Why there is no Michelin Star Restaurant in Bulgaria?

Some time ago, when I lived in Vienna, I was constantly making comparisons. How it is at “home” and how the Austrians do it? Why were there no potholes in the streets, why was everything clean and orderly, why did the law work without fail, why was there such quality food and wine? The interesting thing was that I answered the questions slowly, but the answer did not satisfy me, trying to apply it in the Bulgarian reality. And it was: because there is no soul, only work and a fail-safe system. Fear of failure and consciously constructed security. And I was looking for the creative, the free spirit, the calmness before the security, which stresses. And I didn’t want Bulgaria to change just like that. We are casual, irresponsible and creative. No matter how much we don’t believe it. We have slowly gone the way of the Western European, but we must be ready and lose our spirit. At the expense of security, which will undoubtedly become a priority one day.

This thought prelude leads to the topic: wine and food culture. The transition to it from the voucher system and canteen culture with a “tea set” type breakfast definitely takes time. But still, between 2000 and 2020, many transformations took place that helped develop, or at least raise awareness of, the existence of a food and wine culture. The search and find has begun. Trial and error. It wasn’t sourdough bread, organic products, imported goods, and even attempts at a molecular shopska salad…

Until we turned to the regional. Today, more than ever, meatballs with lutenitsa are sought after and Melnik wine is drunk. Just an improved version of itself, which is commendable. But apparently it’s still not enough for us to value ourselves, and therefore for the world to do so.

The history of culinary stars

Even those unfamiliar with the subject of haute cuisine have always encountered the term “Michelin”. It’s a rating system for restaurants around the world, and after meeting a number of criteria, few sneak onto the golden pages of the guide. Categorization has existed since 1900, and the evaluation is done with stars: one, two, three… Many chefs are ambitious and work for years to meet the criteria and “rank” at least one. And this guarantees constant interest in the restaurant where they work for years to come.

The story begins in France with the Michelin brothers, those famous creators of car tires. In order to encourage motorists to travel more kilometers and, accordingly, to use their products more often, they came up with the abstract in this case, but genius idea from the point of view of business thinking – to create a hotel guide. Thus, in 1923, the green guide appeared in 35,000 copies, which contained gas stations, service stations and other practical advice during a trip. At the very beginning, the guide was published only in French, and years later it also appeared in English and German. Today, everything is visible in the Book a table by Michelin online option.

The stars appeared in 1926. At the beginning there was only one, and the gradation – two and three, was a fact five years later. One star tells you that the restaurant is “worthy of attention”, two – that it is definitely worth going out of the way for it, and the prestigious three encourages you to even take a trip to another country to taste it. The Red Guide, which is exclusive only to restaurants, was not issued separately until 1950. The categorization was gradually expanded and, in addition to stars, in 1997 the term Bib Gourmand was introduced (Bib comes from Bibendum, as the fat man is known to the public, a symbol of “Michelin”) for restaurants with a more affordable price offer, but with enviable quality. Since 2004, there have also been awards for restaurants with an impressive wine list. The selection criteria, the stars and the rating are still secret to this day, so as not to speculate on the “candidacy”.

But how do you get to the coveted star? In fact, the “daisy”, as graphically depicted in the guide, is the property of more than 250 restaurants worldwide, and in 2021, as many as 133 of them are proud owners of three stars (50 are in France and Japan). In order to receive a minimum of one star, restaurants must, simply put, have a “very good menu”. It is important to mention that factors such as atmosphere, design, equipment and service do not enter into the evaluation. There is a separate category for them in the guide, depicted with the “fork and spoon” symbols. The stars remain only for the characteristics of the food, or more specifically for the quality of the products, the freshness of the ingredients, the creativity of the chef, the professional preparation of the food, consistency and last but not least, the ratio between price and quality.

All this sounds quite reasonable and is not at all part of some pseudo-luxury pretense, as the Michelin star is often associated with the mass audience. The tasters, who are always anonymous, don’t care how the kitchen is set up and exactly what ingredients are used. It is for this reason that it often happens that in a city both regional cuisines and “imported concepts” such as Thai or Indian menus are properly appreciated. There are even restaurants, for example in Singapore, where the menu consists of only one dish. This proves that it is really about the high quality of the products.

Michelin assessors are called “inspectors” and are usually anonymous visitors who act like regular customers. They are often chefs, previously trained by “Michelin” in what to observe during their tasting. Even if they had visited Bulgaria, they were clearly not convinced by any of the tested restaurants.

Regardless of the apparent objectivity of the evaluation, stars, chefs and restaurants are often criticized for a number of fallacies. The first of these is that Michelin is a rating institution, and this is actually just a book – a guide for guests and customers, not for gourmets or chefs. In this case, it is not a question of evaluations, similar to the presentation of awards. Simply, after the anonymous testing, at a point when the inspectors are convinced that it deserves, they include the corresponding restaurant in the guide and mark it with a star. The cook often finds out about this after the fact.

The second misunderstanding is that to be part of the guide, the restaurant has to be fancy. There are Michelin restaurants in the world that are actually a bistro, a pub or even a Chinese fast food stand. The third misconception is that the star is part of the personality and qualities of the chef, not the restaurant. However, the Michelin guide is a “restaurant guide” and quite often does not even mention the name of the chef.

