Ex-senior Michelin Guide inspector to teach masterclass: 'Only thing that matters is the food'
Ex-senior Michelin Guide inspector to teach masterclass in S'pore next month
Covert training, undercover actions and about a decade of keeping secrets from family and friends.
Mrs Heather Soto admitted that her previous job had more than a few similarities to James Bond's operations.
As a former senior inspector of the Michelin Guide, Mrs Soto went to great lengths to protect her identity.
The world-renowned food guide awards stars to restaurants with food so outstanding that it can render the establishment a destination.
The San Francisco native kept mum about her career to most around her.
When she finally "came out" this year after leaving her job of 11 years due to a desire to spend more time with her four-year-old son, surprise was not the only emotion that greeted her.
Mrs Soto, who is in her 30s, told The New Paper via a video call from California: "My friend was genuinely disappointed.
"He thought I was with the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Central Intelligence Agency and it turns out I was just eating food."
The notorious secrecy surrounding the Michelin Guide has resulted in some fiction.
There is a legend that Michelin inspectors routinely drop forks on restaurant floors to test the response of servers.
On that, Mrs Soto said with a laugh, "I think that is from a Bradley Cooper movie", referring to the 2015 film Burnt, starring the US actor as a chef.
"But no, I was not throwing forks on the floor."
She revealed that in reality, life as an inspector was "a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of eating" and extensive travelling in and out of the US to review restaurants.
Averaging hundreds of meals annually, she has critiqued more than 5,000 restaurants during her time with the Michelin Guide - including some that gave her severe food poisoning.
HOW TO GET STARS?
Despite the large number of restaurants each inspector reviews, the revered Michelin stars are few and far between, prompting the question: How exactly does a restaurant gain the sought-after stars?
Mrs Soto is resolute in her response - it is all about the food.
"The Michelin Guide has said this so many times and somehow it doesn't stick - the only thing that matters is the food.
"Service and ambience are unimportant. If you have three-star food, you will get three stars.
"Sometimes, I read about how chefs are re-decorating their restaurants and adding all these expensive art pieces and I think, 'That is not how you get a star.'"
The guide is not immune to backlash despite how known and well respected it is.
Many of its editions - including the one in Singapore launched last year - have been fraught with controversies.
One oft-mentioned argument against it is that the traditionally French institution is unable to appreciate local cultures and cuisines.
To that, Mrs Soto said: "Well, I think that is just a perception.
"When the guide first came to San Francisco, there was a lot of negative press as well, but that died down after a while when it became clear that the guide was awarding a diverse range of food."
She added: "I mean, look at me. I am not some stuffy old French man - I am American, a woman and young. Michelin really does hire inspectors across a wide range of backgrounds."
Trained in baking and pastry art at the Culinary Institute of America and armed with a master's in international hospitality management, Mrs Soto spent five years working in kitchens as a pastry chef and one in ingredient sales before landing her dream job at Michelin.
She was commonly referred to as a "supertaster", someone who has a heightened sense of taste.
Supertasters can deconstruct and analyse a dish with more precision than most - a talent Michelin values - although it can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing.
Mrs Soto experiences bitterness more strongly and as a result, dislikes beer.
A sensitive palate can be cultivated through training and experience as well.
That is a small part of what she aims to teach her students attending her masterclass in pastry-making in Singapore next month.
Organised by local baking start-up Homebakee, it will have a theory portion where Mrs Soto conducts her lesson and there is a take-home assessment where participants are asked to create a dessert out of the ingredients they are given.
The dessert will be assessed by Mrs Soto the following day.
She said: "It is a skills workshop to train people to understand taste and flavour so that they can critique and incrementally improve their work every time they make something."
Mrs Soto was clearly excited about her upcoming trip and her delight showed as she talked about the local treats she is looking forward to - ondeh ondeh, pandan cake and pineapple tarts.
"I already have the route mapped out on how to get to the best places for these from my hotel," she said.
WHAT Masterclass: Creating Star-Quality Desserts with Former Senior Michelin Inspector
WHEN Nov 18, 9am and 1.30pm
WHERE At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy
TICKETS $230 from www.homebakee.com/masterclass