurant owners to push the bar further knowing that there is a guide like Michelin that has the potential to recognise their work.
This is a golden opportunity. The journey may be uphill because there are many challenges but as they say the journey is more important than reaching the destination. Let the fun begin.