Michelin recognition is a boon for Vancouver and its restaurants, but why all the secrecy?

Masayoshi Baba of Masayoshi restaurant on Fraser Street in Vancouver celebrates after being awarded a Michelin star on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2022.  (Arrthy Thayaparan/CBC - image credit)
Masayoshi Baba of Masayoshi restaurant on Fraser Street in Vancouver celebrates after being awarded a Michelin star on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2022. (Arrthy Thayaparan/CBC - image credit)

France's internationally renowned Michelin Guide came to Canada this year, first visiting Toronto and then recognizing 60 restaurants in Vancouver — eight of which earned a single Michelin star.

Restaurant owners say it's a big deal because it puts them on the map as a worldwide culinary destination and creates a buzz among locals, who might be enticed to try something new or visit a place they hadn't heard of before.

"It shows that whatever we're doing, we're doing it right," said Alberto Mura, the general manager of Italian restaurant Carlino, one of the Michelin Guide's 40 recommendations in Vancouver.

"I think we're going to have more business coming in," he said, adding that he feels he and his staff are more motivated and proud of their work thanks to the new recognition.

But neither Mura nor anyone else outside of the Michelin Guide knows the details of the rating system used to rank his restaurant.

According to Alexandra Gill, the B.C. restaurant critic for the Globe and Mail, that's partly out of necessity.

"The anonymity of the inspectors is its greatest strength," she said in an interview. "It's what gives it legitimacy and authority because nobody knows who they are. Nobody can buy their votes."

"But the whole process is shrouded in secrecy, and some of it seems disingenuous."

CBC's Front Burner looks at the controversy during Michelin's visit to Toronto:

Traditionally, Michelin stars were reserved for expensive, fine-dining restaurants — with white tablecloths, says Gill. That seems to be changing, as the guide embraces more casual fare done well, but Gill says it also appears there are different standards for different cities.

"The great thing about the Vancouver award is that it really captured what we do best here," she said, highlighting the prominence of Asian cuisine, casual dining and farm-to-table cooking in the guide's selections.

"When you look at it from a global perspective, and you look at the other Michelin Guides, it seems a little weird," she added, wondering whether Michelin's inspectors use the same review process in each city they visit.

Michelin stars a double-edged sword, Top Chef Canada judge says

Mijune Pak, a judge on the cooking show Top Chef Canada and host of the Michelin awards in Vancouver, says earning a Michelin star gives restaurants a lot of exposure but also creates extremely high expectations.

"It's one of the few awards where you can lose it," she said in an interview.

Pak explains that the guide's anonymous inspectors will eventually return to all of the restaurants that earned an award or recommendation and decide whether they still deserve the honour.

"There's so much pressure riding on that," she said.

While the threat of losing their status on the Michelin guide can be stressful for chefs and their teams, Pak says it's also a recipe for excellence — setting an international standard for restaurants to strive for.

Maggie Macpherson/CBC
Maggie Macpherson/CBC

Gill says international tourists have long asked her why the city didn't have any Michelin-starred restaurants, but as the guide expands worldwide, it has to be sponsored and funded.

Michelin's arrival in Canada was part of a multi-year funding deal with tourism boards to help the hospitality industry bounce back from the pandemic.

"I don't know how much money was paid, but Destination Vancouver gave a large sum and a commitment for five years," said Gill, explaining that the process here was separate from Toronto's.

Destination Vancouver declined multiple requests for an interview but said in an email that it was working with Michelin "on marketing and promotional efforts only."

In a statement from Michelin North America, Andrew Festa credited the quality of the city's culinary scene for getting the guide's attention.

"Destination marketing organizations (convention and visitor bureaus) cover some of the costs incurred in establishing the Michelin Guide in a new location," Festa said. "This is to fund communication, digital and marketing campaigns to promote the selections."

B.C.'s Tourism Ministry told CBC it did not have a role in the Michelin Guide campaign. Destination Canada said the local chapter handled everything related to the Vancouver bid.

Arrthy Thayaparan/CBC
Arrthy Thayaparan/CBC

Gill says tourism marketing boards all over the world pay for the Michelin Guide to come to their cities.

"I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing," she said. "If you want to have anonymous inspectors and you want them to do a proper job, you have to pay for meals ... their airfare and their hotels."

She says the buzz around the awards has stuck around, and the next tourist season should be a big one for Vancouver's restaurants. Even as British Columbians deal with inflation and the rising cost of living, she says many of the restaurants added to the Michelin Guide are still reasonably priced.

"There's definitely something for everyone on this list," she said. "The Bib Gourmands are good value for money ... and there's some great small restaurants on there."

"Compared to the international standards for Michelin Guide restaurants, they are really accessible."