Is a universal Michelin Guide possible?


Michelin is preparing a Hong-Kong edition of its world renowned guide (Michelin Guide Hong Kong and Macau 2010alt). Michelin started as a French gastronomic guide, but went out of France 30 years ago, first in the UK and now in more than 30 countries. However, so far (apart from a recent Tokyo edition), Michelin has limited its domain to western countries. It may be the case that, despite some cultural differences among western cuisines, Chinese cuisine presents a special challenge for Michelin judges. Indeed, it seems hard to learn a new tradition and forget the aversion we have for exotic delicacies (see the photo of a century egg, a duck, chicken or quail egg preserved for several weeks to several months. After the process is completed, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odour of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavour or taste). Would Michelin judges be able to evaluate Hong-Kong restaurants properly?

Disgust is a universal disposition. It has a specific facial expression and produces some specific psychological inferences (if a disgusting object is – even briefly – in contact with an otherwise acceptable food, it tends to render it inedible). Disgust is a useful psychological tool for such an omnivorous species as humans. It helps us to learn from others which foods are edible and which ones are not. According to Paul Rozin, our aversions develop between the age of four and eight and things that are said to be disgusting remain disgusting for the rest of our life. This is a good case of encapsulation: you can consciously try to bypass your intuitive aversions, but whatever your reasons, you may not be able to convince your gut feelings that a green and black egg is edible. Thus, disgust is both universal and cultural. Like language, it is a universal mechanism that needs cultural input.



The way disgust works means that if Michelin judges have grown up in a western culture, they may be unable to properly appreciate Chinese cuisine. Indeed, there is a Chinese cuisine for Westerners (as there are French cheeses for the rest of the world…). On the other hand, if Michelin choose Chinese judges, the guide may be useless for western people. Therefore, Michelin faces the following question: is a universal Michelin guide possible? Or do we need a Michelin guide of Hong-Kong for Western people, another one for Chinese people, and probably many more guides for each culinary tradition?




Today, relativism has retreated from an empirical statement to a methodological precaution. As Michael F. Brown suggests in a recent article in Current Anthropology, anthropologists have ceased to adhere to the thesis that people live in different worlds and only consider relativism as the practice of suspending judgement until a belief or practice can be understood within its total context (it could be the case that even boasian anthropologists were more methodological relativists than empirical ones, as Steven Lukes argues in a recent book). However, cuisine may be one of the few domains in which empirical relativism is fully valid. It seems that for cuisine, we live in different and non comparable worlds. But I may be for once too relativistic. The fellow ethnographers of ICCI may correct me about how a western scientist can adapt to exotic cuisine.

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  • comment-avatar
    Charles Stafford 12 December 2008 (00:00)

    Fascinating. My one (primarily editorial rather than substantive) comment is that many anthropologists would probably query (1) your statement that ”disgust is a universal” and (2) the notion that anthropology has retreated from strong relativism. As for the former, many anthropologists wouldn’t know about the scientific basis on which this claim is made. And even if they thought there probably was such a thing (as a universal disgust reaction) they might feel that to discuss it in universal terms is fairly meaningless and reductionist. I ’m not saying they’re right, I’m just pointing out that this reaction might be much more common than you would expect. As for anthropology retreating from relativism – it depends what you mean. I think many, many anthropologists do believe that people live in ”different worlds” in a non-trivial sense.

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    guest guest 12 December 2008 (00:00)

    This article is fascinating. I have been researching disgust in regards to dead bodies for some time, especially in regards to ritualized disposal behavior by humans. Your claims that disgust is”[l]ike language…a universal mechanism that needs cultural input” explicitly makes disgust like language (and possibly ritual) – a biologically based, but culturally constrained method of socialization. In my own work, disgust appears to be a very ancestral system that informs a more evolved cognitive contagion system. Disgust is hyperactive and fires ”warning tags” to the contagion system that something is dangerous in the near vicinity; thus, causing the human facial expressions to protect the person, but also to warn other humans in the near vicinity sans linguistic communication. Pregnant women (for somewhat obvious reasons) are extremely sensitive to disgust, especialy around animal meat and products (milk). However, in some of my recent experiments, dead bodies are not especially dangerous to humans pathologically. The molecular and forensic evidence from the CDC and WHO supports this fnding. This is where your essay is extremely important to the discussion of disgust. If Disgust is triggered and is useful in socialization of humans, then is would make sense that disgust and ritual could operate in tandem during mortuary behavior to promote socialization, possibly by the release of oxytocin. So, dead bodies produce disgust, contagion, and counterintuitive inferences concenring the theory of mind of the dead person; however, the dead body isn’t producing the smell…the individuals involved in the ritual are. In fact, disgust, contagion, and ritual might actually have kickstarted complex language and literacy, by allowing the cognitive architecture to evolve into a symbolic mind. I believe your essay makes a strong case for the cross-dsiplinary research of biology, cognition, and culture. Thank you very much. cheers, Lee McCorkle

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    Ophelia Deroy 14 December 2008 (17:23)

