Word of Mouth

Michelin bestows more stars on Japan, which pulls even with France for restaurants with top honors

Planning an international culinary vacation? Thinking France? Maybe you should re-route to Japan. This year's Michelin guides are now out for perusal -- and because four restaurants in Japanese cities were upgraded to three-star status, the country now hosts the same number of highest-honored eateries as the gastronomically proud French: Both countries come in at 26.

What's more, the restaurants in Japan that were promoted to the highest star count weren't French joints -- they were Japanese spots. And many of them aren't serving food on beautiful porcelain or pouring wine in crystal. Some of them are using Tupperware as serving dishes.

So is that an evolution of the ranking system, long based on a checklist of standards related to aesthetics, service and food? After all, Michelin has recently come under fire for being outdated and biased toward the standards of France, the country in which it's based.

In Japan, though, the star system is under fire for an entirely different reason. Westerners don't like it because they see it as a marketing ploy for Michelin. Chefs in the United States and Europe gripe that Michelin only bestowed stars so generously for advertising purposes -- suggesting that Michelin is courting the Japanese public to sell goods.

But Japanese chefs are no happier with the accolades. In fact, a number of chefs are shying away from the ranking because they don't want the associated international publicity -- they want to continue to run restaurants on their own standards, luring in regular local customers instead of a room full of culinary tourists.

Jean-Luc Naret, the director of Michelin guides, insists that the organization was objective in its star decision.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk