Is it too easy to get a Michelin star in Japan?

When it was announced last week that Japan had gained another four three Michelin-starred restaurants, the gulf between the Asian nation and its gastronomic rival, France, widened -– considerably.

The running tally so far: Japan boasts 36 restaurants with three Michelin stars -- 10 more than France, which has 26.

It’s a feat that’s all the more remarkable considering that the Japanese versions of the Michelin guide only launched five years ago in 2007. The French Michelin edition? It celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.

But the ever-widening gap between the two countries is raising some eyebrows both abroad and in Japan, leading some to wonder just how inspectors in Japan are evaluating the restaurants.

One such chef is Kei Kobayashi, a Japanese expat who now lives in Paris and has opened his own eponymously-named restaurant in 2011 after working at the Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée in Paris for seven years.

Restaurant Kei is described as a marriage between the esthetics of Japanese gastronomy and the rich, native flavors of French cuisine.

When asked by Relaxnews about how the two countries' culinary scenes compare, Chef Kei, as he’s known, expressed a measure of skepticism on how it is that his native country could so dramatically be outranking France with a lead of 10 more three-starred restaurants.

While it could be said, for instance, that Japanese chefs boast virtuoso kitchen and knife skills, unrivalled when it comes to presentation and esthetics, where they lack, Kei opined, is creativity.

Their merit lies in their method, he explains. Japanese chefs are masters of execution whose discipline and rigor help them turn out immaculate, masterful plates.

But European chefs are bolder and more inventive, Kei says, citing Ferran Adrià as a prime example.

Adrià, whose shuttered restaurant El Bulli in Spain had long been considered the world’s best restaurant, is known as the father of modern, molecular gastronomy and a culinary trailblazer.

Furthermore, Kei also questions the standards against which Michelin inspectors in Japan are evaluating restaurants there, pointing out that while sushi may require an undeniable measure of skill, it’s not cooking.

Maybe it’s harder to get three stars in France compared to three stars in Japan, he muses. A three-starred restaurant in France, for example, is a complete experience that takes into account the service, atmosphere and décor along with the food.

A Michelin experience in Japan, however, could consist of a six-seat eatery in which guests dine on bar stools at a modest sushi counter, he said.

Kei isn’t far off the mark. In fact, the first restaurant in Japan to earn three Michelin stars went to a 10-seat eatery tucked into an underground Tokyo subway station called Sukiyabashi Jiro, run by octogenarian Jiro Ono, a man who’s been called the greatest sushi chef in the world.

Musing aloud, Kei wonders, “Is it too easy to get three stars in Japan?”

The latest Michelin Guide 2012 for Hokkaido goes on sale April 20.