Icelandic cuisine is beyond shock value sheep’s head
There has been considerable buzz in local media the past few weeks since the Michelin Guide Nordic Countries revealed that Iceland was adding another name to its roster of one-starred restaurants. Moss, at the Retreat by Blue Lagoon, is the latest awardee, joining Óx and Dill on the prestigious list.
The number of Michelin-starred restaurants in a place is a new standard of measuring a tourist destination’s culinary prowess. But what is a Michelin star, how are they granted, and how does recognition by Michelin – or comparable rankings like World’s 50 Best or the Nordic White Guide – impact the dining and tourism industry?
Where does Iceland stand compared to our Nordic neighbours? Do we have what it takes to be a global dining destination?
Ranking the ranking systems
Contrary to popular belief, Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants and not individual chefs. Another misconception is that Michelin is all about fine-dining. In reality, restaurants big and small spanning the spectrum of casual to fine-dining – heck, even hard to slot spots, like the hawker stands in Singapore – are all eligible for stars.
The Guide has gained global recognition and acceptance as a yardstick of quality gourmet experiences, while making a tangible impact on tourism and local economies – so much so that researchers and economists have investigated the “Michelin effect.”
One star is awarded to restaurants worth stopping by, two-star restaurants are worth a detour, and three-star restaurants justify a dedicated trip. Other recognitions awarded are the Green Star designating establishments with strong sustainability practices and the Bib Gourmand given to eateries offering the best value for money establishments.
Dill has the distinction of holding both a Green Star and their Michelin star. Skál was awarded a Bib in 2019, which they subsequently lost after a couple of years. Dill, too, had lost their lone star, though they were quick to regain it the following year.
While Michelin is considered the gold standard of a place’s culinary prowess, the Sweden-based Nordic White Guide has long measured the pulse of the culinary scene in the Nordics, with the Michelin Guide often playing catch up to their recommendations. Heck, the White Guide pegged Óx as a master level restaurant back in 2019!
Elsewhere, global rankings carried out by World’s 50 Best have been formidable competition with their “50 Best Discovery” sub-category tagging local cocktail bar Jungle on their coveted “Bar Discovery” list.
The impact of earning a Michelin star or being placed on a global best list has an immediate impact on a restaurant’s business.
Global rankings aside, The Reykjavik Grapevine has become the most comprehensive local restaurant guide with our annual Best of Reykjavik Dining scouring the best the city and country have to offer, making it decidedly the most influential tastemaker in Iceland – and we get it right long before any other listicle.
The impact of earning a Michelin star or being placed on a global best list has an immediate impact on a restaurant’s business. Speaking with Food & Wine magazine in 2017, Joel Robuchon, holder of the most Michelin star awarded restaurants in the world, broke it down like this: “With one Michelin star, you get about 20 percent more business. Two stars, you do about 40 percent more business, and with three stars, you’ll do about 100 percent more business. So from a business point … you can see the influence of the Michelin guide.”
Local businesses have similarly seen a spike in reservations following Michelin announcements, so global trends prevail here, too.
With the ongoing influx of tourists, the role of the food and beverage industry cannot be underestimated.
Fostering a fertile environment
With the ongoing influx of tourists, the role of the food and beverage industry cannot be underestimated. A 2022 report by KPMG minces no words in stating that the restaurant industry contributes disproportionately higher wages and employs more people than other tourist-facing industries – a whopping 46.2 billion ISK in restaurant wages vs 38.3 billion in hotel wages.
In my retrospective for this publication on Icelandic dining culture in 2022, I touched upon the lost opportunity of turning Iceland into a global dining destination. This isn’t wishful thinking. Research conducted by the World Food Travel Association for their 2020 Food Travel Monitor shows that 95% of global travellers today consider themselves “food travellers,” with 70% of them picking a destination based on food and drink choices. Interestingly, 59% believe food choices are more important now than they were five years ago.
A 2022 report by the Nordic Ministers titled “Nordic Food in Future Tourism” highlights the intersection of restaurants, food producers, farmers and animal husbandry as essential to attaining common goals of being an attractive destination where “eating and travelling in harmony with nature and local culture is a desirable lifestyle.”
For reasons unknown, however, Iceland’s potential as a gastronomic leader has been systematically overlooked.
Íslandsstofa (Business Iceland) focuses on showcasing Icelandic businesses abroad, Ferðamálastofa (The Icelandic Tourism Board) focuses on marketing Iceland as a desirable destination abroad. Neither of these focus on the importance of the restaurant industry on the spending habits of tourists, or on tourists choosing Iceland as a dining destination. PR teams of journalists occasionally arrive here, often sponsored by Icelandair, and sporadic mentions of local restaurants make an appearance in international outlets. But a concerted, committed effort to foster homegrown champions and focus on the creative ways chefs and purveyors are pushing boundaries is sorely amiss.
Given the enthusiastic news coverage and tweet-inducing interest when Turku, Finland, played host to the Michelin Guide Nordic Countries announcement on June 12, Reykjavik seems absolutely buoyant about its own potential as a culinary leader. However, it needs to be supported by a clear action plan that doesn’t solely rest on an effective PR campaign with no real infrastructural overhaul.
The 2022 Nordic Ministers report outlined the challenges they found – an absence of strategic planning for the role of food in tourism and glaringly limited food tourism service when compared to our Nordic neighbours. The report further elaborated on a possible action plan calling out the rigidity and lack of flexibility by the government, and a reluctance to adapt to changing expectations of the industry.
Bringing the likes of SVEIT (association of restaurant owners), Business Iceland, the Icelandic Tourism Board, food writers and PR agencies to the same table should be the first order of business in supporting the industry as the power player it is.
The culinary history of Iceland may be younger than other countries, but it has long since moved away from survival mode that relied on preservation and boiling as a singular technique.
Opportunities as a dining destination
The culinary history of Iceland may be younger than other countries, but it has long since moved away from survival mode that relied on preservation and boiling as a singular technique to a country building the framework of its cuisine around the unparalleled quality of its land and seas.
Locally grown wasabi, rivalling its Japanese counterparts, is gaining global recognition, as is hand-harvested salt. Icelandic lamb is the first Icelandic product to gain Protected Designation of Origin recognition, giving it the same status as champagne or Greek yoghurt. Nurturing and recognising local talents like Norð Austur in the east, Slippurinn in the south, and Tjöruhúsið in the Westfjords as more than just local gems but as regional heroes, will only serve to foster and inspire other talents to spring up.
We know from our Nordic neighbours and other countries abroad that sustained effort, with cross-disciplinary cooperation between ministries, sectors and political alliances, yields noticeable results. Denmark has launched a public-private partnership, the Gastro 2025 initiative, to attract gastronomic tourists and raise the country’s culinary status. Russia was set to host the World’s 50 Best on the heels of the first ever Moscow Michelin Guide – initiatives that, if not for the war, would have made it an attractive food travel destination.
Icelandic cuisine is more than its shock value smorgasbord of boiled and pickled sheep heads and ram testicles. We have never eaten better, grown more high quality produce or processed better fish than we do today. Our restaurants are not just local gems to be cherished – they are worthy of global scrutiny and being recognised as attractions in their own right.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article failed to attribute data on “food tourism” to the World Food Travel Association. It has been amended with proper citation.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!