International ranking system of restaurants is in serious credibility crisis: Food expert
BARÇIN YİNANÇ- İstanbul
The international ranking system of restaurants is in a serious credibility crisis, with many of them having turned into profit-seeking platforms, food expert Vedat Milor has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
Tell us why you are critical of the current rating systems.
There isn’t any credible source to rate restaurants. Rating institutions, let’s say like Michelin, turned into companies that have to be profitable.
In order not to lose money, they had to get money from restaurants as well as from governments.
The same thing holds for other universal rating systems, like the magazine 50 Best. They also get money from boards of tourism. And then they set up a jury which is supposedly, on paper, not known, but in practice, they are known because they call the restaurants in order to make reservations. Otherwise, it is impossible to reserve without giving your names. These people typically eat for free. If you look at the higher echelon of the gastronomy world, about one out of three clients eat for free.
In short, these listings ended up basically favoring those who pay them.
And then there is social media. What is coming to the fore right now is how photogenic a particular dish is. Restaurants want dishes to look really good so they use all kinds of tricks which involves the use of many chemicals. But then there is a discrepancy between the essence, the quality and the form.
And many restaurants are now devising menus that will be relevant for 12 months as opposed to presenting dishes that are based on seasonal ingredients. But good cooking involves seasonality, especially in different regions.
I think right now there is a very serious crisis in terms of ranking systems.
What are the consequences?
As one out of three costumers don’t pay the bill you and I end up subsidizing them because we pay more. And now we have restaurants where no cooking takes place in their kitchens. The food is not cooked there; they are assembly points, because they have to dazzle. Many things are precooked.
Maybe we should not feel sorry that Turkish restaurants do not make it to these rankings?
They still have a positive impact because restaurants compete with one and other and it is an incentive to reach certain standards. The best restaurants in Turkey are typically the ones specializing in particular dishes, like pide (Turkish pizza). We have amazing dishes, but most of the restaurants that feature the best examples are typically very simple. And we have several dishes which are very labor-intensive; but we usually find them in countryside weddings.
But in a way it could be misleading for our chefs wanting to make it to these ranking lists because they are not looking at the best of their traditions. I accept looking for novelties, provided that you have a very good foundation. They have to learn, for instance, how to work on a carcass or make a fillet from a fish. Once a chef asked the fishmonger in front of me to do the fillet, and when I asked he said he did not know how to do it.
So you are saying some of the best restaurants in Turkey will never make it to international lists?
That’s right. In the best of the world, something has to very thorough, but with sophistication. And that’s very rare. Chefs like that in the whole world might not be more than 20-30. So to me the second best is to forget the extra sophistication and to do really well what you do. But when it comes to these time-tested dishes; we are in the danger of losing it today in Turkey. If you look at the best of Turkish cuisine, the reason why it is rich is because it is a palace cuisine, the cuisine of a multi-ethnic multicultural empire. Some of our best dishes really come from that tradition. But today most people in Istanbul never heard of many dishes from the Ottoman times.
To me the anomaly here is this: Instead of learning the basic, Turkish cuisine’s greatest classics, learning that technique, our new chefs are looking to the very strange combination and molecular techniques and use of chemicals in the food.
It is also important to create and try for new combinations but it has to come after learning Turkish traditional cuisine’s technique and the best ingredients in the country, etc.
How do you evaluate the food criticism that is relatively new in Turkey?
There is an inverse relationship between the emergence of the food criticism and food shops and the quality of cooking. Because the quality of cooking is declining. And food writing is definitely not professional in Turkey. In order to make a meaningful writing, to comment about a great lamb chop you have to compare with 1000 other lamb chops.
You need those experiences as reference points.
Yet the attitude of those in the food criticism world is “whatever I give to this country they will accept it.
Do you think Turks go after good food?
On average, no. Among all the countries I have been in, I will count Turkey as one of the least sophisticated about food. Turks don’t have good palate. Because people don’t travel enough, when they travel they don’t try enough, they are really close-minded. They don’t taste and try many things. Also people smoke very heavily and that makes it lose their taste.
That’s a pity since Turkey has the potential to offer so many varied dishes, especially in different regions.
Yes. Turkey emerged from an empire, so there is diversity, it’s a country with rich traditions and actually very good food but it’s very hard to find them in the restaurants.
The problem is that this variety is being lost. When you go to different regions, there is more of a uniformity; they are losing the many good dishes. They are cooked in people’s private homes but you don’t find them in restaurants.
And also those in the restaurant business have nothing to do with gastronomy. They make money in different sectors like construction or trade.
What would you advise to foreign visitors for a good food experience in Turkey?
They should try different types of restaurants, like meyhane (tavern), which is truly the product of Ottoman Empire and real multiethnic cuisine. They should find a good esnaf lokantası (local restaurant), which is the opposite, a product of Anatolian culture, what people eat at home.
They should find a kebab house, where they hand-cut kebab and not those using a machine to grind meat. They should try a fish house which feature some of the fish that can only be find in Turkey like lüfer or small fish like red mullet.
And they should try an example of “new Anatolian cuisine. Some new chefs, mostly ladies, but not always, are inspired by the past Turkish cooking but they are putting their personal touch into it. These are rather small restaurants serving a limited number of guests.
WHO IS VEDAT MİLÖR?
Born in 1955, Vedat Milör graduated from Galatasaray High School and studied economics at Boğaziçi University. He went to the University of California, Berkeley for his postgraduate studies. He was rewarded a nine-month fellowship in France intended for a PhD research, where he says he practically studied how to wine and dine at the Michelin-starred restaurants.
In 2004, while working at Georgia Tech as an associate professor, he started Gastroville with Mikael Jonsson and laid out criteria for restaurant evaluations.
While teaching at Koç University as a guest scholar he started to write reviews for Milliyet newspaper in 2005. His TV program started in 2007 and later left academia for the gastronomic world.
In 2009 he launched the website Gastromondiale and continues to write for daily Hürriyet.