Michelin stars come crashing as pandemic shuts doors

Malta’s great Michelin year was killed just weeks after three restaurants won the island’s first ever stars. Under Grain’s chef and director still think their glass is half full

Under Grain executive chef Victor Borg Photo: James Bianchi
Under Grain executive chef Victor Borg Photo: James Bianchi

The start of 2020 was a high point for a select handful of Maltese restaurants, when three eateries reached the peak of culinary excellence unprecedented in the local scene.

In February, three restaurants – Under Grain, De Mondion and Noni – became the first Maltese fine dining establishments to be awarded a Michelin Star, long considered the highest and most prestigious honour in the industry.

Another three, Terrone, Commando and Rubino, were awarded Michelin’s Bib Gourmand.

Two weeks later however, all of Malta would witness a major upheaval in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus that swept the globe.

Just ten days after the first case reported on 7 March, the government ordered all restaurants to close their doors as it upped preventive measures: right as the restaurants had finally seen their hard work translate into a Michelin Star, their operation ground to a halt.

“It has been nothing but unfortunate for the entire team,” said Under Grain’s executive chef Victor Borg, speaking of the bitter-sweet reality of how their ‘Michelin year’ was brought to an abrupt stop. “After just three weeks of winning a prestigious Michelin Star, we had to close our doors to the public… but the quiet time will not go to waste. We are using this time to re-think and come back better than ever before.”

Borg remains optimistic that Under Grain’s doors will reopen for hungry guests wanting their special gastronomic adventure. “I am positive that after all this is over, all the team at Under Grain will come back stronger to give our guests the ultimate experience that I am sure we are all lacking at this time. Stay strong, we will be back.”

AX Group’s hospitality director Claire Zammit Xuereb, whose Rosselli Hotel in Valletta hosts Under Grain, says the downtime is a period of reflection for the the restaurant. “This pandemic is more than unfortunate not only to businesses but also to humanity. It certainly is helping us reflect how we can make ourselves better people, internally, on all levels,” she said.

But the circumstances of the shutdown have been emotionally trying. “From an emotional and psychological side, this has certainly affected us. Closing down businesses goes against our nature. We cultivated a culture where together, we grow our operations and challenge the norms… having to put our babies to sleep has been devastating, to say the least,” Zammit Xuereb said.

“People in our industry wake up to make a better day for everyone. Depriving us from our passion to serve others is very similar to a grieving process. It creates a big void in our daily lives. I assure you that people like me, who have a great passion for this industry, have shed tears realising they could no longer function.”

And being forced to temporarily close the doors to Under Grain, which she describes as AX’s “most special baby”, was immensely difficult.

“It had just started to shine. It is so conflicting when you just receive an award of a lifetime and want to celebrate this achievement, but instead you are bound to keep it to yourself.

“One can just imagine the pain for the entire team who worked so hard not just to open a new restaurant, but with such high standard to the point of achieving a Michelin Star.”

Like Borg, she too remains positive and sees the silver lining, however. “Our baby is having some good beauty sleep. It has skipped its crawling stage and is now preparing itself for toddlerhood – ready to walk.”

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