Dubai shoots for a Michelin star

Caterer Middle East recently revealed that Michelin stars could soon be twinkling in Dubai. Find out how and why it could happen sooner than you might expect

Michael Ellis, international director of Michelin Guides, speaks at GRIF Dubai
Michael Ellis, international director of Michelin Guides, speaks at GRIF Dubai

Caterer Middle East recently revealed that Michelin stars could soon be twinkling in Dubai. According to Michael Ellis, international director of Michelin Guides, it could happen sooner than you might expect.

Michelin needs to satisfy three conditions before it launches a new Guide and confers its first stars on a city.

Firstly, a culinary scene; secondly, the business interest of the tyre company; and thirdly, sponsors.

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“We certainly have the first two in Dubai, and we’ve had good meetings with Dubai’s Department of Tourism [and Commerce Marketing] and Emirates [airline],” says Michael Ellis, international director of Michelin Guides.

Ellis, on his first visit to the UAE since 1995 for the Global Restaurant Investment Forum 2016, says: “It’s been of great interest for me to come to Dubai. The city has changed enormously since I was last here 20 years ago. It’s now one of the most exciting dining cities in the world.”

Despite the fact that some local industry experts recently pronounced that Dubai is not yet ready for Michelin – at our very own Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference no less – it appears the guides’ publisher takes a more positive view.

He reveals: “We are looking at Dubai [for a Michelin Guide]. It’s one of the reasons I’m here. Dubai is an emerging market, and we want to see what’s going on. We’re a mirror of what’s happening in the restaurant industry.

“It would be easy to do here, because it’s a relatively small city, and English-speaking,” he tells Caterer Middle East. “So my guess is that it will be sooner rather than later. We could even do it next year, but that would be speculation at the moment."

When challenged about whether Dubai needs a Michelin Guide, Ellis responds: “Arguably there are many places with great food where we’re not present. But in the cities where we’ve gone recently, for example Hong Kong, where we’ve been for eight years, the arrival of the guide and our standards has enabled the culinary scene to set the bar higher.

“We bring our inspectors’ point of view. It’s something for chefs to shoot for. And it gives an international spotlight to the city’s fine-dining scene.”

Michelin is launching new guides in four cities this year: Singapore; Seoul in South Korea; and two as-yet-unnamed places in the US. “We’ve been brought to these cities by governments, tourist boards and local industry. We don’t go anywhere without financial partners,” says Ellis.
On the subject of Michelin’s business interests in Dubai – its main activity being tyres – Ellis remarks that the company already has a presence in the Emirate, as the headquarters for its Africa-India-Middle East (AIM) region is based in the Jebel Ali Free Zone.

The Michelin Guides were first published at the beginning of the 20th century to encourage car owners to drive, and therefore to consume more tyres. As well as useful information for motorists, including maps, instructions for repairing and changing tires, and lists of car mechanics, hotels and petrol stations, they evolved to include restaurant recommendations and, from 1931, the now-famous star categorisations, which were based on the following descriptions:

One star: "A very good restaurant in its category"
Two star:
"Excellent cooking, worth a detour"
Three star: "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey"

Detours and special journeys to Michelin-starred establishments these days are often more than a car ride – with gastronomists flying around the world to sample to their menus.
But Ellis says that the principles of those original star ratings remain true to this day. His inspectors consider five criteria when judging a restaurant:

1) Quality of ingredients
2) Skill in the preparation
3) Combinations of flavours
4) Value for money
5) Consistency of culinary standards (over time and throughout the menu)

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Michael Ellis describes his team as follows: “Our inspectors are full-time Michelin employees. They eat anonymously, and reserve under false names. They always pay their bills and they even have credit cards with false names, which was a challenge with the bank.

“They are usually retired food experts from hotel or cookery schools, and often from hotels themselves, front or back of house. They must have the ability to taste food, in the same way a sommelier can taste wine, and they must be able to translate that into writing.

“They are on the road five days a week, eating 10 meals a week, usually by themselves. So it is not particularly compatible with family life – hence it is a male-oriented job; we have only six or seven female inspectors. But we have virtually no turnover of inspectors.

“We employ locals wherever we are around the world. So we would employ Emiratis here if we come to Dubai, as we need local knowledge and understanding.”

