There is no professional chef in the world that hasn’t heard of the Michelin Guide or dreamt about being part of it.
Considered the pinnacle of gastronomic achievement, the Michelin Guide team travels the world to highlight the best gourmet establishments around the world to its readers and to quote its International Director Gwendal Poullennec: “The Maltese culinary scene has talents that are worthy of discovery by foodies from around the world.” We knew it!
So Malta proudly joined the 32 countries already in the Guide earlier this year, and 26 local restaurants received official recognition, 20 were awarded a Michelin ‘Plate’, and three (Commando, Rubino and Terrone) were awarded a Bib Gourmand. Topping the list, though, were Noni and Under Grain in Valletta and de Mondion in Mdina, which each received their very own Michelin star. These are their chefs’ memories of that very special moment and their thoughts on what is to come.
“For as long as I can remember I have wanted the Michelin guide to come to Malta to evaluate our gastronomic offering – it’s been a dream of mine,” says Kevin. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy but, finally, after a lot of work by a lot of people, we convinced them to come – and of course we are thrilled with the results.
“We actually knew that Malta was going to be evaluated in the middle of last year and then, in November, we learnt that the announcements would be made on 26 February 2020. I will never forget that day, or the moment I received the call from the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) to tell us we had got the star. Yes I had always believe we were good enough to make it, but until you hear it from Michelin themselves you can’t be sure.”
Kevin certainly has experience of Michelin standards, having spent three years working in different Michelin starred restaurants 18 years ago. He has also travelled extensively since, never resting on his laurels and always experiencing the very latest and best culinary trends.
“As a Relais & Châteaux property we are also exposed to an incredible network of chefs, and we regularly share our ideas or get invited to experience their properties. Then, three years ago, we held our first Four Hands dinner, with Michelin-starred chefs joining us for an incredible evening of great food and service. It was all part of our journey towards gaining our very own star.”
Today, Kevin says that de Mondion has crafted its menu around using local produce – and that is something that diners truly love. “International guests come here because they want to experience something they cannot get in their own countries. So we have evolved some of our local dishes to ensure we give them that in an elevated way, such as snails cooked in broth with veal sweetbreads, egg yolk and cauliflower (a variation on a dish my mother used to make). You’ll also always find local rabbit and pork on our menu. We do something special with them, of course, but they will always be there.”
Sharing his advice about what it takes to achieve that coveted star, Kevin says it comes down to honesty with yourself, persistence, and your ability to listen. “I took on board all the advice given to me and never stopped trying to improve what we do. We also listen carefully to any feedback from our clients, even on social media. We listen and adjust; feedback is very important.”
Now that de Mondion’s star is in hand, I ask what is next? “We need to keep it!” Kevin smiles. “Our dream is to get our second star within quite a short period, so now it is all about consolidating what we have and pushing for what we know we can still achieve.”
“I read that Malta had been chosen to be part of the Michelin guide last year and there was a huge buzz around that. Then, on 26 February, I received the call from the MTA telling us we had won – it was absolutely incredible.
“Because there really is nothing better than a Michelin star for a restaurant; it’s the ultimate and every professional chef’s dream – the Academy Awards of cooking. It places you in that elite club that everyone wants to be part of.”
Having only been open for five months, Victor admits he had no way of knowing whether his team had done enough to make a big enough impression in such a short time. “Knowing that we did is wonderful, and achieving it so quickly is something of a record; it is very rare in Michelin Guide history that a restaurant achieves its first star in under a year from opening.
“Still, we know they came to visit us on numerous occasions because a star is all about consistency, with different inspectors judging each visit to test the food, service, and overall experience. It’s great to know that they like what they saw – and tasted!”
Victor believes that it is a resolute attention to detail that has set Undergrain apart. “That’s definitely the secret,” he says. “Along with our menu, which is small – with just six starters, six main dishes, and four desserts – our service strives to be exceptional.”
I asked Victor to pick his favourites from his menu. “That’s impossible!” he laughs. “But I would highlight our tartare of seabass with oyster chantilly, pickled white radish and dill oil to start with, our BBQ rump of milk-fed veal with pickled clams, courgette purée, bagna cauda and vin jaune for mains, and our VB baked and glazed white chocolate cheesecake with passion fruit sorbet for dessert – it’s my signature and I have been making it for over 20 years.”
Now Victor says the team will keep doing what they’re doing. “It’s great to know that we are on the right track – and we have celebrated that – but we will continue to keep our heads down and push ourselves everyday. There are always ways to do things better, that’s what this profession is all about: hard work, long hours, and learning form the best people. It’s a huge learning curve and you cannot just become a chef overnight – it generally takes around 10 years to get to a level you can be really proud of. There are lots of sacrifices but it is worth it. And who knows? Maybe we will now get that second star!”
“This is the holy grail for us,” Jonathan says with a wide smile.
“We knew that the Guide would be coming to Malta for the first time as we received an email from them highlighting that fact – but of course we had no idea when they would turn up or who would attend. It was exciting, and overwhelming to receive that call on 26 February to tell us we had been successful. What a dream.”
Jonathan has worked in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants over the years, so he had an understanding of what the Guide would expect. As a result, the Noni menu focuses on strong flavours and uses local whenever possible. “We love what we do, and I certainly think that has given us the upper hand.”
Among the restaurant’s unique dishes on the menu, Jonathan highlights the slow-cooked octopus tagine with Israel cous cous, kalamata olives, and marjoram oil. “It is a dish that I came up with over five years ago and we constantly fine tune it to make it as perfect as can be. Like all our dishes, it is inspired by international elements and then given our local touch. That’s also true of our ‘Te fit-Tazza’ dessert, which is an elevated version of the Kazin classic.”
For Jonathan, the journey to winning Noni’s star has been a 24-hour-a-day commitment. “Our life is all about cooking,” he says. “You have to put your heart, mind and everything into it. You cannot do it for the money or the fame – it’s 100 per cent love.”
Jonathan says he and the team crafted the Noni experience to feel like dinner in a Maltese home – just with an added touch of luxury. “We’re not super formal. We want our guests to feel comfortable while having a wonderful experience. That’s what success looks like for us.”
And next? “Well, we keep that star of course!” the chef says. “We will be tested constantly as a Michelin-starred restaurant now, and that’s great. We will be 100 per cent consistent every single day.”