Michelin stars: a winning recipe?

In 2020, three Maltese restaurants were awarded the Michelin Star for the first time. The Journal wanted to understand why some of Malta’s best chefs are yearning to be judged by international experts and earn their stars.

Six restaurants in Malta have one Michelin star. Another 35 are recommended by Michelin, and 4 hold the Bib Gourmand status.

There’s been so much fuss about Michelin and its qualities, including Malta’s own Tourism Minister and MTA’s top brass commemorating the awards and singing praises towards the winning chefs.

Knowing the impact that the international recognition of fine dining establishments can have on tourism and the overall appeal of the islands, the Maltese government is committing substantial resources to support and promote the Michelin cause. In 2019, Malta Tourism Authority formalised a partnership with the Michelin Guide, introducing this culinary brand to Malta. This arrangement is not unique to us, and there are similar agreements with Michelin in various countries and regions around the world.

What is Michelin?

This one can be confusing for those who still associate Michelin with tyres.

Let’s iron it out: In 1900, two brothers named André and Edouard founded a car tire manufacturing company called Michelin Tyre. They then thought it would be great to encourage people to take to the road and travel, so that they would sell more tyres. Therefore, they came up with a small, red guide filled with information for travellers.

This concept lended itself nicely to the worlds of travel and haute cuisine, and the 1920s saw the birth of a Michelin Guide that highlighted food worth travelling for. In 1926, Michelin Stars started to be awarded to restaurants that Michelin considered the very best in each city.

Today, the Michelin Guide states that that “restaurants may receive one to three Michelin Stars for the quality of their food based on five criteria: quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef, harmony of flavours, and consistency between visits.”

The Bib Gourmand status was created in 1997 and it distinguishes the good restaurants that offer a refined cuisine at an affordable price.

Our question

In 2020, three Maltese restaurants were awarded the Michelin Star for the first time: De Mondion in Mdina, together with Noni and Under Grain in Valletta.

The Journal wanted to understand why some of Malta’s best chefs are yearning to be judged by international experts and earn their stars.

How has this 100-year-old, foreign standard suddenly become the local hallmark of good cuisine?

Our subject

We quenched our curiosity by exchanging views with Justin Zammit Tabona, who has been sitting on the International Board of Directors of Relais & Châteaux for 18 years, alongside massive names like chefs Michel Roux, Patrick O’Connell, and Michel Guérard, dubbed the grandfather of gastronomy.

Relais & Châteaux is an association of individually owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants. The group currently has about 580 members in 68 countries, spread over five continents.

Zammit Tabona owns the One Michelin star restaurant De Mondion, found in Mdina’s Xara Palace. Additionally, he is the Managing Director of the Xara Collection.

Justin Zammit Tabona with Executive Chef Clint Grech in the De Mondion’s kitchen.

Why welcome Michelin?

“Because the island deserves it,” is Justin Zammit Tabona’s reply, himself a big advocate for all things boutique and refined. He believes that Malta has a huge potential to attract like-minded people.

He points out that gastronomy is a major reason why tourists are attracted to specific destinations, and marketing the island as a tourist destination is obviously important. Whilst we cannot negate that, we point out that the market should not only cater for visitors’ palate. Therefore, we question whether Michelin inspectors can possibly understand the social, cultural, and historical aspect of our local dishes.

Zammit Tabona has no doubts: “Yes, they do. This is their job. They are like architects and engineers who understand the foundations that make a structure great. These people understand what makes food great.” 

He emphasises that being a Michelin inspector is not a task to take lightly. There are only around 120 people worldwide who hold this coveted position, travelling thousands of miles annually, searching the globe for the best restaurants and hotels. These seasoned and experienced food critics are expected to have lunch and dinner out practically all the time. They must have an eye for detail, be naturally inquisitive, and be open to all types of food.  

The ‘Maltese twist’

Whilst we have no doubt that the job of Michelin inspectors is demanding and that they are experts in their field, we ask whether the search for such standards impinges on the authenticity of our local cuisine.   

“We’re in Malta. All our restaurants have something Maltese in them,” affirms Justin Zammit Tabona. “There’s that Maltese touch in whatever a local chef does. Although you might think of grandma’s food as the epitome of Maltese gastronomy, it’s that Maltese twist that breathes life into our local offering today,” he adds.

We peek at the menu of De Mondion to understand what he means. There are local shrimps, aljotta, Gozitan octopus, and local potatoes on offer on their dinner menu, and the seven-course tasting menu features Maltese ftira, local seafood, ‘kannoli’ and even something called ‘childhood memories’: a tribute to cake and condensed milk, which unlocks so many memories in many middle-aged, Maltese minds.

