Two Michelin stars and a greener future

For the very first time, a restaurant in Malta has been awarded two stars by the Michelin Guide.

Mark Wineguard, the founder, and visionary behind Iniala Hotel in Valletta, where ION restaurant is located, discusses with The Journal how Michelin evaluates restaurants and shares his experiences running this high-profile establishment that has just earned its second Michelin star. It’s the first time a restaurant in Malta has been awarded two stars by the Michelin Guide.

Mark Wineguard

Going for green

Mark explained the basic criteria Michelin considers for awarding their stars. “The first star focuses primarily on the quality of the food, while the service plays a significant role for the second star,” he noted. His team’s dedication to using locally sourced, sustainable ingredients has been central to their strategy, though they have yet to achieve a Michelin green star. This is a special recognition awarded to restaurants that excel in sustainable dining practices. It highlights establishments that are mindful of their environmental impact and engage in practices such as using local ingredients, minimising waste, and promoting eco-friendly methods.

This award encourages restaurants to not only focus on creating delicious food but also to care for the planet in their operations.  “While we are working towards achieving the green star, earning our second Michelin star was an unexpected and rewarding achievement,” said Wineguard.

Free ingredients in the outdoor

A particular exercise carried out by ION is foraging: a key element of their sustainable philosophy. Foraging means searching for and collecting wild food resources from their natural environments, such as fields and coastlines. This can include a variety of natural items such as herbs, plants, mushrooms, and even seaweed. Foragers often seek out these ingredients to use in cooking and preparation of meals, relying on their knowledge of the local flora to safely identify edible and medicinal plants and fungi. Foraging promotes a sustainable way of eating, as it involves harvesting food that grows wild and is typically not cultivated.

It’s a practice deeply rooted in human history, but it has gained modern appeal among chefs and food enthusiasts who are eager to explore natural flavours and ingredients that are often not available through conventional food supply chains. Wineguard confirms this. “Our kitchen staff regularly ventures into the local countryside to forage. What they find is incorporated directly into our dishes, adding a layer of local flavour and authenticity that you can’t achieve with store-bought ingredients,” he said. “Foraging not only connects us with our local ecosystem but also inspires creativity and innovation in our kitchen.”

A year of stars

This year was quite remarkable for Malta. Not only did ION Harbour in Valletta receive two Michelin stars, but Rosami in St Julian’s was awarded its first Michelin star.  Fernando Gastrotheque, Under Grain, Noni, De Mondion, and Bahia all reaffirmed their star status.  There are also new entrants and recommendations in the Michelin Guide. AYU, located in Gżira, was newly listed under Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, recognising great food at reasonable prices. Additionally, restaurants like Terroir in Attard, One 80 and Kaiseki in Valletta, along with Level Nine and Al Sale in Gozo, were recommended in the guide for the first time, highlighting their quality and potential.

Quite a challenge

Running a restaurant with such high standards is not without its challenges. Mark pointed out the complexities and misconceptions about the industry. “Many see our prices and assume we are profitable, but the reality is far from it. The art and effort that go into creating unique dining experiences are substantial and not always immediately profitable,” he explained.

Mark is appreciative of the support from local tourism and public sector bodies, which has been crucial for his business. In fact, he expressed his gratitude for the support he receives from the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) and the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) among others, highlighting how crucial their assistance has been to the success of his ventures. However, he also pointed out the financial challenges, particularly the high VAT rates for restaurants, that makes profitability difficult. Through continuous effort and a focus on sustainability, Mark Wineguard and his team at ION Harbour strive to maintain their high standards and contribute positively to Malta’s dining scene, particularly in Valletta where their restaurant has become a landmark.

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