The Michelin Guide Nordic Countries is Misleading The Gastronomic Bible Should Take Our Region More Seriously

Dear Michelin Guide,

You are the most well-known and prestigious restaurant guide in the world. Often referred to as a gastronomic Bible. For many people, it’s the main reference point when comparing restaurants. A Michelin restaurant has become a generic term – a noun in itself. When you speak of a Michelin-restaurant, people get distinct images in their head. Thus, you could say, the Michelin name is bigger than the book and larger than the brand.

Your hundred-and-nineteen-year-old history is fantastic! A car tire manufacturer who wanted people to travel more by creating a rating system for restaurants and hotels. How cool is that? I’ll be the first to admit – I’m a long-time fan. I have a Michelin plaque on my kitchen counter. A rusty steel poster, probably from the mid 20th century, showing the Michelin man, Bibendum, rolling a tire. It reads: Michelin at the top and Tyre Services at the bottom. I bought it at a French vintage store down the street from a couple who collects items from France. I’ve even placed an order with them to find me an original French Michelin Guide from 1984 – my birth year. It’s prepaid, and, who knows, maybe it will arrive one day.

My relationship to Michelin, however, is that of love-hate, and here’s why …

Mr. Michelin aka Bibendum
Mr. Michelin aka Bibendum

The Michelin Guide Nordic Countries is Misleading

As a food writer, I’m as much to blame as the next guy for giving Michelin the attention and hype they need to continue to reign on top. Every year, I speculate about the new possible Michelin stars, and, most years, I’ve attended the launches of the new Nordic Countries guide with great excitement. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to talk about restaurants in the Nordics without pointing out that the Michelin rank (or lack thereof) is actually misleading.

Søllerød Kro in Copenhagen is a one-star restaurant, but it’s actually a solid two-star, is a typical thing I have to say when giving recommendations.

Restaurant À L’aise in Oslo should have a star, but they didn’t get one this year either.

It saddens me to see how out of touch the red book is with the Nordic region. Key restaurants are missing completely and some of the ratings make absolutely no sense. Atli-Mar Yngvason is undeniably one of the best chefs in Norway, but his restaurants (first Pjoltergeist, later Katla) have never been featured once in the Guide. Not even with the lowest rank – a Michelin plate – which the Michelin Guide seems to have forgotten that they handed out to some Oslo eateries over ten years ago and never checked up on again. In the entire country of Norway, with more than 5 million inhabitants, one single restaurant (Smalhans) has been found worthy of the Bib Gourmand rating. Supposedly signaling good quality, good value cooking. Maybe it’s time to realize that the prices in Norway are just a slight bit higher than the rest of Europe? Smalhans deserves a Bib Gourmand, but so do restaurants like Arakataka, and many others.

All over the region, there are obvious two-starred restaurants that have been stuck with one star for years, despite being miles ahead of the competition. Already in 2016, I pointed out that Kadeau in Copenhagen and Gastrologik in Stockholm should expect a two-star upgrade. Yet, it took another two and three years, respectively, for Michelin to upgrade them. Any experienced diner would see they were getting meals at a much higher level there than at other one-starred venues. On the other end of the spectrum, Dill in Reykjavik lost their star this year, thus leaving the country of Iceland starless at the moment, and I’m struggling to see why. My meal there in March last year was at what I consider a solid one-star level, but as always, Michelin gives no reason for their choices.

The Michelin Guide still claims they re-visit all restaurants in the guide at least once per 18 months to assess the level. We know this just isn’t true. In the early 2000s, a Michelin inspector left his job and later published a book about life on the lonely road as an anonymous food reviewer. In the book, he revealed that Michelin only employed a fraction of the inspectors they alleged to have and that it was virtually impossible for the inspectors to re-visit most places more than once per 3-4 years. I’ve spoken to multiple chefs from high-level eateries in the Nordic who research every guest that walks in the door. Chefs who would recognize a Michelin inspector from a mile’s distance. Some of them haven’t had an inspection in over two years.

The Michelin Guide Nordic Countries 2019
The Michelin Guide Nordic Countries 2019

Still Two Michelin Stars to Restaurant Noma After 11 Years

Back in 2008, restaurant Noma in Copenhagen was awarded two Michelin stars. Since then, the cradle of the New Nordic cuisine and the restaurant that has given birth to a new generation of chefs, not only in Copenhagen but all over the region, has not rested on their laurels. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it should be almost impossible to miss out on the development that has happened at Noma in the last 11 years. Today, it’s so much more than a restaurant. Noma is a research lab, a creative hub, and for many, a school of cooking and hospitality. In terms of influence in the culinary world, I would argue that they took over the baton after restaurant el Bulli when they closed in 2011.

Will René Redzepi get his third star? This was the big question everyone was asking before the award ceremony at Musikhuset in Aarhus earlier this month. Most people I spoke to felt it was long overdue – the restaurant had proven itself time after time. But had the ranking as the world’s best restaurant multiple times sparked a political standpoint by Michelin to withhold the same acknowledgment? I figured that, if anything, the relocation in 2018, with the new concept of three distinct Nordic seasons, would give the Michelin Guide the perfect excuse to, finally, admit that René Redzepi was worthy of three stars.

