Culture //

A bowl of soup and stars

Michelin shines a little less bright in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Three people eating at a ramen shop Artwork by Ludmilla Nunnell

There is something very oxymoronic about the phrase “Michelin Star Ramen”. The midnight food of the urban Japanese masses, whose popularity stems directly from a crippling post war food shortage, seems quite at odds with the Michelin brand, which, though from similarly grungy origins as a tire manufacturing company, has come to symbolise culinary refinement and quality. From the outside, where it is constantly in danger of being gentrified, it’s easy to forget just how commonplace ramen is considered in Japan, and that it occupies a place in the Japanese diet similar to what a kebab occupies in ours – comfort food best enjoyed drunk.  Nonetheless, as of 2019, there are 23 Michelin-starred ramen shops in Japan, three of which are in Tokyo.

I found myself at one on a blustery autumn afternoon, in Sugamo, a quiet stop on the Yamanote line affectionately called Harajuku for geriatrics Sugamo. A few winding paths latter, I am at Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta.  The first ramen shop ever to receive a star, Tsuta sent massive shockwaves in the culinary world  with the release of the 2016 Michelin Guide, and was met domestically with a resounding “eh?” Amazed, proud, but most of all, slightly confused, the Japanese media scrambled for an explanation about how something widely considered “B-grade food for alcoholics” ended up being recognised by Michelin. Before long, a one hour documentary is aired on national TV featuring Tsuta’s owner Yuki Onishi explaining his process and philosophy regarding ramen. 

But while the news was received with warm amusement, Michelin elicited scorn and distrust from the Japanese culinary establishment back in 2008 when its guides began to branch out of the Western world into Asia. Despite showering Japan with effusive praise, their love was unrequited, and Michelin was met with headlines like  “Michelin-san, uninvited first-time customers are not welcome” and “Don’t treat us Japanese with contempt, Michelin!”. The Japanese, it seems, did not appreciate having their food judged by foreigners. While the five person anonymous judging panel did feature two Japanese critics, restaurateurs were unconvinced that a French publication could ever understand the essence of Japanese cooking, let alone judge it. Some restaurants took their skepticism to another level and tried to refuse Michelin from publishing them at all. Eiichi Takahashi, the man at  the helm of 400-year-old Kyoto kaiseki restaurant Hyotei,  told media the sudden increase in customers brought about by the Michelin guide would greatly inconvenience his current customer base, hence his refusal. Michelin ignored him, and gave Hyotei three stars – their highest rating.

A world away from the ritualistic intricacy of kaiseki, I’m surprised to see that there isn’t a line at Tsuta. But before I can even thank my luck, I notice a sign saying that they had already sold out of meal tickets. A waiter notices me from the inside and comes out, kindly explaining that if I come back three hours later, I might be able to get a seat – they key word being might. The alluring promise of Michelin quality ramen overpowers my hunger.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder”  I think to myself, “And the stomach as well it seems.

Two and a half hours later, during which I satiated my hunger not with food but with the mental image of a Michelin star,  I’m back, and so are 20 other people, almost all of them foreigners like myself.  After waiting in line for another 30 minutes, I’m in, greeted immediately  with a steaming bowl of glistening noodles that, I can’t help but think,  looks like any other bowl of ramen I’ve had. The noodles are nice and slurpy, the shoyu broth is wonderfully intertwined with nuanced seafood flavours, and the wontons, egg and slices of shimmering chashu top it all off. But what really brings it all together is a small puddle of glorious black truffle oil dripped onto the chashu, proving that truffles really can make anything taste decadent. But, what was it that made it Michelin quality? What even is Michelin quality? My questioning grows as the soup diminishes.

A mere ten minutes later and my bowl is completely empty. And I enjoyed it, I think. Sure, for the same price I could have eaten two bowls at a normal ramen shop. And sure, in those three hours I could have done so much more than fantasising in a cafe about a star. But hey! This place has a Michelin star!

It was then did I realise that most of my enjoyment of Tsuta came from the fact that I was eating at a Michelin star restaurant. There was something novel about paying so little for a restaurant so internationally acclaimed, but at the same time, something strange about spending so much time and money on a food famed for its convenience and price. It was good, excellent even. But having hyped it so much in my head, it seems the only way I could have been satisfied is if I was served the star itself.

The whole experience left me indifferent. A Michelin star, I realised, is not a divine decree for culinary excellence, but simply another opinion. When it comes to ramen, it might not even be the best opinion. We want our critics to be learned in their craft, hence why the Japanese culinary establishment was so suspicious of Michelin’s intrusion into their market, but at the same time, critics are supposed to frame and inform the experience of normal people who do not have that knowledge.  We ascribe a premium to their expertise, thinking that because of it they can taste or see things we wouldn’t notice, but if the experience of food is correlated to our expertise on it, why do we seek to experience food vicariously through experts when the difference in knowledge could mean that our respective tastes are not at all equivalent? Of course there is a place for food criticism, but if you’re only out for a good meal, is looking to the Michelin guide, as so many people do, really the best option?

A few months later, I find myself a ramen shop in Nakano, not to eat, but to work. After a shift, a co-worker asks me why I wanted to work at a ramen joint – it’s not particularly glamorous work, and definitely not the most high paying. And so I tell him about the time I ate at Tsuta, and how I didn’t understand what made it better than the rest, and how I thought I could appreciate ramen more through experiencing it from the other side of the counter. He laughs and says something rather obvious on reflection.

“The best ramen is the ramen you enjoy eating the most!”

In a city with more than 3000 ramen shops, starred or not, there’s plenty of opportunity to find out what that bowl  is  yourself.