What began as a way to kill time on business trips became a lifelong obsession for Andy Hayler.
Hayler, the former general manager of Information Management at Royal Dutch Shell and long-time foodie, accomplished what some food lovers only dream about in 2004: He ate at every Michelin three-star restaurant on the planet.
“There were 49 at the time, and they were all in Europe,” he told Business Insider.
But that number skyrocketed when Michelin expanded to include restaurants in Asia, South America, Australia, and North America. “In 2012, there were 109 Michelin three-star restaurants, and they stretched from Florence to Fujisawa,” he said. “I do my best to try and keep up.”
Hayler, now a food critic at Elite Traveller and frequent guest judge on the U.K.’s “MasterChef: The Professionals,” claims to be the only person to have eaten at every Michelin three-starred restaurant in the world.
He dines at his own expense and writes about it for his website Andy Hayler’s Restaurant, Food and Hotel Guide. Last year, he revisited 36 establishments alone, from restaurants around his home city of London all the way to Japan.
We spoke with Hayler to find out his favourite about his favourite meals, what Michelin’s stars really mean, and what he does when he’s not dining out. Answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Business Insider: Are all Michelin three-star restaurants the same around the world?
Andy Hayler: I honestly don’t think so. There are very distinct differences between the way the countries are assessed.
There are certain places that are marked quite hard, and certain places that are marked quite easily.
The most egregious place is Hong Kong, to the point where I think it’s really devaluing the Michelin brand.
The most shocking one there was a restaurant called Sung Tun Lok. It had been around for 47 years, and it suddenly went from no stars to three stars in a year. It was just obviously nonsense, and I can’t speculate as to what happened there. It was immediately demoted to two stars, but that’s still two too many.
BI: What country has the strongest Michelin-starred establishments?
AH: I’ve had the least surprises in Germany. There you have 10 three-stars, and with the exception of one, they are absolutely rock-solid three-stars. The two stars are also very, very strong two-stars and the one-stars are very, very strong one-stars. The standards there seem to be much more rigorous.
BI: In your opinion, what’s the major difference between restaurants with two and three stars?
AH: There was a myth among chefs that you had to have incredibly expensive glassware, the best crockery, and they’d invest in all these things. But over the last 10 years, you’ll see restaurants where they are not the grandest restaurants and still have three stars. It’s just the best food on the planet. If it gets three stars, it should be a pinnacle of cuisine. And when you take the best of those three-star restaurants, it is.
For me, there are three types of three-star restaurants. There’s the bottom segment, which should really just have two stars, and then there’s the upper segment, which are without any shadow of a doubt world-class.
And in the middle you’ve got some very good food, but they’re not quite as good as the ones at the top. I think a place like Schloss Berg in Germany or Alinea in Chicago would be in that upper class. Those are the ones to me that really stand out.
BI: What’s the most surprising restaurant you’ve ever visited?
AH: There’s this sushi restaurant in Tokyo called Sushi Saito. It’s in a multi-story car park. You literally walk in and walk past the barrier, and there’s what looks like a janitor’s closet to the right. You walk through that door and you’re suddenly in the best sushi restaurant in Tokyo. It only has seven seats, and it’s been rated #1 in Japan for ages. I’d go back there more often if I could get a reservation.
BI: What are your favourite restaurants?
AH: We could be here a while [laughs]. There’s one which unfortunately you can’t go to anymore, but it was probably the best one ever. I don’t think I’ve ever had better food than I had at Jamin in Paris. When Joël Roubouchon was cooking, he was commonly regarded as one of the best chefs in the world, and I think no one could really argue with it.
I don’t think there’s any one restaurant that dominates now. There are excellent restaurants, but you wouldn’t find any consensus among those who eat widely about which one rises above the rest.
For me, I like more classical food than modern. My favourites are Ledoyen in Paris, Louis XV in Monaco, Hotel de Ville in Switzerland, Schloss Berg in Germany, Mizai in Kyoto, and Le Calandre in Italy.
BI: What was your favourite meal?
AH: Thinking back to the days of Jamin, I used to go twice a year. I’ve not had better food than the food at Jamin.
There’s also a specific dish at Ledoyen which is called spaghetti, but that doesn’t give it justice. It’s a little castle topped with truffles and morels. Le Calandre in Italy serves the most perfect saffron risotto, it’s just simply the best risotto in the world. It’s quite memorable to me. Ledoyen also has incredible desserts.
BI: What was the most expensive meal you ever ate? How much do you spend per year on eating out?
AH: That was Per Se. I had the tasting menu there with the wine pairing and that was $US800 a head.
How much I spend a year depends on where I go. The average [dinner tab] around Europe is typically €200, which is a little less than $US300, and some of them are cheaper like Japan’s Sushi Saito.
What kind of wine you decide to order can really make the difference, too. Not to mention air travel. Last year I went to 36 establishments, so you do the maths.
BI: What’s a trend that you hate in the food industry right now?
AH: There’s been a trend in the last few years that I hope is dying out now that’s been dubbed “molecular gastronomy.” It basically is the use of chemicals in cooking to torture ingredients into unusual tastes and textures. It’s essentially what I call “Harry Potter cooking.” That’s what [now-closed world-renowned restaurant] El Bulli did, and now less capable people have copied it.
The trouble with this style of cooking is you have to be a real genius to make it work, like Grant Achatz. But at this place called Piazza Duoma in Italy, it just did not work. I was eating there with another very experienced diner, and we were both shocked that it got promoted [to three Michelin stars].
BI: Is it hard to balance eating the best food in the world with your daily life?
AH: Well, you can’t eat this type of food everyday. I enjoy pizza as much as the next person. But I think I try to find a really good pizza, or a really good curry. And I make my own food, I don’t buy something frozen.
I enjoy cooking, and when you try to make some more complicated dishes for dinner parties it makes you realise how hard it is and the sheer levels of work that are involved in producing these dishes. Sometimes I try and take some of the recipes and reproduce them later, but it never tastes how it did when they did it. I have a lot of admiration for professional chefs.
Watch a video interview with Hayler at Elite Traveller, where he is a food critic:
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