Why Canadian restaurants still don’t have any Michelin stars?

Is Canada’s absence in the famous red book a reflection of lack of interest, motivation or resources? The author considers that there are several reasons to explain this absence but the most important is the fact that Canadian restaurants have not yet managed to create a unique experience for their clients.

“Alo” in downtown Toronto, was recognized in 2017 as the number one restaurant in Canada by Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants.

When Supinya Junsata was eleven years old, her mother opened a restaurant in the streets of Bangkok. In 2018, sixty years after opening, the family venture has become a legend as the first street food restaurant in Thailand awarded the most prestigious status in gastronomy: a Michelin Star. Supinya is the unlikely hero of this story.

The name of the restaurant is “Jay Fai” (translated as “Auntie Mole”), a nickname that Supinya adopted and that everyone knows, but not precisely because of the Michelin Star. Everyone knows Jay Fai because she is a respectable and outstanding, but eccentric cook, wearing big ski goggles and intense red lipstick.

She breaks all traditional stereotypes around world-known chefs, and her restaurant would never be described as a conventional or stereotypically pretentious Michelin Star winner. Her famous crab omelet cooked on a wok over charcoal is pure perfection. She does not cut corners, using only the best ingredients available. She worships quality and flavours, adding her knowledge and passion to the preparation of every dish. Her character and personality completes Jay Fai gastronomic experience.

What is the secret ingredient?

As I was reflecting on the news of Jay Fai’s award, I realized that Canada has no restaurants with a Michelin Star. I believe there are a few reasons. First, there is probably lack of interest in the region from the Michelin organization. Introducing a new city to the collection of guides is not a simple task. It requires both implementing and maintaining a guide that highlights restaurants and hotels with exceptional offerings.

For now, the well-known Michelin Guide, which awarded its first restaurant star in 1926, is probably not ready to expand their portfolio of 30 countries to include Canada. Perhaps Canada’s cultural, gastronomic and tourism leaders should initiate a conversation with the team responsible for the famous red book created by the second largest tire manufacturer in the world.

Is Canada’s absence a reflection of lack of interest, motivation or resources?  I don’t think so. Canada has both an expansive geography lending itself to a rich variety of ingredients, as well as a densely populated, urban and cosmopolitan culture bringing together people from countries all over the planet. Canadians are intensely interested in experiencing internationally recognized award-winning menus at home.

The latest generation of Canadian chefs and restaurateurs design their menus to bring fresh and innovative concepts inspired by the global tapestry and influences that only exists in Canada. We have restaurants like Alo in downtown Toronto, which was recognized in 2017 as the number one restaurant in Canada by Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants. Alo is pricey, nearly impossible to obtain a reservation, and only offers two strict sittings each night. Once seated, you will be the beneficiary of a tasting menu, especially curated by the chef, a concept that resembles the experience of the best restaurants in the world.

There is an important distinction between an expensive restaurant or a fine restaurant, compared with an internationally awarded restaurant or a Michelin star restaurant. Unfortunately, Canada does not even make the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a list where Eleven Madison Park in New York is number one, while “Central” from my beloved city Lima, Peru took fifth place. In Toronto, we have beautiful dining establishments, with exquisite designs that might be found in Architectural Digest, but the key is that the anonymous Michelin inspectors care more about the mastery of the cuisine.

The secret ingredient to any awarded gastronomy experience is status, recognition and reputation.

The second reason Canada has no Michelin star restaurants is more important: uniqueness.  The secret ingredient to any awarded gastronomy experience is status, recognition and reputation. I remember when we visited the Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, awarded as the number one restaurant in the world. El Celler is located in a privileged geographical area, in a working-class neighbourhood in the medieval city of Girona, in the Catalonia region of Spain.

El Celler de Can Roca is a family restaurant run by the brothers Roca, built on hardwork and tradition. It is a continuation of a modest restaurant opened by their parents in 1967, and now serves as a reference, a source of knowledge and inspiration, a masterpiece. To be honest I was expecting a pretentious experience instead of a restaurant with so many important components that awaken your imagination.

We made the reservation almost one year in advance. When the day finally arrived, we had already been enjoying other restaurants in the area, taking in all the history and surroundings of Girona. Meandering through the cobblestone medieval streets, we decided to walk from the historic city centre to the restaurant using the navigation on our iPhone. The anticipation of the experience after the yearlong wait was reaching a crescendo. The problem was that we forgot to charge the phone and it died before we arrived. We were lost!

El celler de Can Roca, Spain, awarded as the number one restaurant in the world. Photo: Jose Antonio Villalobos.

Not a person was in sight … for a moment we didn’t know what to do. Then as if by a proverbial sign from above, we noticed a small, discreet, almost imperceptible actual sign with El Celler de Can Roca written on it in bold letters, pointing lost people like us in the right direction. From the moment we arrived, the experience was beyond our expectations, dare I say magical.

Every bite had so much to say, from the smallest “burrito de mole poblano y guacamole” in the world, a celebration to be open and to discover flavours, colours and new culinary experiences, to the notable wine list, to the moment when Josep Roca came to our table interested in knowing who we were, our story, our journey.

He never asked about the food. I looked around and I realized that the space was the perfect stage to display all of those flavours, to facilitate the enjoyment of the experience, to seal the memory of that particular dinner as unique from lifetime of dinners.

The art of becoming a destination

Canada can learn a lesson from another interesting case in the culinary world: Japan. What we all know as Japanese gastronomy is a relatively recent venture, very different from the influence of their traditional Buddhist cuisine and strict fasting. For centuries, Japanese food was modestly prepared with a limited variety of products. Nowadays Japanese cuisine is considered one of the world’s greatest.

Last November Michelin announced the 2018 stars for Tokyo and the result was incredible. Michelin recognized an unprecedented 234 restaurants in Japan’s capital city, becoming the city with the most Michelin stars in the world knocking off Paris from the top of the list.

Is the time to Canada gastronomy to observe, understand and take advantage of our cultural differences.    

Once awarded, maintaining a Michelin Star can be extremely stressful. On a few occasions, some chefs and restaurants have even asked the organization to revoke their stars. In this case, however, the Japanese are humbled and appreciative of the recognition, after having invested their time and energy into the simple act of elevating their cuisine through observation, empathy and cultivating knowledge and quality.

In a press release, the International Director of the Michelin guides, Mr. Michael Ellis, said, “the rich variety of our selection is a testament to the gastronomic strength of Tokyo, a city where even ramen restaurants have stars.”

Canada has the kitchen almost ready. We are well equipped, with an extensive selection of ingredients from coast to coast. We have well-trained cooks, including some celebrity chefs.

Most importantly, we a formed through a distinctive and diverse population from all over the world that adds so much value to our heritage and history. Maybe we are just not looking carefully. Perhaps we simply need to focus our attention in the right direction. Now is the time to observe, understand and take advantage of our cultural differences.

Japan is more than a case study. It is an inspiration. Jay Fai and El Celler de Can Roca are a testament to how we can display uniqueness in order to begin the journey toward becoming a world-class culinary destination that can be admired around the world. Let’s start cooking!

José Antonio Villalobos
José-Antonio is a writer and an accredited Leadership & Executive Coach born in Lima, Peru. The exposure to a global reality helped him lay the foundation to create his own organization: JAVSmundo Leadership Coaching - Learning & Development. José-Antonio is an active community leader, in 2014 he founded IMAGINA, a community of hispanic authors in Canada, and is actively engaged working as a consultant with cultural and non-profit organizations, and local leaders. José-Antonio is a passionate traveler and a gastronomy lover. He lives in Toronto, Canada.