Hurray! We’re star-dusted!
So, the rumors are true! The long-expected Michelin Guide is coming to Turkey. Michelin Guide’s International Director Gwendal Poullennec was in Istanbul to deliver the news in person. The guide, being one of the most respected restaurant evaluation systems in the world, will distribute stars only in Istanbul for now, and eventually is expected to expand to holiday destinations such as Bodrum, Urla, Çeşme and the like. The results will be announced on Oct. 11, and we will only then be able to learn which restaurants could have their share of stardust.
In the restaurant world, a chef’s rank is usually referred to by her Michelin-star rating, almost like referring to an epaulette in the army. Indeed, in the past, the precursor of all restaurant rating systems, the Michelin Guide has been the constant guide of fine dining enthusiasts. However, the start of the guide has nothing to do with the food. André and Edouard Michelin brothers, who started to manufacture automobile tires in 1889, prepared a kind of guide containing information from gas stations to repairmen, accommodation and restaurants on the roads to encourage road travel. From 1904 onward, they also included certain countries outside of France, and until 1920 the guide was distributed for free, and eventually, they turned it into a guidebook for sale after noticing its popularity. After 1926, they started to emphasize quality and give one star to places liked by their secret inspectors. In the course of the first five years, the stars increased to three, and in 1936, they published their starring criteria. The small, red-covered guide has thus become the definitive guide for foodies in and around Europe.
Michelin stars gleamed primarily in European skies. Its spread around the world can be considered as a fairly recent development. Even the United States was only included in the system in 2005. The leading country on the Asian continent was Japan in 2007, still one of the leading countries with a whopping 443 stars in total. The Michelin guide has adopted a policy of increasing expansion in recent years. The countries where Michelin stars are awarded has now reached 38 countries together with Turkey. New expansions are announced every year, especially countries that want to attract foodies and invest in gastronomy tourism are making great efforts to be included in the system. Sometimes it is the whole country and sometimes only a city is scanned by inspectors to find out which venue will be gilded with stars. Last year, Moscow and Slovenia were included, and this year, before Turkey, or rather more correctly Istanbul, it was announced that Estonia and Dubai would join Michelin. The guide finds resources, which they call local partners, in the newly included countries, and it is usually those local partners that provide the local financing. Generally, countries that want to position themselves as a gastronomic destination become local partners through their respective ministries or tourism organizations. The partner in Turkey is the Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA), operating under the auspices of the Culture and Tourism Ministry. In fact, along with Poullennec, Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy was also present at the press announcement held in the newly restored and opened Atatürk Culture Center (AKM.
The Michelin rating system is strictly regulated, with inspectors from 15 countries whose identities are meticulously kept secret, traveling the world, evaluating sometimes up to 300 restaurants a year, and doing this as a full-time job. All expenses are covered by Michelin. The awarding of Michelin stars is based on a strict set of criteria evaluated by inspectors. Evaluation criteria can be summarized as the quality of the ingredients, the mastery of the cooking techniques, the balance of taste, originality and consistency in the service. However, do not think that the guide is just like the zero teacher who barely distributes ribbons to his students. Indeed, getting a star is not an easy task, and it can be even more difficult to maintain that hard-earned star, but there are other evaluation categories in the guide other than the stars where certain establishments can find a mention. I notice that, as Michelin expands in the world, it adapts itself to the geography, sometimes a new list category emerges, or street foods might be included, even if they are not considered elsewhere. As for the practices in different countries, a separate list has been made for gastropubs in Ireland, which is famous for its pub culture. In fact, it would be appropriate to consider such a category for Turkish meyhane, a genre of its own, the local taverns with amazing meze spreads. In certain Asian countries, street food places were listed, and a few getting their share of a star. And there are other categories, such as Bib Gourmand, listing places that do not meet the star criteria, but offer great food, so it is good value for money worth visiting for an exceptionally tasty experience. By the way, Bib is the short name for the Michelin mascot Bibendum, the charming character made of stacked tires. The newly introduced Green Star, on the other hand, is awarded to restaurants that implement the principle of sustainability. Plate, which was added in 2016, is given to places where you can eat really well, as the name indicates, offering a dish worth trying. In Turkey, we have the tradition of single-dish restaurants such as köfteci, offering only grilled meatballs, or pideci, serving only a choice of pide, the Turkish answer to pizza, and the list goes on expanding to işkembeci serving tripe soup and the like. Last but not least, muhallebici, the iconic pudding shops that serve milk puddings. I believe, in Turkey, they are the places that serve the most satisfying plates. I wonder if they can be listed in such a system; perhaps Turkey can be another pioneer in introducing new listing categories. Time will tell.
Maybe we should be happy that restaurants will become star-dusted, but let’s not get too hopeful. There is a phrase that Poullennec often repeats. He says their inspectors will not leave a single stone unturned, they will scour the city, scrutinizing every possible candidate venue and try not skip any place. In a city like Istanbul, their job will be very difficult. We are afraid that categories such as Plate and Bib Gourmand will not be able to reach many places worthy of mention, and only a handful of restaurants serving chef cuisine will be consoled by a handful of shared stars, so it will rather be a sprinkle of stardust, not a heavily loaded list. There is a much-repeated saying for this eternal megapolis: Life ends but Istanbul would never! In my opinion, Istanbul restaurants will never end with tasting, bite by bite a lifetime would not be enough.