Michelin’s inspectors understand the gravity of their role and the implications of their decisions, Ellis insists. “A star puts a restaurant on the map. It will change the chef’s life, and his customer base. Customers will be more demanding.

“A star is not awarded to the chef, but to the establishment,” Ellis reinforces. “So the phrase ‘Michelin-star chef’ is a misnomer. If a chef leaves, we’ll go back and see if the next chef can execute the same level of quality to maintain the star(s).”

A star is not a fixture, even where a highly rated chef stands the test of time. “Sometimes we have to take stars away,” says Eliis. “If our inspectors have a bad experience we’ll do a second inspection, and maybe a third or fourth to see whether that warrants the removal of a star.
“We are aware of the impact that can have on a restaurant,” adds Ellis. But more happily, sometimes inspectors will award a second or third star.

Restaurants can’t reject the inspectors’ decision. “It’s not like an Oscar, it’s an opinion – you can’t give it back,” jokes Ellis.

Equally, it shouldn’t become an obsession for chefs at the expense of good business practice. “I always say a restaurant’s main objective should be to fill itself with happy customers who want to come back; to be profitable and viable. Do that well and we will find you,” promises Ellis.

“We do our homework properly, using other guides, magazines, the internet and talk to local chefs. So we’re able to boil down all the restaurants, and then we start looking at menus. We’re looking for restaurants that stand out from all the others. It’s a long, arduous and expensive business!
And we don’t get it right first time every time,” Ellis concedes. “But we do the best we can.”

The list of starred restaurants is always – if you’ll forgive the pun – a moving feast. There are currently nearly 19,405 restaurants in the Michelin Guides (which will increase soon with the publication of the latest Sao Paolo/Rio guide), and 2,704 - less than 15% of them - have stars.
At the time of writing there are 109 three-star restaurants, 407 two-star restaurants and 2,118 one-star restaurants.

And just maybe – in 2017 – a small cadre of restaurants in Dubai will add to those numbers.

Stars in Dubai
Find out which chefs with restaurants in Dubai, have been awarded Michelin stars for their restaurants elsewhere in the world

• Tom Aikens: Pots, Pans & Boards, JBR, Dubai

• Yannick Alleno: STAY by Yannick Alleno, One&Only The Palm Dubai; 101 Dining Lounge and Bar, One&Only The Palm Dubai

• Jason Atherton: Marina Social, InterContinental Dubai Marina

• Heinz Beck: Social by Heinz Beck, Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah; Eataly by Heinz Beck, Galleria Mall

• Vineet Bhatia: Indego by Vineet, Grosvenor House Dubai; Ashiana by Vineet, Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, Dubai

• Pierre Gagnaire: Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, Intercontinental Dubai Festival City; Choix Patisserie and Restaurant par Pierre Gagnaire, Intercontinental Dubai Festival City

• Vikas Khanna: Junoon, Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai

• Giorgio Locatelli: Ronda Locatelli , Atlantis The Palm, Dubai

• Atul Kochhar: Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai

• Nobuyuki 'Nobu' Matsuhisa: Nobu, Atlantis the Palm, Dubai

• Wolfgang Puck: CUT by Wolfgang Puck at The Address Downtown Dubai

• Gordon Ramsey: Bread Street Kitchen, Atlantis The Palm, Dubai

• Gary Rhodes: Rhodes Twenty10, Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai; Rhodes W1, Grosvenor House Dubai

• Jean-Georges Vongerichten: JG Dining Room & JG Kitchen, Four Seasons Resort at Jumeirah Beach, Dubai

• Marco Pierre White: Wheeler’s of St James, DIFC, Dubai

Stars around the UAE and GCC

• Sergi Arola: P&C by Sergi Arola, Shangri-La Hotel, Abu Dhabi

• Vineet Bhatia: Maharaja by Vineet, Mövenpick Hotel Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia; Maharaja East by Vineet, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Rasoi by Vineet, Gulf Hotel, Bahrain; Saffron Lounge by Vineet, Katara Village, Doha

• Pierre Gagnaire: Acacia by Pierre Gagnaire, Movenpick Hotel Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

• Nobuyuki 'Nobu' Matsuhisa: Nobu, Four Season Doha, Qatar

• Wolfgang Puck: CUT by Wolfgang Puck at Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay

• Gordon Ramsay: Opal by Gordon Ramsay, The St. Regis Doha, Qatar

• Marco Pierre White: Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill, Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi

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