Does Michelin Know Ramen? Breaking Down the 2021 Michelin Guide
Michelin awarded stars to two Japanese ramen chefs this year, and handed out Bib Gourmand honors to 22 others. The Ramen Beast team sat down to discuss what Michelin gets right and wrong about the contemporary ramen scene.
On Dec. 8, Michelin released its 2021 restaurant guides for Japan, with Tokyo retaining its crown as the city with the most Michelin stars in the world. The depth of Michelin's access and understanding of Japan's culturally unique restaurant landscape has been a topic of debate ever since the French culinary authority launched its first Tokyo guide in 2007. But Michelin's approach to Japan's vast ramen scene, in particular, has probably provoked the most head-scratching.
Ramen was first featured in Michelin's Tokyo guide in 2014 with 22 shops awarded a Bib Gourmand (Michelin's honorary category a step below the guide's star system). In 2015, Japanese Soba Noodle Tsuta made history as the first ramen restaurant to win a Michelin star. Since then two more restaurants, Konjiki Hototogisu and Nakiryu, have been given the prestigious one-star honor, while Tsuta has shed its star.
As of 2021, the Michelin Guide lists two one-star restaurants (Nakiryu and Konjiki Hototoisu, again) with 18 Bib Gourmands in Tokyo and 14 combined in Osaka and Kyoto. (The complete selection is at the bottom of this article)
Shortly after Michelin's 2020 guides dropped, the Ramen Beast team sat down to discuss the merits and flaws of Michelin's ramen knowledge — and what it would take to make a truly authoritative guide to Japan's ramen world.
Patrick: So, to start with, what were your first impressions of this year's selections?
Abram: My first impression is that they're definitely getting better. I remember five, six, seven years ago, every time there were a few shops that were so off the radar, and so obviously not among the very best shops, that everyone who knew ramen would just be like, "Where did this choice come from? Why the fuck did Michelin choose this shop?" Now you don't see that so much. Most of these shops are very high level. But there's still a couple I don't really get, and it's still totally bewildering to me why they've given stars to two shops.
How do you mean?
Abram: Well, let me put it this way... If you were to give Michelin's full list of ramen picks to any hardcore ramen person in Japan, and you were to say, "Which two shops on this list are the best? Which two deserve a star", anyone who really knows ramen well would say, "That's an impossible question." And if you made them pick two, I guarantee you almost everyone would end up picking two different shops. There's no way in a million years everyone would converge on these same shops.
Of course, Nakiryu and Konjiki Hototoisu are both good shops, but it is totally bewildering to me that Michelin has selected just these two out of all the ramen shops in Japan, and they're basically saying, "These are the only two ramen shops deserving of a Michelin star." Because of that the Michelin guide, when it comes to ramen, is still extremely flawed to me.
Okay, just to clarify before Cody jumps in... There's always some subjectivity in Michelin's process, right? People are always going to debate whether some high-end French restaurant deserved to win or lose its third star or whatever. But it sounds like you're saying it's much worse than usual when it comes to their ramen selections. So are you saying they were wrong about these two shops they gave stars to, because they're not even close to the best, or are you saying their whole approach when it comes to ramen is just flawed in some way?
Abram: They're not wrong, but it's so incredibly subjective. The only thing I could compare it to, maybe as an example, is the editor of Food and Wine Magazine writing an article saying, "The Edna Valley Chardonnay from Stag Creek in Napa Valley and some other random pinot noir, these are the two best wines in the world, bar none." How do you fucking say that? You know what I mean?
Yeah, I hear you.
Abram: But you can't prove that they're wrong, because at the end of the day, it's subjective. But it's also a ludicrous thing to say.
Okay, so if you had to estimate, how many shops in Japan would you say are at the same level as the two that Michelin has kind of randomly picked? You're saying there's loads of shops that are at that super high level, right?
Abram: Yes, exactly. I'd say there are between 100 and 200 shops in Japan that are at that level. Again, it's subjective because there's a lot of different styles, so at the end of the day, we might be comparing apples to oranges. But I could easily name more than 100 that are just as high level as the two that Michelin has picked. So when they pick just two and say these two are better than all the rest, it's just ridiculous to me.