Fair enough, we think: there’s definitely something Maltese, and it’s nice to see that it’s being recognised as being brilliant.

Consistency vs creativity

Whilst we really enjoyed the creative way in which the De Mondion menu fuses Maltese cuisine with international elements, one of the factors that Michelin inspectors look for is consistency in food. In fact, the Michelin guide itself states that they “need to be sure that customers will receive the same high standard of cooking whenever they visit.”

Doesn’t consistency impinge on creativity, we ask?  Justin Zammit Tabona is adamant that it doesn’t. “At the end of the day, whatever brand you have, you try to be consistent within the parameters of the market. Michelin allows for that.”

As an example, he cites a big movement towards Michelin’s Green Star: an annual award which highlights restaurants that are excelling in sustainable practices. They hold themselves accountable for both their ethical and environmental standards, and work with sustainable producers and suppliers to reduce food wastage and attempt to remove plastic and other non-recyclable materials from their supply chain.

“Consequently, more local chefs want to push local products. It’s a movement towards local farmers to create dishes using our local ingredients,” says Justin Zammit Tabona.

His business is a living example of how this works. During Covid, the Xara Collection set up the Xara Garden, so that half the vegetables used in the group’s cuisine is home-grown. They also see to reducing food wastage, upscaling waste material such as wood and carton boxes, storing rainwater and retaining it for irrigation, and eliminating pesticides.

Was this all Michelin driven? “Not necessarily,” says Zammit Tabona. “Michelin is not the only cause of everything, it’s an international movement.”

A pricey matter?

Let’s face it, dining out has become a pricey affair. We ask Justin Zammit Tabona whether gaining a Michelin Star is reason enough for restaurants to up their price even further.

He doesn’t believe that gaining a star should push prices upwards. In fact, he refers to street food chefs that have gained a star for their noodle joints in Singapore and Japan. Zammit Tabona then says that, Michelin or not, international food prices are on the increase, and more so in Malta, where it is practically impossible to be fully self-sustainable and grow all the produce that we consume.

Those who don’t have the star-factor

Throughout our conversation, Zammit Tabona reiterates that the Maltese islands are blessed with a lot of passionate chefs. We can’t help but wonder what happens to the morale of those chefs who do make it to the Michelin Guide, or who work hard to achieve that star of approval and do not get it. After all, very few of them have it.   

“I can never say that, to be a good restaurant, you need to have a star,” says Zammit Tabona, “but there are restaurants that would like to achieve that.”

This makes him reminisce his own experience. “It was a twenty-year, personal dream, to get a Michelin Star. When we got it at De Mondion, I cried my eyes out. It was very emotional moment.  But not everyone has to go for that. We all go through our exams at school. Does it mean that we all must pass? No, it doesn’t. But we must all continue doing what we believe in, being true to ourselves and what our true vision is,” he observes.

His dream now is for Rosami, Xara Group’s restaurant in St Julian’s, to obtain the coveted star. “It’s my dream to take top-quality gastronomy to that part of the island. I believe that it deserves it. The food we are creating is different to anything else,” he says proudly.

We don’t want to think of what will happen to the morale of the chef and staff if they don’t get that star. Michelin, in fact, is also known for taking back its own accolades, as in the case of Guy Savoy and Christopher Coutanceau – two highly acclaimed French chefs who were downgraded from three to two Michelin stars. Perhaps Zammit Tabona’s analogy should be applied: some pass, some don’t, some get better grades, and some get worse ones. It’s just the competitive nature of business, and life.

Our conclusion

We understand that the idea of being evaluated by an external expert can be nerve-wracking. After all, we have only until just recently been colonised (and patronised, as some would argue) by foreign forces, and our forefathers had to sweat their blood and tears to restore a sense of autonomous pride.

Does this sound exaggerated in the context of food? We don’t think so. After all, we are what we eat. Our cuisine can never be ripped apart from who we are as a nation and where we come from.

Having said that, and having spoken to a man whose dream it was to introduce these standards to our islands, we start to understand that, perhaps, recognition does not necessarily come from a place of judgement and exclusion. Indeed, we realise that it can also serve as an inspiration, as a motivation, and as a reason to elevate our local product and acknowledge that it is as good as any other food that is deemed excellent around the world. If attributed fairly, as Michelin claims, their stars can help our chefs explore and expand their talents here in Malta.

After all, although nanna’s timpana has always been and will forever be amazing, who and what is to stop us from creating food and exploring new culinary masterpieces that will be our next legacy?

Such reflections have certainly left our minds more reassured, and our stomachs slightly grumbly.

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