    Very interesting question indeed, Nicolas. There are many problems in your post – which relate to many domains of inquiry. The first one concerns the notion of gastronomy expertise and food expertise (the two are not really the same). The Michelin Guide is not a consumer-rating guide, gathering large samples of ”taster notes”, but has its own ”experts” and critiques, and a very strict methodology. They don’t just ask ”do I like this dish or not ?” but have very strict criteria, including ways of scaling different ratings between several tasters, before attributing a number of stars. It is of course worth having a closer, critical look at what the methodology is, and whether for instance they send experts from various cultural (or gastronomical) backgrounds to every restaurant, before publishing their ranking. I know more about expertise in wine and spirits, but from what I have read on food expertise in general, it is nonetheless certain that experts tasters do not judge straightforwardly from ”gut” reactions. I agree that the idea of (cross-cultural) ”food experts” is quite puzzling at first – but ask yourself this question : why is it that the notion is more puzzling than let’s say musical expertise ? Would you say that an Aboriginal music expert could not be a reliable source of information, even after his expert training, on let’s say Schöneberg music, because its initial musical preferences were shaped by Aboriginal music ? It is a crude way of putting the question – I agree that food preferences and music preferences are not at the same level – but still, worth asking. As well as for music, notice, we are talking in the Michelin case of judging creative cases (gastronomy) and not traditional, average food products. I would say that the literature of consumers-preferences and marketing of food products would be of more interest to your question on relativity of taste. (Of course, you can object : but aren’t these experts supposed to be reliable sources of information for average or novice tasters, and thus be representative of what they like ? well, it is another problem…) Then there is the question of disgust and preferences (again, these two could be distinguished ) in normal or novice tasters, and relativism about foods. There is much empirical evidence, since Bartoshuk et al., that there is at least as much differences between tasters of a same community as in between consumers of different (cultural background) and that the first, being genetic, can’t be changed by habituation. What may well be relative, on the first place, is the way things taste (i.e. taste and smell) to us. As well as genetic differences, early development seems to be crucial (intra-utero and first months food), and again, differences can occur within the same ”cultural” community (if by cultural you mean Chinese vs. European for instance). Cultural differences affect then mainly the intensity of a perceived taste: for instance, japanese tasters will report that salted cod is ”quite salted” whereas most european tasters will report that it is ”far too salted”. Notice that the problem arises also between the people you consider as ”Michelin-friendly”, i.e. American and European. Most American tasters report as ”quite sweet” a substance that (again most) Europeans report as ”very sweet”. Then comes the problem of preferences : can you compare preferences if people don’t perceive the same thing ? As far as I see it, your final question bears specifically about disgust about rotten foods. It certainly doesn’t reduce to the question of relativism about bad / good smells, as we know that many more senses and representations are involved in food evaluation (including color, for instance). But actually, we don’t know enough yet – and it’s certainly worth exploring. I am much on your side at the end, in thinking that the question of relativism about taste (we should say ”food”), that has been so abundantly discussed by philosophers recently (see McFarlane, Lasersohn, Stojanovic, Wright, etc. ) is in need of a”fleshy”,more experimental approach.

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    guest guest 18 December 2008 (03:43)

    In regards to Nicolas’ blog…..check out a lecture that Malcolm Gladwell gives on the rise of Ragu/Prego Spaghetti sauce and Mustard. Gladwell argues that even within ”culture” there is no universal taste (vertical segementation), instead taste is horizontal. Here is the link: cheers, Lee McCorkle

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    Olivier Morin 23 December 2008 (11:28)

    According to Nippan, the 2009 Michelin Guide to Tokyo just reached n°1 position in the bestsellers list this week. Does it show that Michelin professionals have managed to capture the local taste, or that Tokyoïtes have taken to the snobbery of judging their restaurants by foreign standards? I would go for the former.

  • comment-avatar
    Jonathan Mair 7 November 2009 (19:32)

    As an Englishman raised on shepherds pie but who loves century eggs, I’m sceptical about this culinary relativism idea…and it faces the same problem of boundaries as other forms of relativism. That is to say, relativism really requires sealed units (cultures) within which everything is familiar and between which many things are completely unfamiliar. Most people are faced with a whole range of degrees of exposure to different unfamiliar foods from [eat nearly everyday to birth] to [eat once in a lifetime]. Many strongly flavoured (and intuitively disgusting) kinds of food and drink — including century eggs, alcohol and smelly cheese — are recognised as ‘acquired tastes’ even in places where these things are familiar. Having said that there are two things I can’t get used to in Chinese cooking: mixing salt and sweet, and smelly tofu (pooh!). Here is a related food and relativism question I have always been curious about – maybe someone has some ideas… As an English speaker I think of spicy things as being hot, obviously not the same hot as boiling water, but not altogether different either, and if something is too hot it burns no matter which kind of hot it is. I was surprised to find out this doesn’t work in many languages – spicy things are itching or stinging in Spanish for example (possibly a bad translation, in any case, they’re not hot and I don’t think they burn). In Chinese there’s also a completely different word for ‘hot hot’ (re4, tang4) and ‘spicy hot’ (la4). I have heard from Spanish and Chinese speakers that the English confusion between the two hots is surprising for them… But, in Mongolian (which was my fieldwork language) there is one word for both (haluun) just as there is in English. One thing Mongolians and the English (at least before the Empire brought us chicken tikka) have in common is a diet in which hot spices feature very little – maybe this is a reason why these languages don’t usually see the need to distinguish between hot and hot. So are chillies really hot or itchy?