With all this in mind, what do we still miss in Bulgaria, since it’s all about very good cuisine and nothing more? Aren’t there so many capable chefs who put their perfectionism on display to be “anonymously” recognized through the food they prepare?

Does the Balkan syndrome play a role in the kitchen?

Why there is no Michelin Star Restaurant in Bulgaria?
Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Before we philosophize about the lack of stars in Bulgaria, let’s turn to the Balkans. “Today the crowd… remembers only what happened between two meals” are the words of Emir Kusturica, which describe the Balkan character. They can certainly be applied in the restaurant context as well. The Balkan man usually hangs around and waits for the storm to pass, but whatever happens, that’s what happens. The important thing is to have salad and rakia.

If this can be any consolation, of Bulgaria’s neighboring countries, only Greece can boast of “star” restaurants. 

Going beyond these borders and still remaining in former socialist countries of the wider Balkans and South-Eastern Europe, it is clear that Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have reason to be proud of their Michelin-recognized restaurants. And this has its own explanation: in addition to the proximity to the Western European mentality, there is a rather strong tradition in these countries. And bearing in mind the imported know-how, which in the mentioned countries has been part of the re-emigration process for years, everything is easier to explain. This is also an indicator that soon this wind will blow towards Bulgaria as well. Especially since “Michelin” is increasingly tending to direct its criteria towards quality regional and seasonal cuisine, where Bulgaria, if realized, has an incredible advantage.

What should Bulgaria do to have a place in the red guide?

Let’s not forget that we are moving several decades slower than Western Europe. Many things can be done, but some of them will take place over generations. Such as the fact that it is very difficult to build a Michelin-starred culinary culture from a population 90% of which still find it difficult to eat with a knife and fork.

There are several unpleasant truths that we must face. First, the restaurant industry is in a serious crisis that has nothing to do with the pandemic. Most of the people who work in it are undisciplined and demotivated. Chefs blame restaurant owners, they return the ball, but it is true that the speed with which Chefs change their workplace in Bulgaria, or the fact that they simply do not show up for work because they have decided, are unacceptable in the pursuit of the star. Even as trainees in culinary academies, Bulgarians allow themselves behavior that no chef in the world will tolerate. But the lack of staff in our country brings everyone down the chain to their knees and forms a poisonous professional ethic, suggesting that everything is allowed.

The second hurdle on the road to stardom lies in preparation. The branch in our country lacks theoretical and practical “lining”. It is a pity that even in the time of socialism, the basics of classical French cuisine were taught in technical schools of public catering, and today, against the background of almost limitless possibilities of access to information, everything is left in the style of the Balkan syndrome “what if” and in these specialized schools study advertising and management, because apparently the other is still perceived as shameful.

In third place comes literacy, or rather the lack of it. Everything in cooking begins, continues and develops outside Bulgaria. If we take the information only from Bulgarian sources, there is no way to read and understand about fundamental discoveries in the culinary culture of the last and this century, there is no way to get into the content of the words “sustainability” and “carbon footprint”; we have no way of realizing that steak, salmon, tuna, and shrimp do not belong in the present, and accordingly, we have no way of communicating our culinary achievement to the world.

It became clear that the Michelin “recognition” is for everything from the plate to the wine to the interior to the tableware, without any or all of these elements being expected to be expensive or luxurious. One thing, however, although officially it does not play a significant role, is always under scrutiny and that is the service: it must be professional and adequate to the type of establishment.

In Bulgaria, the service and the customers do not like each other: some of them work on compatibility and only for a short time, respectively – unprofessionally, others consider the staff not as a service unit, but as a salving unit. So the only solution to start thinking about applying for a Michelin star, it seems, is the emergence of family restaurants in which everyone works equally, identifies with the work, which for them is not only not shameful, but a source of pride and in which, of course, the above requirements are met.

In Western culinary culture, wine and gastronomy have sat together at the table for centuries and the interplay between them makes the sensory experience extremely beautiful and often unforgettable. There are quite a few Michelin-starred Asian restaurants that don’t serve wine, but otherwise it’s normal to see an impressive, if not long, wine list at most award-winning restaurants. An important clarification is that the 21st century is impressed by slightly different wines than the 20th. It’s no longer so exciting to have dozens of vintages of shamelessly expensive Burgundy, it’s more important to have an approach in composing the leaves. And it can be based on different criteria: presenting only local varieties, only regional wines, wines from only one variety but from all over the world, wines from sustainable vineyards, mainly sparkling wines – the options to play here are significant and the inspectors have an eye and nose to appreciate a worthy wine list. In this regard, Bulgaria can “boast”, alas, of ignorance and disinterest. The chefs of Michelin restaurants usually have their own selection within the wine list or an impressive collection of their own, while those in our country drink brandy and whiskey. It’s not about money, it’s about culture.

Still, the road leads to Bulgaria having “stars” years from now. We need, perhaps, someone “from the outside” to show us that we can. The example of Gianfranco and Anna Chiarini and their restaurant Dieci in the village of Devino near Veliko Tarnovo is more than indicative (the two opened a restaurant in the village with the ambition of winning a Michelin star, note ed.). This is perhaps the karma of the Bulgarian: for the foreigner to come and prove on the spot that there are no impossible things, as long as he has passion and desire.

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