It is the noon after the third annual revelation of stars in Thailand.
29 restaurants have received a prestigious Michelin Star, and 94 sit on the Bib Gourmand List for Bangkok, Phuket-Phang Nga, and Chiang Mai. Chefs are getting new whites. They’re getting their photos taken. They’re being interviewed. And shaking their hand with a warm congratulations and words of encouragement is he: Gwendell Poullenec, International Director of the Michelin Guides.
In a room away from the excited buzz of new and retaining stars, and a celebratory luncheon to suit, we sit down with Gwendell for a brief chat. The man is serious, but does not shy away from telling us about his family, and about shying away from spicy food. It’s a rare glimpse into a very humane moment. But then again, there is something here that sits away from cold white table cloths and more towards a personal movement anyway. ‘Authenticity’ drops a few times throughout the conversation. So does sustainability, and particularly, Thailand and sustainability.
At the ceremony in the morning, Chef Supsakorn ‘Ice’ Jongsiri of Sorn moves us to near tears in his Thank You speech (Sorn attained two Michelin stars, a massively commendable feat given its mere one year of opening at the time). Chef Ice tells the story of farmers in Southern Thailand who were entirely heartbroken because they had to throw away their good, great, quality produce due to lack of demand.
It is a shaking wake up call, but one that Gwendell Poullenec has long kept an eye out for. Read on for our exclusive interview.
[All images courtesy of the Michelin Guide Thailand]
Most of my career has been at the Michelin Guide. I joined about 15 years ago, and worked in leading the international development of the Guide, starting in the US and then moving to Asia. I spent 4 years in Tokyo, where we launched the first guides in Japan. We then also launched in Hong Kong, before I moved back to Paris to oversee the international development worldwide. In September 2019, I was appointed the International Director of the Michelin Guide.
I attend a lot of the launches, yet being the face of a group of anonymous inspectors is just one part of the job. I work on expanding the Michelin Guide further, and we are still scouting locations. I also manage the team of inspectors worldwide, and ensure the Guide is always in line with client expectations.
Well, I can’t share pictures or real identities… [laughs]
But I can tell you a bit about the way we work. The idea of the Michelin Guide is to provide a trustworthy recommendation. To ensure that, our inspectors eat at restaurants anonymously to ensure the same experience as any other customer — after all, we want to recommend restaurants for everyone, not just VIPs. The main part of the assignment is to find and eat at the best places. We discuss with local and international teams, and all recommendations are made on a collective decision.
Today, we have more than 15 different nationalities working at the Guide, including Thai people. What they have in common is not always language, but they are all very passionate about what they do.
They need to have had training and real experience in the culinary field. We don’t have people just out of culinary school. We expect them to have had a prominent position in a restaurant or hospitality business. We then also train them in the field, and the full process may take up to three years.
From an external point of view, it can seem like a very glamorous job, but think about it: you’re eating at a restaurant for roughly 300 or maybe even near 400 meals a year. It’s quite a lot. And you have to remain fully committed and open-minded. You have to enjoy your meals, and you have to enjoy going to restaurants. It is your job, but you do have to enjoy it, and remain fair when assessing all types of cuisines.
The Michelin Guide may impact in different ways. For one, it creates a real positive emulation, especially between chefs. The Guide becomes a clear benchmark for them and a trigger to do their best. Once they reach one level, they want to push further. It also attracts a lot of international talent. The more starred restaurants you have, the more people are interested to work in these places. There’s a real development of culinary know-how.
It also attracts tourism, as food is one of the main attractions for international tourists. It’s creating a higher demand and more and more demanding customers.
You have more savvy customers, but also more savvy locals. The interest in the quality food is rising. Thailand is a very interesting example. The number of One Star restaurants keeps increasing, which is a testament to the quality of the offer. More stars means that the culinary landscape has evolved. Here in Thailand it’s a really healthy development.
A global trend we are really seeing is attention to the quality of the products, the ability to source local, and to tell the story of the producer. There needs to be transparency in the way restaurants work, and sustainability is also very important — not only in produce, but also in the way we work. Think, food waste. It’s all part of the new customer expectation.
Thailand really has something to say on this. Whilst sustainability is a real global trend, it is really authentic in Thailand. If you look around the region, there are not so many culinary destinations that have their own culinary signature in terms of cooking or products. Many destinations mainly use imported resources. In Thailand, you don’t. Chefs here are putting a highlight on local production and it’s very encouraging.
Don’t cook for the star.
You have to care your products, attain the skills, have a real personality, and manage to keep up the consistency throughout time and menu.
The stars are recognition and recommendation, but in first line you have to work for the customer, and only for the customer, and among those customers there may be an inspector, and there may be a star.
I do, when I have the time for that!
I try to avoid being too specific about that; otherwise I will be offered the same thing every time I enter a place. [laughs]
I have four girls at home, and normally I cook family type of food for family time. I enjoy diversity too; I never do the same recipe twice.
Not really. After all, inspiration always comes from what you manage to buy at the market. As outlined in the Guide, the story always starts with the product. And then depending on the product you have, you get an idea…
I will be frank. When it’s too spicy, it gets quite difficult for me. [laughs]
Here you have a lot of diversity, though. I like everything. I’m still looking for something I don’t like.
Well, tonight is actually the Gala Dinner for the Michelin Guide Thailand. It’s quite interesting because it tells the story of Thailand in some way, through local products and sustainability.
Thinking about where to go for dinner, it’s important to acknowledge that as a customer, you always have a choice. You have a choice to follow a Michelin Guide recommendation, and you have a choice to pick one place over another. These days, the story-telling or what the chef and his/her team care about is something that customers really take into account. It’s something I think about very seriously too when I head out for dinner.