Guides have the potential to make or break restaurants and careers. When Michelin announced that an Italian chef had clinched a second star for his restaurant in Italy a few days ago he got extremely emotional. That image is a reflection of the importance guides have in the restaurant industry. How a tyre company became so powerful in the restaurant world is another story but as the guides enter their launching season, it is worth reflecting on what the current pandemic means for them and how they have miserably failed to turn a corner.
The Michelin guide launched its 2021 guide for Italy a few days ago. Some observers in Italy thought that they would be a bit more ‘accommodating’ this year particularly given the circumstances. But restaurants that have not reopened because of the pandemic where removed from the guide and therefore had their stars removed. Maybe the most significant of those decisions in Italy was the removal of Combal.Zero from the list.
The question pundits in Italy were asking is what would happen if these restaurants reopen. In 2020, that’s a very valid question because guides like Michelin still rely on their printed book as the benchmark which allows little flexibility throughout the year.
The innovation in Italy for Michelin, launched with a lot of fanfare was the sustainability award which has become all the more important in the past years but one wonders how or whether Michelin has taken into account the huge amount of plastic and waste that is being generated by restaurants that have rightly pivoted towards delivery. I am not being judgemental here because for many this is a question of survival but as Christian Puglisi’s lamented on green washing last year, it is worth asking the question.
Gault & Millau launched its Belgium guide in the same week. They said that for the current year, they would be more accommodating to restaurants because this was not the year to penalise restaurants. They reviewed less restaurants than the previous years but they still keep the restaurant points the same and also introduced new restaurants that have opened this year into the 2021 publication.
Food writers, food critics, food guides are all looking for the next big thing. It’s what sells copy and raises the game of influence in a world that judges success mainly on the amount of likes, followers and what not. But in maintaining the status quo, have guides shown their limitations? What is their future going to look like going forward?
We have often read that COVID-19 has been an accelerator of change for many industries and businesses. It has took trends that already existed before and amplified them with alarming speed. You could argue that in a year where everything stood still, we have moved forward many years.
Of course, the impact of this is likely to be felt next year or even in the following years. Do you think for example that restaurants like Mauro Colagreco’s Mirazur which opened the possibility to the nationwide delivery of a Christmas eve dinner or Christmas day lunch would not repeat this next year or the year after?
Are we set to experience a revolution in deliveries that will become permanent? And how will and can guides react to this?
FIne dining might not be suitable for delivery but many seem to have found an ideal balance and this is likely to remain. Why do I say this and what is to happen?
Guides give us a snapshot in time. That is a given. But take the coming example. It is the big elephant in the room and it is called The World’s 50 Best.
This year no list was announced though presumably there was a winner because votes had been collected from the jury that had travelled to restaurants in 2019. Recently during Identita Golose on the road, Paolo Marchi spoke with Willam Drew from the World’s 50 Best and asked who the winner was and what the organisation would do with the votes from 2019 which would have awarded restaurants in 2020. The answer was something to the tune that they now have the list for 2020 and maybe they will use this list for 2021 with some updates to take into account restaurants that might have closed down or others that changed their ‘philosophy’.
Now of course we all know that 2020 has been a very complicated year to put it mildly. We know that it was the year that time stood still. We know that it was the year that people stopped travelling. And that of course, has a major impact on a list like the World’s 50 Best which is based on so called destination restaurants that require travel.
So are we to applaud the 2021 World No 1 restaurant or number 2, 3, 4 and so forth for that matter for what they had achieved in 2019? In today’s world that seems like a lifetime ago. Because, that is de facto what is likely to happen. Now of course, the World’s 50 Best has tried to do their best to support the sector with things like the 50 For Recovery and more and they must also be struggling but shouldn’t there be a reflection on what’s right and what’s wrong about the list?
If we agree that guides (it could be the World’s 50 Best, Michelin or whatever) give us a snapshot of time what is the point of having yearly publications other than for business model reasons. Is that business model going to be fit for purpose going forward? Or is that business model broken?
I would contend that a guide that gives you a snapshot from months if not years ago is not really serving its purpose.
So what would I change if I had the possibility?
Does a list actually make sense to start with? When we are comparing artists do we really argue about whether Monet is better than Dali or whether Cézanne is more important than Kandinsky? At the top level it is pointless if you ask me.
So maybe we can start from there. Agreeing that comparing Massimo Bottura to René Redzepi or Mauro Colagreco to Daniel Humm is a pointless exercise that serves no one. But what about the up and coming talent? Don’t they also deserve their moment of glory, their moment under the spotlight. Maybe but is a list, a star or a point really going to make the difference?
What if the guides were a sort of playlist that we have on Spotify or Apple Music. That they changed based on demand, based on consumption, based even on search results? What if they could be algorithm based? Number of likes? Followers?
There needs to be a better way to judge what’s trending and what’s not. What’s trending is not necessarily better. What’s trending today is definitely not tomorrow’s big thing. We are all in search of the future stars, excuse the pun, but maybe the rigidity of the star system or the list system should make us reflect on what’s needed.
Wouldn’t guides be more relevant if they were categorised differently. How about giving us the possibility to search which restaurants open for lunch, or for dinner. Maybe on a Saturday at lunchtime when finding a decent restaurant in some cities is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack?
What if the guides were a sort of playlist that we have on Spotify or Apple Music. That they change based on demand, based on consumption, based even on search results. What if they could be algorithm based? Number of likes? Followers? Wouldn’t that push McDonald’s to the top of the list some would say? Maybe. Who knows. But ultimately, its also about the proper categorisation of restaurants. We’ve often spoken about the conflict of interest of guides acquiring booking engines but if they have these booking engines, shouldn’t they be using the data to provide more value to their end-users?
Guides, critics, maybe even writers need to take a step back and think. We ask and expect the people we write about to come up with the next big thing. Shouldn’t we also be doing that rather than sitting on a pedestal and declaring this restaurant as worthy of one, two or three Michelin stars or of being featured on a dated list?