For more than a century, French tyre company Michelin has been publishing the Michelin Guide, also known as the Red Guide, considered the oldest hotels and restaurants reference guide in Europe, which awards stars of excellence to a select number of establishments. Till this day, the acquisition or loss of a star can play a tremendous role in the success or failure of a restaurant.
While those who’ve visited Michelin-star restaurants can probably attest that it isn’t just the food that makes an impact on patrons, it begs the question: Why does Malta still not have a Michelin-star restaurant of its own? With an ever-growing list of local eateries – some established, others still in their infancy – it’s fair to say that at least a handful of Maltese restaurants are deserving of such an award, so what’s missing?
Paul Buttigieg, head chef at Tmun Restaurant in Gozo, believes quite a few restaurants in Malta have the potential to obtain a Michelin star. “However, the Michelin guide is not everywhere yet. There aren’t any Michelin-star restaurants in Australia and South America either, for example, despite the fact that these two continents have some of the top restaurants in the world according to another highly coveted guide, the San Pellegrino Top 100. Therefore, in my opinion, for a restaurant in Malta to obtain a Michelin star is also partially dependent on commercial decisions taken by the Michelin guide.”
Paul Buttigieg - Tmun
Together with his brother Patrick, Paul was raised in his parents’ restaurant, located in Xlendi at the time, making this choice of career a natural one for him from the get-go, and one which he believes is worth all the hard work and long hours. “It’s not just a case of sourcing the best quality, local ingredients, cooking from your soul or making sure every single customer is happy. It’s a lifestyle, and when you enjoy what you do it’s very rewarding.”
Chef Marvin Gauci, the mind behind acclaimed restaurants Tarragon, Caviar & Bull and Buddhamann, is in agreement that Malta’s culinary scene does boast a few contenders of its own. “The Michelin Guide is interesting, and while I cannot say much about the criteria for getting a star, I do know that I have eaten in Maltese restaurants that have what it takes to earn one. One Michelin star is mainly about the kitchen, the chef’s quality of ingredients and flavours – at least a few restaurants in Malta have that.”
Marvin Gauci - Tarragon, Caviar & Bull and Buddhamann
Marvin first got involved in the industry at the age of 13, and while many events have led to the success he enjoys today, he says that the whole experience has been a learning, rollercoaster journey – “food is my life,” he says. So what does this precious accolade mean to him, and what will it take for a Maltese restaurant to get the recognition? “The value of a Michelin star is significant, and it’s clear that people nowadays care about whether a restaurant has a star or not when searching for a place to dine,” he explains. “As for getting recognised, the guide itself needs to send food critics and representatives to Malta. I believe that, if it does, the Michelin Guide will find local restaurants with the quality they’re looking for.”
Kevin Bonello, chef de cuisine at the Xara Palace Hotel, says one needs to distinguish between a fine-dining restaurant and what it entails to be equated with a Michelin-star restaurant, as, although he believes that lots of local restaurants have improved drastically over the years, Malta’s culinary scene is still lacking on many fronts.
Kevin Bonello - Xara Palace Hotel
“The main shortcomings are consistency; front-of-house personnel, which is a big issue as most of the service staff still regard this job as a way of making extra money rather than a career; and that many local chefs do not make the most of local produce,” he explains. “A large number of clients that visit restaurants are foreign, and just as we expect to savour local produce when we travel, foreign patrons expect the same when they come to Malta. Copying dishes from famous chefs and serving them in a local restaurant is useless, and personally, it gives me no pride or passion as it is not something I would have created myself.”
Having a Michelin star, says Kevin, places a restaurant a cut above the rest, yet, the level of stress that a star brings to a restaurant is something that locally we know little or nothing about. “Getting a star is one thing, but retaining it is much more difficult as the expectations for that restaurant will continue to grow. Getting a Michelin star or two is a positively life-changing experience, both financially and in terms of reputation, but losing a star or a grading can be much worse, and there have been cases where restaurants closed down as a result.”
“In my opinion, there are only two restaurants currently that offer a Michelin-star experience, but one thing we certainly need to start working on is exposure by inviting press and Michelin inspectors to experience our cuisine,” says Kevin. “It’s important for us to send the message that Malta can offer a Michelin-star experience in order to attract inspectors to our island, as that’s where it all starts. One might not get a star on the first or second inspection, but then it’s up to the establishment to make the necessary amendments to eventually get that star.”