(AFP) – Nov 15, 2007
TOKYO (AFP) — France's esteemed Michelin guide next week launches its first edition outside the Western world in Tokyo, where the project has stirred intense interest but also concerns about Eurocentrism.
The Michelin reviewers, who can make or break chefs in Europe, have an intimidating task in Tokyo, which has at least 160,000 restaurants, more than any other city in the world.
The Tokyo version of the famous red book will be unveiled Monday and published in both Japanese and English. Sixty-five percent of the restaurants covered serve Japanese cuisine, with most of the rest French, said Jean-Luc Naret, the global director of Michelin guides.
"The number that will be awarded stars will remain a surprise," he told AFP.
He pledged that the selection of restaurants "will truly pay tribute to Tokyo and to the different currents of Japanese cuisine," he said.
He said the guide would cover restaurants serving kaiseki, Japan's artistic haute cuisine in which small, simple portions of food are presented individually with utmost care.
Other restaurants include specialists in soba, buckwheat noodles which are one of Japan's most popular dishes, and fugu, the storied fish which can only be prepared by licensed chefs because its entrails contain deadly poison.
While Japan has a major industry in food publishing, competitive ratings are a relatively new concept, with many local restaurant guides purely running paid advertisements.
The arrival of the prestigious foreign guide has elicited major interest in Japanese media -- Naret has given more than 300 interviews since March -- but also stirred passionate debate.
The restaurants are judged by a team of three French and two Japanese experts.
The principal fear is that a Western guide will not appreciate the subtleties of Japanese cuisine, where a meal is judged not only by what is on the plate but by the finesse with which it is presented.
In some restaurants, it is customary for a chef to write in calligraphy a poem about the customer who has reserved the table.
Yoshihiro Murata, owner and head chef of the famous Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto, said he hoped the Michelin guide would teach foreigners about Japanese cuisine but also expressed concern.
"I feel somewhat ill at ease with the idea that European standards will be used to judge the depth of Japanese culinary art, such as the dishware, placement of calligraphy, flower arrangements and the ambience," he told the Mainichi Shimbun.
But food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto was supportive of the Michelin project, which comes amid a global boom in the popularity of Japanese food.
"This is an opportunity for Japanese cuisine to break out of its current isolation and move into the rest of the world. Chefs should learn humbly from the attitude of Michelin, which values creativity," Yamamoto said.
The debate has also raged on the Internet.
"These are French people who want to judge Japanese cuisine according to French standards," said Akira Ito on his blog about food. "Japanese people who take part in this ought to be ashamed of themselves."
The controversy mirrors the uproar during the release of Michelin's first guide outside Europe in New York in 2005.
Much of New York media skewered the guide, saying it showed French conceit by focusing on French cuisine and ignoring the sweeping range of restaurants offered by the city's ethnic communities.
But the New York Michelin guide has managed to sell 120,000 copies, enough to persuade the authors to expand in the United States. Michelin started a guide for San Francisco last year and also next week launches editions for Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
For Tokyo, guide director Naret denied any Eurocentrism. He said that eventually the entire review staff will be Japanese.
"Once you have the guide in your hands and see the quality of restaurants that we put first, I don't think you'll be able to say anymore that we don't understand Japanese cuisine," he said.
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