Though my loyalties are rather torn here, the news today that Tokyo now not only has more Michelin stars than Paris, but more of the wallet-busting, high falutin' three-star restaurants, comes as no surprise.
Though I ache for a professional, balanced alternative to what I suspect is the inherently corrupt Michelin Guide (just one question: how come, if they are supposed to be anonymous, they can get a table each year at El Bulli?), it does remain the only real, global haute cuisine yardstick and, in this case at least, I have to agree with them.
Tokyo now has 11, three-star joints, compared to Paris' ten (there is a special prize to anyone who can name them without looking them up - I can come up with L'Arpege, Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire, L'Ambrosie, Le Bristol, erm George V? Or did that lose one...? Taillevant? Surely not La Tour Argent?), and 261 stars in total compared to Paris 197 (there is a bed in a psychiatric ward to anyone who can name all them them).
Part of the reason is the sheer ubiquity, even in these straitened times, of top notch restaurants in Tokyo. I don't think anyone really knows how many places to eat there are in the Japanese capital - the Telegraph today boldly claims it is 160,000 - but it easily swamps the French capital. And if you have seen the average Tokyo kitchen, which are miniscule with no ovens and often only two hobs, you have some idea why the majority of them prefer to eat out on a daily basis.
Another reason is the Tokyoites' insatiable appetite for refinement in everything, be it electronics, gardens, Gothic Lolita costumes, things to dangle from their mobile phones, or food. Parisians appreciate quality, for sure, but the Japanese are willing to pay for it and, as with so many things, are prepared to take their commitment just those few steps further to achieve perfection.
Meanwhile, in Japan, restaurateurs tend to focus on one style of cuisine, one region or even one technique - tempura, teppanyaki, sushi - instead of attempting to cherry pick the best ingredients and techniques from around the world, as someone like Gagnaire does (with varying degrees of success). They have perhaps the world's most efficient food supply system, with Tsukiji fish market as its crowning glory and, perhaps most importantly, unlike the French, the Japanese tend to be more open to a wider variety of techniques and ingredients.
As anyone who has taken pot luck in a Paris restaurant will know, good old Gallic complacency plays a part in the widely reported decline of their culinary supremacy, of course, but perhaps ultimately though, and especially in terms of the haute cuisine with which Michelin concerns itself, the differences between the approach of French and Japanese chefs was best expressed to me by the legendary kaiseki chef, Yoshiro Murata of Kikunoi (which has three stars, natch).
"In Japanese cooking we think the ingredients are a gift from God and we try not to change them too much; we think a daikon is in its ultimate form as it is. It seems to me that often French chefs want to change the things they cook with, to put their own mark on them."
In other words, in Japan the chefs work with what God provides, in France the chefs think they are God.