When Gert de Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens announced they would be closing their flagship three Michelin star restaurant Hertog Jan in Zedelgem, Belgium at the end of this year many started to speculate as to which restaurant or restaurants would clinch the third Michelin star.
The closure of Karmelit, the restaurant of chef Geert Van Hecke in Bruges in 2016 had already been seen as a blow to a country that takes gastronomy so seriously. But, after last year’s announcements that the guide had visited a number of restaurants many times with international inspectors including Brussels restaurants Bon Bon and Sea Grill as well as La Paix (at the time 1 star), many where speculating that this would be the year that Belgium would get a new 3 Michelin star restaurant if not more.
But when the tyre company announced the publication of the new guide for 2019, there were no new announcements at the top end.
The rumour mill doing the rounds had been mentioning in particular Christophe Hardiquest of Bon Bon and San Degeimbre of L’Air du Temps as potential candidates for a third star. After all the first has the highest score (19.5) in Gault & Millau, the same as the only three Michelin star restaurant left in Belgium, Hof Van Cleve of Peter Goossens, and L’Air du Temps had just increased its score to 19.
But it was not to be. Was Michelin right or were they being too cautious?
Last year, the red guide had been the target of intense criticism in particular for focusing on Flanders to the detriment of Wallonia with 14 new restaurants received a Michelin star in the new 2018 guide, 12 were in Flanders, 1 in the Brussels region and 1 in Wallonia. The criticism was so harsh that Sang Hoon Degeimbre, who many consider to be the voice of Wallonia called for calm saying last year’s results were great for Belgium as a whole.
For the 2019 guide, there seemed to be more caution. Michelin finally awarded David Martin of La Paix with a second Michelin star while a second restaurant, Table de Maxime in the Wallonian hamlet of Our, also got 2 stars.
Why does winning a three Michelin star seem to be the be all and end all for many? Fundamentally, Michelin takes a cautious approach because when it awards a restaurant with three Michelin stars it wants consistency but also an expectation that things will more or less follow the same route.
It is the reason, in my view, why Rene Redzepi’s Noma does not fit into the parameters of Michelin’s three star system. He is an innovator who constantly rocks the boat, who shifts paradigms and changes the way we think about a restaurant which creates a certain ill comfort for Michelin.
Michelin terms a three star restaurant as one serving exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey. Now if you think about the waiting list that exists to get to Noma, the thousands who each year make a special journey to the Danish capital to eat at this restaurant and the thousands who are disappointed because they cannot get a booking, you would think that this would fit into that definition.
Why point to Noma as an example? The team is driven, it is focused and it sets the bar very high. They might one day aspire to have three Michelin stars but they don’t necessarily change the way they think about ingredients and prefer to follow their route hoping that this will one day be recognised.
The point for Belgium today and for the chefs that aim to clinch three stars for their restaurants is to continue to focus on their cuisine, to evolve and build their narrative, to improve the overall experience and create that wow factor. They need to push the boundaries of creativity and flavours while at the same time focusing on balance that creates the necessary harmony in the dishes they serve.
Of course this can be frustrating to chefs and their teams who want to be recognised for their hard work. But this is not bad news for restaurant lovers and neither for the restaurants in question. Why? Because, some of the best meals can be had at places which are pushing to improve their level. It is often more interesting to eat at a 1 Michelin star restaurant that is pushing for its second Michelin star than at a second Michelin star restaurant that is waning. The same goes for a good two Michelin star restaurant.
So restaurant goers over the next few months visiting some of Belgium’s two star restaurants can except some of the best meals they will have in this country. The restaurant teams will be pushing to not just improve consistency but also to come up with that wow factor, adding layers and depths of flavour that can make the whole difference.
Belgium has a number of restaurants that can seriously push for 3 Michelin stars if they up the ante. The question is whether the chefs and their teams are hungry enough? Are they ready to get out of the comfort zone and take more risks? Are they able to build a convincing narrative around their work? And are they convinced that this is the direction they want to take?
The Michelin guide provides a certain framework which can become a vicious circle. Some say it puts constraints on you. That you need to follow a certain style, that you need to have a certain menu. But ultimately, what’s needed is out of the box thinking and a new way of looking at things. Of course, the primary focus needs to be the customers. Sometimes chefs may want to push the boundaries but their customers are not yet ready for change or don’t want that change. David Martin mentioned this in an interview saying that he lost a lot of customers when he changed his style over the years as his cuisine evolved.
It is worth pondering on a Steve Jobs quote which is also very relevant in the food world. “Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
Innovation, change and growing as a person and as a team is what is essential. It is when this is put into question that you need to ask yourself whether you want to keep doing the same thing.
3 Michelin stars, a near perfect score or being close to the top of a list has today become the pinnacle of what one can achieve in terms of recognition. It also has a business impact though this is not a given.
Belgium will have to wait another year, maybe more for a new three Michelin star restaurant or restaurants to emerge. But the journey is just as exciting if not more exciting than the destination.