The Aarhus audience didn’t have to hold their breath for very long as the band-aid was ripped immediately. Noma was announced first of the new two-starred venues. René Redzepi was not present. Seated in the audience, however, were some clearly disappointed, and, perhaps, wrongly ashamed, Noma staffers. Even the chefs who received their second star afterward, and had to share the stage with Noma’s head chef Benjamin Ing and restaurant manager James Spreadbury, seemed uncomfortable. But the only true embarrassment this night was the Michelin Guide. This was their one chance, in my opinion, to award the third star without further awkwardness. After this, I doubt Redzepi will ever care to personally attend a Michelin event again. That should be bad news for an organization that is so dependent on the media coverage each year – or maybe it was exactly the controversy they wanted?

What’s Wrong With the Michelin Guide?

I’m not the first to point out flaws with Michelin – it’s an annual tradition all over the world.

– What’s wrong with the Michelin Guide? Everything, said the brilliant writer A.A. Gill back in 2012.

As usual, he phrased it better than most people. The New Yorker once met up with the international director of Michelin (which was Jean-Luc Naret back in 2009) and, for the first time ever, also got to meet one of the anonymous inspectors. From their conversation, it is revealed that when Michelin launched their first New York Guide in 2005, it was a European team that assessed the city’s food scene. Only later did the guide hire New Yorkers to be inspectors. The same is the case with the Nordic region at the moment. Talking to chefs, I’ve come to understand that it’s usually British inspectors who pay the Nordic countries a visit, sometimes French or German, and on a rare occasion, I’ve heard about a Finnish inspector. This is also evident from the fact that Michelin announces news about the Nordic countries from the @MichelinGuideUK Twitter account. The 2019 Michelin Guide Nordic Countries was the sixth edition of the book. Isn’t it time to take the region seriously soon?

The 2019 Michelin Guide Nordic Countries was the sixth edition of the book. Isn’t it time to take the region seriously soon?

Few chefs or industry people will dare to voice their opinions publically, and I don’t blame them. Michelin is still powerful, despite being outdated and slow. In a year from now, I’ll probably speculate on another edition of the Michelin Guide, and later watch the ceremony unfold. Sadly, it will be with a little less excitement this time.

Kaitlin has also shared a very personal story about her relationship to the Michelin Guide – check it out!

What do you think about the current Michelin Guide Nordic Countries? Feel free to leave your opinion in a comment below.

Anders Husa

I am Anders Husa – a foodie living in Oslo. I eat at the best restaurants in Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and the major food destinations in the world. I share my foodie stories here.

22 comments

  • Could not agree more. Same goes for a lot of other countries as well. The M-guide are getting more and more irrelevant as a tool for searching out exelent restaurants !

  • I think Ask om Helsinki reserves a second star. I’ve eaten there twice during the last 2 months and I’ve been blown away each time by the delicate tastes, innovative use of ingredients and the staff’s friendliness and professionality. Best dessert I’ve ever had and best soup/bouillon.

  • Thanks and kudos for voicing your opinion on this. Although I have only dined on a small handful of Michelin star awarded restaurants I share this impression when it comes to the Michelin Guide in the Nordics. I can only imagine how unfair this must feel for the hard working and passionate professionals in our region. The Michelin Guide should take their job more serious, or not include the region at all. At the same time I feel like a hypocrite, as I can’t help contributing to the Michelin-hype.

    In your opinion, is this problem strictly restricted to the Nordic region? In other words, do you fully trust and agree with the Michelin-ratings in other parts of the world?

    • Thanks. It’s been on my mind for years, but this year was particularly damaging for Michelin’s reputation in the Nordics and it had to be said.

      I know this is not a problem that only pertains to the Nordics, with reference to the New York issues I mention in the text and also comments on my Facebook post. Personally, I find it hard to trust the guide almost anywhere I go. In Italy, I’ve chosen to avoid restaurants based on Michelin stars.

      • I think in the Nordic guide its more of a problem of Michelin under-scoring.

        This is arguably better, ie. you will not be disappointed.

        I’m not going to name individual restaurants, I don’t think that’s fair, but some of their guides are seriously over-scored.

        I’ve been disappointed by started restaurants in London, Singapore and Vienna, but never in the Nordics.

        • Under-scoring, yes, but also leaving out a bunch, which just makes no sense if you wanna make the best and most respected guide. Also not removing places that don’t belong in the guide anymore after 10 years.

        • I completely agree with Leon’s post. Alas, the San Francisco Bay Area is egregiously over-scored, for whatever reason. Three stars there seem to equal one in Oslo. It makes no sense.

  • Great post,

    For me the stand out omission is Mielcke and Hurtigkarl in Copenhagen, how can somewhere, ranked number 3 in Denmark in the White Guide not have a star? my meals there have easily been 1 star quality.