Every real ramen freak in Japan is left scratching their head, like why? Whenever Japanese people talk to foreigners about Michelin, they're like "Why?! Why did those two shops get stars?" It's baffling to them. It's like Michelin is just randomly making shit up.
Cody, what were your impressions when you first saw the list?
I mean, I agree. When I first started eating ramen in a really serious way a couple years ago, there were three shops that had Michelin stars. Nakiryu and Konjiki Hototogisu, which still have a star, and Tsuta, which lost its star. I remember going to them and thinking they were good, but they weren't something that really blew me away, where I sat there and thought to myself, "Oh, wow, yeah, I get why this is a Michelin star shop."
I totally agree that Japanese ramen heads are left scratching their heads when they look at this list. Because it's really hard to know what the parameters are when Michelin ranks ramen. I think if they picked shops that have been considered legendary in the Japanese ramen community for a long time, like Tomita or Iida Shouten, people wouldn't be quite as confused, but they haven't picked those shops. Those two shops happen to be located outside of the Japanese cities that Michelin covers — Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto — so I guess we'll never know if Michelin would pick those if it could. Like Abram said, if you're just going to give stars to two shops, it's going to be silly and subjective, because the high-level ramen scene is just way too big to pick just two. But that being said, there are some shops that they could pick that would look less random to Japanese ramen heads.
The other thing is that no one knows who these tasters are. Michelin keeps that very secret, but I would go ahead and guess that they're not true ramen heads, or they're definitely not people who eat as much ramen as the real ramen otakus do here in Japan.
Abram: Jumping in real quick, the question that Patrick asked me, Cody, how many shops are doing things at the same level as Nakiryu and Hototogisu? What's your answer?
Honestly, I wouldn't even put those two shops in my personal top-tier level. But I would agree, there's got to be about 100 shops or more that are doing ramen that's as good as those two shops. And no offense to those two chefs at all. They make an amazing bowl of ramen and congratulations to them for getting the stars and everything. I'm totally happy for them and I think that's great. But if we have to try to be objective about what the landscape is actually like, it's pretty ridiculous to pick just two shops and try to back that up.
Abram: Yeah, I think on top of all this, for sure we want to be clear: No disrespect to any of these shops. They're all damned good. Nakiryu and Hototogisu are delicious, excellent bowls of ramen. And Yamamoto-san, the master of Hototogisu, is a good friend! So by no means do we want to disrespect him at all. I'm really happy for him too.
But... For me, the whole idea behind Michelin, is that it's a fine dining guide, and the star system is all about restaurants that are worth a special trip. There's a lot of different factors that go into a traditional fine dining experience, so it gets really confusing when you apply that to casual cuisine, or street food. Ramen is one step up from street food. It began as street food. At Hototogisu, like most shops, you order by putting your money in a fucking ticket machine. There's no service or front of the house experience involved at all. And nor should there be — it's a ramen shop! But I don't really get why Michelin started giving stars to these kinds of restaurants in the first place.
Right... What's the evaluative criteria for ramen compared to other types of restaurants if it's a totally different experience?
Abram: Totally. You hear this from people in other places Michelin covers too. There's that chicken rice place in Singapore that got a Michelin star. I'm pretty sure most Singaporeans will say that it's bullshit. They'll be like, "there's so many good chicken rice places in Singapore. Michelin is saying this one place is head and shoulders above all the rest? Have they tried all of them?"
Yeah, when you put it that way, it seems like a form of tokenism. They’re basically saying, this category of food is special, and we know we shouldn’t totally overlook it, but we’re also not going to really engage with it on its own terms. We don't have the interest or resources to really do it right.
Abram: Yeah, they need to go much, much deeper for their picks in these categories to have real cred.
