Japan Tops France as Culinary Capital, But Japanese Are Skeptical

Japan has officially unseated France as the culinary capital of the world , at least according to the Michelin Guide.

The 2012 edition released today gives Japan 296 coveted Michelin stars. Twenty-nine Japanese restaurants were awarded three-stars, the highest rating. Compare that with 25 in France.

”Japan is a unique country with many cities full of high-level cuisine,” said Bernard Delmas, president of Michelin in Tokyo. ”We continue to discover new stars to introduce to our readers.”

Last year, France and Japan were neck and neck with 26 three-star restaurants each. But the closure of Marc Veyrat’s top-rated restaurant in Savoie gave Japan its deciding edge.

“It’s a sign that traditional Japanese food is finally getting the recognition it deserves,” said Taizo Kanetou. “I think Japan will continue to lead the culinary world.”

The majority of restaurants featured in the guide serve traditional Japanese food including sushi, tempura, and soba. But Michelin also features western restaurants defined as “fusion” or “contemporary French,” and Korean food.

Japan has risen quickly in the world of gastronomy since Michelin launched its first guide here in 2008. While New York City had a trio of three-star restaurants at the time, Tokyo garnered eight in the first guide, just shy of the 10 in Paris. Last year Michelin generously awarded 12 restaurants in Kansai – a region that encompasses Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto – with its highest rating.

The relatively large number of stars prompted a backlash among western food critics, who accused Michelin of grade inflation. Some accused the tire company of using its guide as a marketing ploy to elevate its brand in Japan, a country passionate about all things French.

Japanese chefs, also expressed initial skepticism of the Michelin panel, largely made up of Europeans, saying foreigners could not accurately distinguish the good from the bad. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara questioned the guide’s choice of restaurants in an opinion article.

That skepticism remains, despite Japan’s new designation as Michelin’s culinary capital.

“The Michelin guide’s assessment is questionable,” Noriako Aiji said. “I’ve been in restaurants featured in the guide that were good, but others were way off. It’s just one example.”