  • Even a 5 minute mini analysis of the history and demographic of the Michelin Guide makes it clear that you should be very lucky that the Guide even bothers to cover the region at all, it’s a bit like the foreign film category at the Oscars really. To a lesser extent for the Bib Gourmand categories and below, but the star categories are for the less than 0,1% of diners who spend 2000-5000kr on a meal. How many guest does the average 2-star restaurant in the Nordics have in 18 months, vs the cost of sending an inspector to that place? And for how many were the guide the formative reason – as opposed to the restaurant just being in the hotel – for choosing it? Compare that to the volumes of readership and guest at your typical international hubs of Paris, London, NYC, or Singapore or the actual number of driving guests the guide was made for in the countries bordering the Alps.

    Since the rise of the net and social media, why do you and a relative few other bloggers cling so hard to someone who doesn’t love you? It’s like caring about what Rolling Stones declares as the Top 100 songs of all time, in a world of if you like this then you probably like this recommendations based on who YOU are. You give that non-loving entity power it shouldn’t have, especially over chefs in the non-hubs the world over.

    • Thanks for your input! I agree with a lot of what you say. Why do we cling to the Michelin guide? I think I answer parts of that in my post, and also argue why it’s a bad idea. As for actually trusting the guide and using it when I research my own travels, I definitely don’t cling to it as a resource, as I find it hard to trust and even useless many places.

  • My biggest problem with the guide is not only the underjudging of Nordic restaurants but also their constant overjudging of German, French and e.g. Japanese restaurants. But I guess its a chicken or egg problem which to adjust 🙂

    I would say though that I do not agree on the nationality of inspectors – afterall we are thrilled when New York Times or similar fancy publications are taken back by our Nordicness here in Scandinavia. In principle nationality should not matter at all – only the ability to understand the roots of a local kitchen.

    • Thanks for your input! I see your point about nationality, and in general, do not disagree, but my point is that it feels like the Nordic region is just the leftover job these inspectors have to do once they are finished with their own respective regions.

  • I completely agree. The Michelin Guide is doing a disservice to many restaurants, particularly in the Nordic region, and has failed to recognize un-starred and under-starred chefs that have soared well beyond the stars.

  • Because Michelin is so opaque about its process of awarding stars, the best we can do as foodies is to regard their guides as merely guidelines rather than gospel. Taste is so subjective after all. What is considered 3 stars to one person may be regarded as 2 stars (or less!) to another. Even from city to city in the same country (e.g., USA), one can see that the Michelin star ratings are inconsistent

    • Thanks for your input. Some good points, although I’m not sure I would call Michelin guidelines. They’re more lagging behind, which is sort of the opposite of guidelines.

  • I can give you another example:
    Living in Vienna (and eating a lot, thus being capable of comparing Michelin-star restaurants), a number of restaurants here – in my view – are underrated as well, especially compared with French counterparts.
    The best – even empirically proven – example for this is Juan Amador (to my knowledge, the only three star chef who moved from a „Michelin Guide“ country (Germany) to a „Non-Guide“ country (Austria)): he had three stars in Germany for straight nine years (until he moved to Vienna) – since he came to Vienna, he (only) got two, even though he definitely does not cook worse (even some of the same dishes that were rewarded three stars) – the „unwritten“ Michelin law (which (obviously) also did have relevance in Scandinavia before it got its own guide) that restaurant in a country without guide does not get three stars obviously has relevance here as well (which by the way was constantly denied by the guide).
    As you mention NOMA: it certainly is the most prominent example of a restaurant that clearly, according to ANY standards, should be (and should have been) rewarded three stars. However, in many ways, they have set new standards, they have changed the world of fine dining (and middle of the pack as well) – do they really need the third star (even though Rene Redzepi, very honestly, admitted that he would like one)?
    And that leads me to a more general issue: Probably chefs should put less emphasis on their career/life goal of gaining stars. If you do so, you make yourself extremely dependent to an “evaluation style” which probably is not the appropriate one for yourself – the guide is genuinely French, thus French cooking techniques and typical ingredients are clearly favored by the guide (even though they deny that as well) – any restaurant doing things differently thus will be at a disadvantage. Of course, this is well known and I am stating the obvious, but my understanding is that within this community it is very hard to escape the intrinsic pressure of being a Michelin-starred chef (just as it is similarly hard for teenagers escaping social media or games – imagine a 16-year old without a mobile phone) – in the best case, a star should be a “nice to have” but not a “must”.
    Of course, the problem/issue is an economic one as well: stars bring new customers and since this type of cuisine is extremely cost-intensive, restaurants are dependent on being fully-booked (or nearly fully-booked. The good news is, even though as mentioned by you the guide is still very powerful, regarding customer acquisition, things are changing (also due to good and proficient food blogs such as yours)
    However, my understanding is that the guide really feels its declining importance and that things are changing – that at least is also my interpretation of the last guide in France – downgrading chefs like Marc Veyrat would have been unthinkable just a few years ago and I guess this is one attempt by the guide to „shape its profile again“
    What the future bears – we’ll see, but my hope is that we will observe some change in the sense that the power of the guide will change.

    • Hi Gerhard. Thanks a lot for your input! I agree with most of what you say here, and I think you’re definitely right that Noma don’t _need_the third star.

    • Hi Gerhard. Thanks a lot for your input! I agree with most of what you say here, and I think you’re definitely right that Noma doesn’t need the third star.

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