A related question… I remember before Tsuta got the first Michelin star for a ramen shop, I used to take family and friends from overseas there when they visited Tokyo, just because it was really easy to get to. It was a refined ramen experience, using truffle as a topping, and it was in Sugamo, like two minutes from the Yamanote line. So it was great for when you were showing tourists around Tokyo — really easy to access and your friends could check off that refined ramen experience. So then when Tsuta got the star, I remember thinking, ohhh, I see... Michelin's street-level knowledge isn't super deep in Japan, Tsuta's got some French vibes with that truffle topping and the shop was really easy for them to get to. That's why they picked it. (Of course, ramen heads immediately wondered, why that shop and that shop alone? Is there ramen really better? Probably not...) So, do you agree with my assumptions about what happened there, and do you see that kind of logic in their 2020 picks at all? Do you think they have any French biases?
Abram: To answer the first part of your question, 100%, yes. Before, for sure, I agree with what you're saying. I think the location was important and the style was important. As you know, many of the best ramen shops are in deep Tokyo and not easy to get to. I don't even think Michelin's people were visiting many of them. Now I would say an easy location has become less important for them though. They're going deeper. Some of these shops that they've chosen in Tokyo for 2021 are a little bit further out. Yeah, you don't see shops out in Hachioji, or really deep pockets of Tokyo, but Rage is on the list, and that's in Nishi Ogikubo. You see Koike, which is down the Keio line. So they are starting to spread out a little bit further from central Tokyo.
Now, that being said, as far as the styles being chosen, it's still 100% in line with the light, clear, shoyu-based soups that they have favored since the beginning. A little bit of fish is okay, but for the most part, they like their chicken; they like their clean tastes; and they like shops that are clean and put together in a nice, minimalistic way. If your shop is funky at all, you're out. But that makes sense, because it's Michelin, and they care about that kind of shit — or apparently they do. But if you go down the shops on this list, for the most part, almost all of them serve clear shoyu soups, or clear shio soups. Almost every single fucking one.
Yeah, with high-end ingredients for toppings, sous vide techniques and whatnot, right?
Are there any tonkotsu or spicy shops on their list this year? Any of the interesting regional styles?
Abram: Nope. Nearly every single shop they selected is either shoyu or shio. No tonkotsu. Not even any shops that specialize in tsukemen. Weak.
Oh, I forgot to ask you both: How many of the shops in the 2021 Michelin guides have you been to?
Cody: I've been to 18 of the 20 in Tokyo. I was going to clear the last two before we talked but I totally forgot that I had a dentist appointment, which put me out of commission. [Laughs] And then I haven't been to any of the ones in Osaka and Kyoto; mainly because, when I'm down there, I only really hit the shops that Japanese ramen heads consider to be in the upper echelon, and those 14 shops have not been on my hit list to be honest. I find the Osaka and Kyoto selections pretty strange...
How about you, Abram?
Abram: I've been to every single one in Tokyo, of course, and then I'm missing maybe two from Osaka and two or three from Kyoto. I would say again that their Tokyo selections have become a lot more accurate and less controversial, but their picks in Osaka and Kyoto are still totally fucked up. One of the ones on the list from Kyoto, Menya Hiro, already closed. It's also interesting that almost every shop they've highlighted in Japan is either shoyu or shio, but then the one niboshi specialty shop they picked is in Kyoto of all places. It's not one of big niboshi shops in Tokyo that are much more established and famous. I don't know how they explain that one. Another thing that's weird is that one of the shops from Osaka, Mugito Mensuke, is the second branch of Moeyo Mensuke, and I think Moeyo Mensuke is better. But Moeyo Mensuke didn't even make the list, so they have the second branch of a chain but not the flagship shop. So that’s strange and makes me wonder if they’re even aware of this stuff.
But no glaring mistakes in the Tokyo list?
Abram: Well, if you force me to say so, some of their Tokyo picks are odd too. Kotetsu, which is in Shimokitozawa, is a weak selection if you ask me. And they've chosen Neiroya of all shops in Ogikubo. As you know, Ogikubo is a mecca for ramen. So many great and historic shops there. Neiroya is fine, but if you were to ask 10 real ramen freaks, tell me your favorite ramen shop in Ogikubo, I'd bet money that at least eight or nine out of the 10 would tell you a shop other than Neiroya. So that's a really fucking weird selection to me.
