MICHELIN 2016 BELUX, WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED FROM THIS YEAR’S EDITION?

So, last Monday the long wait was finally over… Belgium and Luxembourg’s new stars were uncovered at the yearly presentation in Ghent…This year we had to wait for two more weeks because of the tragic events that took place in Paris on November 13th. It turned out this years results were well worth waiting for… 3 new restaurants with a 2* rating and 10 new 1* chefs… I almost got it right 😉

One of the most intense moments of the day was not about getting one, two or three stars…no, the top moment was when Geert Van Hecke from De Karmeliet, in Bruges, my hometown, got a lifetime achievement award for 20 consecutive years with 3*…what a performance, what a career…RESPECT. As part of the ‘spotlight’ on Geert’s career, there was a brief round table interview with him and two of his successful former souschefs, Filip Claeys (from De Jonkman, 2*, in Bruges) and Maxime Collard (from La Table de Maxime, 1*, in Paliseul). Very entertaining and at times very funny…

Back to the guide now… Just to remind you, the guide uses the following five criteria when judging a restaurant:
• The quality of the ingredients used
• The identity of the kitchen
• The capacity to master cooking skills and flavours
• The value for money ratio
• Consistency

This was the 10th Michelin presentation for the 2016 edition and when asked what the trends were he saw so far, Michelin boss Michael Ellis identified three: firstly he pointed out that an impressive number of top talents are leaving the big name kitchens they were working at to set up shop for their own, very refreshing indeed and a guarantee for a bright culinary future! Secondly he stressed the increasing use of locally sourced/grown ingredients…this is also a very good evolution, in times were sustainability is a hot issue. Finally, he talked to us about the change in style of the outfit of diners which is more and more casual, relaxed…

I am not going to talk about all the new stars etc. as that has already been done extensively by other in a far better way than I could ever do, as I have too little exposure to the wide range of 1* restaurants in the region (117 to be precise). Instead I want to share some thoughts with you.

First thought: I was very happy to see that Nick Bril and his team were given their 2nd star… Yes, it’s going very quickly for The Jane but one has to admit that this is a remarkable restaurant in every sense of the word… I was there recently, for the first time…and surely not the last, and I was overwhelmed by the experience created by Sergio, Nick and so many others in this impressive group of exceptional hospitality professionals… Just maybe a philosophic consideration, what I really liked with The Jane is that they brilliantly succeeded in moving away from everything Oud Sluis stood for, but with the same drive for perfection…. This was at least the plan when the restaurant opened it’s doors, as the pressure of being at the top and having achieved everything that could be achieved had both creatively and humanly taken a heavy toll on the entire OS team in general and on Sergio Herman in particular.
When I visited The Jane, I felt very good with the kitchen at a 1* level…it fit like a glove with the location, the service, the cocktails, the overall experience…and most of all, with the guests who could fully appreciate the very different take on eating out one could experience here to the fullest.
On the other hand, it is obvious that Nick and Sergio are amongst the world’s best cooks… In their tasting menu, they always include an optional dish, which illustrates this perfectly. The extra dish I had the pleasure to taste was simply 3* level. It is of course unavoidable that this shines through into the dishes developed and served and The Jane, so therefore, reaching 2* level is no surprise.
This being said, it will be interesting to see how Nick and Sergio will make the dishes evolve, taking into consideration the newly gained 2* status…but without making The Jane into a top foodie destination like Oud Sluis was. The concept of The Jane is soooo cool that it would be a shame to see it change into an OS2… I am sure they will surprise us, yet again…

Second thought: In the 3* segment, Michelin wisely decided to make no changes. Indeed, a few restaurants are starting to get pretty close to the ultimate 3* reward but not close enough yet…exciting for next year!!! Thank god also that De Karmeliet will be able to leave the culinary stage with it’s 3 * till the last day.

Third thought…with 140 Michelin starred restaurants for a total of 1.114 mentioned restaurants in the Red Guide for Belux 2016, we reach a staggering 12,56% of restaurants in the Guide that hold at least 1*. Isn’t this too much, I ask myself? First of all, there is a risk of quality loss by having too much starred restaurants, all having to maintain the standards and expectations that come with the title. Secondly, getting one or more Michelin stars has a financial impact on a restaurant and not only a good one. There was a very interesting article by Jan Scheidtweiler published in De Tijd recently…a lot of Michelin starred restaurants are in financial trouble and things are not going to get better with the upcoming legal and fiscal reforms in Belgium. Thirdly, it seems a bit strange that, for a few years in a row now, the list of new stars clearly exceeds the one of lost stars… It’s actually quite uncommon, these days, for a restaurant to loose a star unless they close their doors…Time for a thorough review and maybe some much needed adjustments to the list for next year. Just a thought, but wouldn’t we be better of with three 3*’s, fifteen 2*’s and some eighty 1*’s ???

Final thought: To those who were inevitably disappointed by not getting their long awaited reward, there will always be inconsistencies or things one cannot explain. Best way to deal with this: chin up…put on your chef’s whites and keep cooking…never give up your dream…

It was again very special to feel the excitement and tension surrounding this great event. Thank you very much Michelin Belux for having me.
See you all next year and stay tuned for my Culinary Best of 2015, which will be published very soon….

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