Culture

The Michelin debate: Why there’s no Michelin Guide in Australia

Australia doesn’t have a Michelin Guide, but should it? DANI VALENT explores the calls for and against.
Michelin Guide Australia chef restaurant The Ledbury in London
Michelin star restaurant The Ledbury dining room, London.
Justin De Souza

In 2012, I was alone in Paris with a dark secret. Despite writing about food for years, I had never been to a three-Michelin-star restaurant. I needed to fix that. I felt like I needed a benchmark meal to help me calibrate my criticism: how could I know what was good if I’d never eaten at the best? So I booked in at Le Meurice, at the time a three-star restaurant helmed by chef Yannick Alléno. (It’s since slipped to two stars and is under the auspices of Alain Ducasse.) Le Meurice is palatial, over the road from the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden and matching them in presence and prettiness. Pablo Picasso hosted a wedding banquet here. Salvador Dalí was an honoured guest. And then there was me, ready for lunch.

The dining room is overwhelming, modelled on a salon at Versailles. I recall ceiling frescoes, fireplaces the size of a bedsit and an elaborate ice sculpture of tangled vines and flowers shimmering on a plinth. The tables were so plush I am sure they were laid with four cloths. Each dish in my three-course lunch was ferried to my table by a choreographed phalanx of waiters, synchronously placing dishes and plates before me, whisking away cloches, turning on their heels with a whoosh. Their poise was military but they were so warm and twinkling that they almost (almost) soothed my imposter angst. Around me, the wealthy sprawled in a litter of shopping bags, affectingly bored but sure they belonged. The food was exquisite: peas gleaming in buttery chicken reduction, a piece of dazzlingly white fish, a lemon tart that scrubbed my brain clean with citric clarity.

I got what I wanted. I understand what three Michelin stars mean. But does it matter? Is it relevant for Australia?

Michelin Guide restaurant in Paris, Le Meurice which holds two Michelin stars
The palatial dining room at Le Meurice, Paris.

“Michelin is a globally recognised benchmark,” says Peter Gilmore, executive chef at Sydney’s Quay, surely a candidate for three stars if Michelin ever did publish a guide in Australia. “I think it would be good for Australia to have an international baseline so visitors could easily understand the restaurant scene here.” But Australia’s history, relatively small population and expensive labour market mean we’ll never have a Le Meurice. “It might not be possible in Australia to have the same ratio of staff to customer that they have in Europe,” says Gilmore. “But we are certainly there with innovation and creativity. I’ve eaten recently in three-star restaurants in Europe. I think we are at that level in a few restaurants in Australia.”

He’s aware of Michelin inspectors dining at Quay. “We might hear that Tourism Australia has invited someone, there’s always rumours that maybe something is happening,” he says. What did the inspectors say? “They were very pleased,” he says. Michelin did not respond to requests for comment but it’s an open secret that territories provide financial support for the venerable guide to lend its cachet. News site The Kyunghyang Shinmun reported in 2018 that Korea paid 2 billion won ($2.3 million) for Michelin to rate its restaurants. In 2021, Thai newspaper The Nation reported that the Tourism Authority of Thailand would pay Michelin US$820,000 ($1.26 million) per year to publish and promote its guide to Thailand.

Significant Australian funding has gone into marketing food tourism, including $800,000 to host the World’s 50 Best awards in 2017. Tourism Australia is not ready to announce a deal with Michelin though periodic discussions have taken place. “Tourism Australia has a long history of promoting Australia’s food and drink experiences to the world ever since Paul Hogan first issued a warm invitation to international travellers with the offer to “throw a shrimp on the barbie” in the ’80s,” said a spokesperson. “As Australia’s culinary offering continues to evolve, we welcome any activity that shines a light on Australia’s thriving food and drink scene and will consider opportunities where we can within our existing marketing priorities and budgets.”

