Above: Michael Ellis at the 2018 RAI conference. Photo: Paul Sherwood
Conor Forrest sat down with Michael Ellis, International Director of the Michelin Guide, to discover more about international food trends, Michelin criteria and how Ireland is rich in talent, cuisine and ambition.
For those in the food business, receiving an award from the Michelin Guide can be a gamechanger. The Michelin Star in particular is a recognition of food that goes above and beyond what you might ordinarily expect, but achieving one is no easy task. Just 11 Irish restaurants have earned one star and just one – Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin – has received two. Still, it’s a good sign of how far the country’s culinary focus has come in recent years.
“I think Irish cuisine is evolving tremendously. Three-quarters of the battle is already won in Ireland because the products are so good, whether it’s from the sea or from the soil, Ireland is incredibly rich,” says Michael Ellis, the Michelin Guide’s International Director. “And you can see it just looking around – everything is green here, there’s a lot of rain but that’s good too, [and] the soil is very rich so Irish products are fantastic. Ireland is surrounded by cold water and that means good fish.”
Ellis’ love affair with food goes back many years. He was born in Denver, Colorado and as a young man travelled to France, deciding when he was 16 years old to become a chef. Several years later he enrolled in the Ferrandi cooking school in Paris before securing a job as a commis chef at Michelin star restaurant Le Bistro 121. Working 12-hour days, five-and-a-half days a week, he decided to return to the US to finish his studies, though he came back to France several years later to study business. After stints at a variety of companies including Diageo, Club Med and Ball he found himself working for Michelin, securing a role as vice-president of the motorcycle division’s sales and marketing team in 2007.
“And then a few years later they saw that I had a cooking background and they offered me the job to be the head of the Michelin Guide in 2011. I said ‘Sure and I haven’t looked back!” he says with a smile. “Being a chef and working in the kitchen – it’s a job of passion, you have to be passionate about it. I was passionate about it young and I decided to do other things, but I never found in my other jobs the passion that I have for what I’m doing today.”
Ellis first travelled to Ireland in 1982, leaving with the impression that our cuisine was “overcooked”. However, that has changed drastically in the last number of towards local food, spawning what is known as a locavore – someone interested in eating food produced in their locality. “People want to eat locally, the locavore trend is huge. People want to know where things are coming from,” he says. “If they can get locally grown carrots or potatoes or cabbage or beef or salmon or whatever, they prefer that than to have strawberries that are flown in from Peru, for example. That ability to eat locally, to eat [what are] often biodynamic or biologically raised products – they’re interested in sustainable development and I think those are trends that will continue. Once again, Ireland has a real card to play in that sector.”
When we met, Ellis had just finished speaking at the Restaurants’ Association of Ireland annual conference in Adare Manor, having shared some insights into the Michelin Guide’s operations, the role of the Michelin inspectors in the judging process, and the power behind the Michelin brand. The Guide covers four continents, 28 countries and over 28,000 restaurants in each edition – 14 per cent of which receive a coveted Michelin star. But stars aren’t the only thing Michelin gives out, and the Guide is placing an increased emphasis on value going forward, part of the reasoning behind the development of the Bib Gourmand and the Michelin Plate – both signifying very good cooking albeit not to the stratospheric standards that would earn a star.
Quite a bit of mystique surrounds the process of how exactly one earns Michelin recognition. Michelin’s exact criteria are a closely kept secret, though we do know that the quality of the ingredients, the personality of the cuisine, a demonstrable mastery of techniques and flavours, consistency and the quality to price ratio are all considered. The criteria remain the same regardless of locations – a restaurant in Shannon or Shanghai will be judged on the same basis. Food worthy of a Michelin Star doesn’t have to be complicated but it does have to be perfectly cooked when encountered by one of Michelin’s thousands of food inspectors – a unique and completely anonymous job done by food experts with the ability to really taste what’s on their plate and then transcribe the experience into written form. Those anonymous men and women are just one strand of a broader focus that has strengthened and solidified the Michelin Guide’s reputation across the globe.
“I think there’s three pillars to what we do. First of all it’s the fact that we’ve been doing it for 118 years, at considerable expense. You can imagine – the inspectors are [located] all over the world, they’re full-time employees, they’re anonymous, they always pay their bills and, of course, that has a significant cost to it. Fortunately we have this great industrial company, Michelin, behind us, who give us the means and the resources to do that,” Ellis tells me. “I think the second thing is the fact that we have the Michelin criteria – we’re looking at the ingredients, we’re looking at the quality of the cooking technique, we’re looking at the harmony and equilibrium and balance of the flavours. We’re looking at the chef ’s personality, we’re looking at the consistency throughout time – whether it’s February, June or November it should be the same, and throughout the menu whether it’s the first course, main course, whether it’s fish, meat, poultry, whatever, we want that to be at the same level of quality. So I think it’s those unique Michelin inspectors applying those criteria and doing so for over a century that has given us this unique status.”
Nor does it have to be served in a high-end city centre restaurant featuring the latest food trends from Scandinavia. Take the Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna, a gastropub that was awarded the only new Michelin star for Ireland in 2018. Dating from 1860 and refurbished in 2009, the pub is owned and run by chef Aidan McGrath and his partner Kate Sweeney and focuses on classical French food as well as wild and local produce. “To be the first is huge. For a pub and a small business like ours, it’s hugely important in the West of Ireland,” McGrath said at the event in Adare Manor.
Quite a bit of mystique surrounds the process of how exactly one earns Michelin recognition.
Talent is certainly a key factor in any successful restaurant with Michelin ambitions, though Ireland’s chef shortage continues to pose a stumbling block. “You need ambition and a lot of these chefs want to fill their restaurants up with happy customers and they’re willing to try new things, to be creative, and think about what they want to cook – they need the means,” Ellis says. “The Irish economy has come roaring back after a few difficult years, as everyone had after 2008. The Irish economy has bounced right back and they also have this incredible bounty of great products locally. That cocktail of talent, ambition and product can only mean good things.”
Focusing on earning a Michelin star, however, is certainly the wrong way to go about your business. Ellis notes that it’s all about putting the focus on your business first and creating something that your customers will enjoy. “That has to be objective number one – a chef or restaurateur has got to understand what does this customer want to eat, how much do they want to pay, and what kind of an environment, what kind of ambience they want?” he explains. “Fill the restaurant up with happy customers who want to come back and, if they do that well, the Michelin Guide will find them.”