To understand what is truly happening in the Belgian gastronomy scene today you would need to at least visit five restaurants, one in Brussels, three in Flanders and one in Wallonia.
The restaurants of Christophe Hardiquest (Bon Bon in Brussels), Peter Goossens (Hof Van Cleve, Kruishoutem), Gert de Mangeleer (Hertog Jan, Zedelgem), Kobe Desramaults (In de Wulf, Dranouter – the restaurant will close next month and the chef opens a new restaurant in Gent next year) and Sang-Hoon Degeimbre (L’Air du Temps, Liernu) have over the past years left a significant mark on Belgian cuisine.
Any foreigner visiting Belgium or looking to learn about Belgian cuisine would discover five chefs and restaurants with a distinct culinary style and a cuisine that is varied, territorial and innovative.
But Belgium’s culinary scene does not stop here. It is also home to The Jane in Antwerp, for example, a restaurant owned by Sergio Herman and Nick Bril which has been fully booked since the first day it opened and has been increasingly receiving attention in the international press for its concept, style and cuisine.
A lot is going on in the Belgian gastronomic scene not only in Brussels which has been struggling to raise its profile after the lockdown of last year and the March terrorist attacks but also in other cities like Antwerp, Gent. There are many gems waiting to be discovered.
But you would not learn this if you had to take a look at the new Michelin guide released for Belgium and Luxembourg last Monday. You would think that the scene is conservative, static and boring with not much new going on.
So it was no surprise that the recent announcement of the new Michelin 2017 guide for Belgium and Luxembourg created such an uproar among Belgian journalists, bloggers and lovers of the gastronomic scene.
Does Michelin deserve the criticism it has received for its choices? Is it really so out of touch with what is happening, particularly in Brussels, Gent and Wallonia? Has it erred on the side of caution, was it an error of omission or a deliberate choice?
That Michelin works in mysterious ways is not in question. A lot of criticism is levelled at the guide because it is very secretive in its criteria for selection of restaurants. It is also criticised for not being consistent. The stars in one country vary from another and in a world that is considerably more diverse than when Michelin started, the three stars system seems to put the guide in a straight-jacket because it does not do justice to the variety of restaurants and concepts that exist nowadays. How can you compare an up and coming one Michelin star restaurant doing fabulous work with a street food vendor from another country that is also awarded one star?
We are observers and not critics so it is not up to us to determine which restaurants were worthy of a promotion (or a downgrade). That is Michelin’s or any other guide’s prerogative. But, the company’s decision does pose a lot of questions which deserve an answer even though knowing Michelin, it is unlikely that such answers will be forthcoming.
How many inspectors are there for the whole Belgian territory? How often are starred restaurants visited on a yearly basis? And what are the criteria for testing new restaurants that are not in the guide? Why were no one Michelin star restaurant or two Michelin star restaurant worthy of a promotion?
These are important questions particularly since the number of restaurants in all countries has clearly increased from the time that Michelin introduced its guides and this has made the costs of producing such guides much higher and we all know that corporations everywhere are doing their best to cut costs.
Today’s gastronomy world is also more complicated. In the age of social media and ‘amateur’ food critics, guides have found themselves in competition with a wide range of sources and are also slow to react to trends and new restaurant openings or changes in the direction of certain restaurants. Many food lovers use a wide range of sources from guides to social media influencers, journalists to bloggers and particularly word of mouth to discover new places.
It is easy to say that it is just a guide and should not be taken so seriously. However, there is no question about the influence that Michelin has. With this influence comes a huge responsibility because the company has the power to make or break a restaurant and the career of a chef. The impact that it has on the bottom line of a restaurant is also significant.
Michelin has an obligation to be more transparent but that is something Michelin is not known for. We often hear about countries or cities which sponsor the guide or partially cover the expenses of the guide to put their country on the gastronomy map. Is this true? If yes, which are the countries or cities? And are the criteria for selecting the stars in these places different? If yes why? If Michelin is stricter in some countries (where it is not paid), couldn’t this lead to a conflict of interest? Isn’t it putting indirect pressure for the country or cities to also sponsor the guide? What is the difference between the number of inspectors in sponsored cities or countries and those where Michelin covers its own expenses?
At a time when Michelin is facing all this criticism, being transparent and open is the least the company can do to come clean. The guide clearly has issues with consistency and credibility particularly since the guide has expanded to become more global.
Michelin’s Belgium edition has this year given the impression that it is cut-off from the reality on the ground. Is this criticism justified? It’s hard to say but the impression one gets is that not all is well with the Red Guide.