Your mention of Ogikubo makes me wonder about Michelin's recognition of the old-school shops — the legendary spots that have been open for decades. A lot of hardcore ramen heads seem to revere these old places, and Ogikubo is home to several of them. I can’t seem to remember Michelin ever honoring any of the historic spots though.
Abram: Well, I'll tell you why. A lot of those shops use a shit ton of MSG, man.
So no love for MSG? Bah!
Abram: Michelin also likes slick interiors and clean flavors and gourmet technique. Some of those old-school shops, maybe there are some things that are down and dirty. They haven't changed their interior in years, for example. Sometimes they have old-school dishes that haven't changed in decades. Which is awesome for a ramen head, but maybe it doesn’t suit the Michelin guide.
Yeah. For me, that just shows that they’re missing something... Honestly, the more ramen I eat in Japan, the more I love those old shops where I'm like, "This soup is so good, it's survived 50 years without any changes for a reason." There's something deep and interesting, and just perfect about it.
Abram: Yep, I completely agree.
Cody: Another thing that confuses me about this year’s list… King Seimen, Ramen Koike and Chuka Soba Nishino, those are all run by the same chef. They’re all in the Koike Ramen Group. If they’ve got a limited number of spots in the guide for ramen, why are they going to give three Bib Gourmands to one chef when there are dozens of others just as good or better? I mean, at least spread it around a little.
Is it possible that they don't even know that?
Okay, now that we’ve slammed Michelin, another question: Cody, you eat a shitload of ramen. You’re Japanese and you are fully bilingual. You also regularly do hardcore ramen research from original Japanese sources. There's basically no question about ramen that you can't answer. Abram, I would say with confidence you eat more ramen than any non-Japanese person in the world.
Abram: This year, I have for sure.
Abram: I'm on track to eat at 400 different shops this year.
Cody: That's more than some Japanese ramen hunters.
Right. So if Michelin wanted to up its ramen game and offered to hire you guys to be their tasters, would you do it? Why or why not?
Abram: Yeah, I would do it in a heartbeat. Look at it. Michelin is a guide that's obviously immensely respected around the world. The name has weight, you know? I would say, other than ramen — of course you can make criticisms about anything and no guide is perfect — but when it comes to haute cuisine, they know their shit. They're respected for a reason. But as someone who knows ramen, it's kind of like, what the fuck are you guys doing? If I had the chance, for example, to work with them and help make their shit better and more respected here in Japan, I would do it for sure. And get paid for it? Hell yeah, I would love to do that. I'm all about celebrating ramen and getting good info out there. So why not?
Cody: Honestly, for me, and I'm sure Abram's the same, since we appreciate fine dining and foods other than only ramen, I would do it just to get an inside look at what goes into their process of testing and selecting these restaurants. Because that stuff is a pretty well-kept secret. So I'd gladly do it just to satisfy my own curiosity.
Okay, any final words on Michelin?
Abram: The Michelin guide is good for people who don't already know Japanese food really well. If you're someone who comes to Japan and you’re not super serious about food, and you don't want to put much time in, and you just follow their guide to these shops — yeah, you're going to have a good experience. These are all good shops. You'll enjoy the ramen, I have no doubt. But, if you're a hardcore foodie and you're someone who seeks the best of the best, and you enjoy putting in the work — like, I'm willing to go deep to get this really special thing — then this guide is not the right guide for you. It's kind of a farce.
Michelin's 2021 Ramen Honors
Soba House Konjiki Hototogisu
Homemade Ramen Muginae
Kane Kitchen Noodle
Chuka Soba Nishino
Teuchishiki Chutakansuimen Nonokura
Junteuchi Mento Mirai
Chuka Soba Ginza Hachigo
Shinjiko Shijimi Chuka Soba Kohaku
Menya Inoichi Hanare
Chuka Soba Mugen