In the world of restaurant ratings, Michelin’s main competitor for international brand recognition is World’s 50 Best but Australian recognition on that list has ebbed and flowed. “That’s nothing to do with the quality of our restaurants, and a lot to do with the tyranny of distance,” says Alexandra Carlton, Oceania academy chair for World’s 50 Best. “It’s much harder to get bums on restaurant seats when you sit at the bottom of the world – largely isolated – than if you’re a Spain or a Singapore. So I welcome anything that will help draw diners to our shores, and the arrival of Michelin would be a great way to do that.”

In Phuket, Thai tour guide Piyarat “June” Na-Songkhla has witnessed the impact Michelin has on drawing food tourists. “Right now my best-selling tour is following the Michelin Guide,” she says. “All the tourists came from America.” Thailand has its own restaurant guide produced by Shell. “Shell is fine for Thai tourists but foreigners only know the Michelin Guide.” She predicts positive impacts if Michelin publishes in Australia. “Rich people in Thailand can fly to Hong Kong just to eat the best dim sum,” she says. “Eating is a good reason to fly and they trust the Michelin Guide.”

Six Hokkaido scallops on white plate with green sauce splodges and pruple and yellow garnish at Michelin Guide restaurant Arcane in Hong Kong
Hokkaido scallops at Arcane, Hong Kong.

Australian-born Hong Kong-based chef Shane Osborn has a similar perspective. “If the Michelin Guide came to Australia, it would give chefs and restaurants equal recognition with many of the world’s top establishments,” he says. “The increase in business for those receiving stars, particularly in the two and three star level could be significant.”

He’s mindful of the personal impact on those working in restaurants though. “The winning of stars and retaining them every year is an incredible achievement but it does come at a price,” he says. “The self-inflicted pressure chefs put upon themselves is well documented. Some have even taken their own lives when demoted. I don’t blame Michelin for this. The pressure is created by us, the chefs and restaurateurs.” Osborn held two stars for nine years at his London restaurant Pied à Terre.

“I look back on those years with pride but also a sense of lost opportunity to really enjoy the success of such an accolade,” he says. “Working 16 hours at times, six days a week took its toll.” In 2011, he walked away in pursuit of better work-life balance. His Hong Kong restaurant Arcane has one star and that’s enough. “Michelin has never been a key goal of our business model here,” he says. “We put our staff and customers’ experience front and centre when deciding how to improve.”

The award-winning team at Michelin star restaurant Arcane in Hong Kong
The award-winning team at Arcane, Hong Kong.

Australian Michelin star chefs

Brett Graham
Originally from Newcastle, NSW, Brett Graham was awarded three Michelin stars (up from two) for The Ledbury in London’s Notting Hill at the 2024 Michelin ceremony.

Matt Abé
Since 2020, the Australian has been chef patron of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. He’s spent 16 years in the Ramsay stable; in Australia he worked at Aria in Sydney and Vue de Monde in Melbourne.

Curtis Stone
The Melbourne chef schooled up in London under Marco Pierre White, no stranger to Michelin stars himself. Stone’s Los Angeles restaurants Maude and Gwen each hold one star.

Shane Osborn
Born in Perth, Shane Osborn left his two-star London restaurant Pied à Terre in search of greater balance. He now owns Arcane in Hong Kong. “We are proud to hold one star which we have held since 2017,” he says. “Arcane serves modern European cuisine. Our menus change frequently and we offer daily specials. With one star under our belt we can maintain this level of menu fluidity and spontaneity while maintaining a high level of consistency. Two stars would affect that freedom.”

Dave Pynt
Another Perth chef, Dave Pynt holds one star at Burnt Ends, his Singapore barbecue hotspot.

Tetsuya Wakuda
Sydney superstar Tetsuya Wakuda holds two stars at his Singapore restaurant, Waku Ghin.

Joseph Lidgerwood
Tasmania’s Joseph Lidgerwood has held one star at Evett in Seoul since 2019. As the guide says, his “menu brims with inventive dishes reimagined by the chef that perfectly reflect the seasonal sensibilities of Korea.”

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