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Consulting controversy clouds star presentation

Nov 15,2019
The Michelin Guide’s international director Gwendal Poullennec, second from left, explains recent accusations against the Michelin Guide’s credibility on Thursday after the release of the fourth Michelin Guide Seoul. [YOON KYUNG-HEE]
The talk of this year’s star revelation wasn’t solely about the chefs who have worked day and night to be recognized by the world-renowned Michelin Guide. Public broadcaster KBS began a series of reports on corruption allegations on Tuesday saying that a so-called Michelin-related consultant named Ernest Singer had requested money in exchange for helping some local restaurants earn sought-after stars. The Michelin Guide’s international director Gwendal Poullennec denied any accusations and said it has “no relation” to him, during a press conference after the guide’s annual unveiling event on Thursday.

“If someone is asking for money to provide consulting, it is the ultimate evidence that they are not working for Michelin,” he said, emphasizing that all inspectors, who are from 15 different countries, are anonymous.

With allegations on possible misconduct from Michelin-related officials, the guide said that it had done an internal investigation but did not find any evidence. It has also said that at the moment it is not planning to take any legal action against Ernest Singer.

The broadcaster reported that a total of three restaurants, including the three-Michelin-starred La Yeon and Gaon, had received consulting. It reported that Cho Tae-kwon, chairman of KwangJuYo Group, which runs Gaon, admitted to being consulted by someone named Denny Ip from Hong Kong. The Shilla Seoul, home to La Yeon, reportedly said that it had gotten consulting from different entities to make their food and services better.

The broadcaster heavily quoted Yun Koung-suk of restaurant Yunga Myeonga, who started to bring up the possibility of a monetary exchange from around the release of the last year’s edition. Yun’s sister is the owner chef of restaurant Yunke in Tokyo, which has gotten two stars every year since 2013. Yun of Yunga Myeonga said that she was asked to do a consulting session, which costs about $40,000, excluding flights and hotel stays, for the consultant before the release of the first edition of the Michelin Guide Seoul. She, in the end, did not provide consultation, and her restaurant never received a star.

After the Michelin Guide met with local media in the afternoon, KBS released another report saying that Alain Fremiot, who was in charge of restaurant inspection in Asia, was also involved. Fremiot visited Yunke in Tokyo, only three months after it opened, and hinted that he was related to the Michelin Guide. The owner chef’s son reportedly said that Fremiot ordered the cheapest item on the menu and left after 30 minutes. The restaurant received three stars.

The Michelin Guide told the Korea JoongAng Daily that Fremiot left the company in 2016.

“The Michelin Guide strictly sticks to its rules when inspecting restaurants, and one thing that we can say for sure is that the award of stars comes from the quality of food the chefs prepare, not based on anything else,” said an official with the guide. “We don’t want the talented chefs to be discouraged in any way with such unconfirmed allegations.”

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]