Michelin — the French tyre company behind the Michelin Guide — has announced that it will be launching an edition in Guangzhou for 2018. Unlike the Taipei and Bangkok releases, the announcement managed to escape the rumour mill, taking high spending diners and the restaurant industry by surprise.

The tire company has been aggressively expanding in Asia after years of being content having guidebooks only in Japanese cities as well as Hong Kong and Macau. In the last two years alone, it has launched in Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul and Bangkok with Taipei already in the works.

What connects these cities is that they’re metropolises already prominent on the food map with establishments on many top restaurant rankings. That, and the fact that each of these Asian guides are launched in partnership with several sponsors — some with tourism boards and others with private firms.

“How much does sponsoring a Michelin guide cost?” asked a South China Morning Post article. “One South Korean media outlet reported the government-run Korea Tourism Organisation is paying 400 million won (around US$350,000) a year for four years to commission the Seoul guide, which first came out in 2016. According to that report, the contract specifies a total of 3.2 billion won in payments, which roughly works out to US$1 million.”

The undertone of such questions: Is the red guide being commercialised beyond recognition? It’s an important one to ask as Michelin is believed to be the kingmaker. Restaurants which make it on the list often see a boost in takings to the tune of 20 to 30 per cent while small eateries like Tim Ho Wan and Hawker Chan have embarked on ventures that’s seen offshoots explode across the globe from New York to Melbourne.

And if a restaurant loses a star? Well, there was the case of French chef Bernard Loiseau who shot himself after hearing rumours that his restaurant will be downgraded from the vaunted three-starred position to two-starred.

The upcoming Guangzhou guide was indeed announced in partnership with the Guangzhou Tourism Bureau as a huge sponsor. Bangkok’s has the backing of Tourism Authority of Thailand while Singapore’s has the might of the Singapore Tourism Board. The guides have gotten further sponsors like Tiger Beer, Resorts World Sentosa, Lexus, American Express and Citibank to name a few.

An impression of the Michelin Guide in China. Credit: Global Gastronaut.

These sponsorships have come under fire for undermining the independence of the guide, especially when it’s linked to hotels and restaurants. When it debuted in Singapore in 2016, eyebrows raised when four of the restaurants in Resorts World Sentosa — one its biggest sponsors received stars. That includes Joel Robuchon — the only one to receive the coveted three stars. The same was seen at this year’s launch of the Michelin Guide Hong Kong and Macau where seven establishments in Melco Resorts & Entertainment received stars.

The French tyre company has of course, always maintained that the inspectors work independently, protected from sponsorship pressure.

This has been the business model only in recent years. In fact, a 2011 article by the Financial Times noted that the Michelin Guide is a loss-maker to the tune of US$24 million a year.

“For Michelin, the guidebooks business is not so much a profit centre or a vehicle for diversification as essentially a prime, original marketing tool,” wrote the author. “The aim is essentially to promote the Michelin brand and its core product: tyres.”

Yet by operating on such losses, the guide faced the possibility of closure, which is unthinkable given its century-long history and its central role as a tool of soft power. Food has after all, always been one of France’s biggest cultural exports.

Then in 2012, the ageing institution was given a fresh face in Michael Ellis, who is today the International Director of the Michelin Guides. His role? To keep the guides relevant and bring it to the 21st century. An interview he did with Oregonlive.com upon first assuming the post revealed that increasing the guide’s online presence and identifying new sources of income was one of his top tasks.

And while it took a few years, 2016 was truly the turning point when Michelin brought American wine-rating company Robert Parker Wine Advocate on board to run its events, get sponsors, as well as to set up a digital content platform for Singapore. The venture has appeared to be so successful that Michelin has bought a 40 per cent stake in the wine firm.

This brings us back to the Guangzhou guide. Is it there simply for profit from sponsors, or can it add value to the diner?

While Guangzhou is not known as one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, the city is Guangdong’s capital and home to Cantonese cuisine — not Hong Kong where the guide has been for a decade. It is also China’s third largest city and has a history spanning 2000 years.

Classic Cantonese dishes.

“When it comes to food, Guangzhou has no equal,” wrote David Yip for the Business Times.

Perhaps it represents the guide getting right to the source, for it has always had a slant towards Cantonese cuisine, evident in the Shanghai and Singapore editions. Shanghai’s only three-starred restaurant for instance, is T’ang Court at Langham Hotel, a Cantonese fine dining establishment.

Arguably, it could also be a guide that travelling gourmands actually need for despite being the epicentre of Cantonese food, little is actually known about its restaurants or culinary culture in the anglosphere. Soon, the inspectors will be upon the city, sorting out what’s worth a visit. In contrast, Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok and Shanghai already have its famous establishments and a relatively well-known street food scene.

Whether Guangzhou’s edition means that the Michelin guide has gone out of the red is not something the public would know —  not unless the company reveals such information. But for now, it’s clear that this new business model seems to be working.

Austerity is not a good ingredient to have in any restaurant menu.

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