What’s wrong with the Michelin guide?

Michelin stars are not just announced. There is, instead, to use the Michelin guide’s own marvellously pretentious term, a “revelation”. Every year, chefs hold their breath and restaurant critics get out their dip-pens and bile pots, and restaurant-goers look on, a little bewildered.

It’s hard to find a chef who will say anything bad about the annual awards; it’s equally hard to find a restaurant writer or critic, particularly in the UK, who hasn’t panned them. One chef who didn’t want to be identified pushed back when I asked for her views. “What is it with British journalists? Before about 2000, you guys couldn’t get enough of Michelin. Since then, I’ve never seen anyone do anything but whinge about them.”

Michelin, even to its detractors, is the most important and influential restaurant guide on the planet. It’s been around since 1900, most of the culinary world regards it as a bible, yet its very existence seems to offend many. I needed to dig a little deeper into what was rubbing so many people the wrong way.

There are three main accusations levelled at Michelin, which declined to comment for this piece. There is an argument of restriction: that the awards damage restaurants, causing them to narrow their creativity to obtain stars and to stop innovating in order to keep them.

There is an argument of mathematical logic: how can a single organisation possibly cover that many restaurants? (This was a particularly tough question in 2021 when most restaurants were actually closed for most of the judging cycle.) And finally, the big one, the cultural attack: that Michelin is too “French” and that its right to pass judgment on the food of other cultures has become questionable.

© Jack Sachs

I spoke to Victor Garvey, chef of SoLa restaurant in London’s Soho. He was awarded his first star in the latest “revelation” — after the Financial Times had reviewed his restaurant enthusiastically, I feel proud to disclose — and I was interested to know how it actually happens.

“We didn’t know we were up for a star . . . I got a phone call from Michelin asking if I could attend the virtual ceremony [on January 25] but they didn’t say why. It could’ve been a bib gourmand or a service award or a green star. As far as hoping, I mean . . . yeah . . . of course. We are a fine-dining restaurant and it’s a huge deal. But it seemed unlikely. I genuinely found out when they announced it live.”

Rumours run throughout the industry about what you need to do to please the inspectors. Chefs have told me in all seriousness that cloth hand towels are a deciding factor for the first star. Another chef, admittedly emotional at the time, swore that the absence of those weird little air fresheners in the bathroom that look like sticks of spaghetti in a jar, were the only thing that had screwed his own stellar aspirations.

And of course, everyone knows that the thing that marks out a three-star establishment is the little stool they bring out where you can rest your handbag. Every one of these things, though, is a myth.

Michelin, according to its press material, now judges “quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his [sic] cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits”. Five criteria that focus on the food rather than the faffery. Depending on how well the establishment rates, the stars are then awarded on the same scale Michelin has used since 1931; three stars for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”, two for “excellent cooking, worth a detour” and one for “a very good restaurant in its category”.

And, to clear up one little niggle, no chef wins stars by getting these points right, because chefs don’t get stars, the restaurant does. Neither can you hand them back. Stars are an opinion, expressed in a guide, so you can ignore them in your own publicity material but you cannot erase them. The only way to ensure you’re not given stars in the next edition is to change your menu or the name of your restaurant.

Chef Elizabeth Haigh was in the kitchens at Pidgin in east London when the restaurant earned its first star; she parted company with it soon after. Her take on the awards is characteristically robust.

“I feel quite indifferent about them at the moment. I know that the recognition from them would mean a lot to people if they got the chance but I remember someone saying to me . . . that they would never be considered because it’s too posh. Food quality and cooking ability has been defined too long by the class system.”

Michelin maintains that an inspector visits each restaurant listed in its guides several times and that each restaurant is visited by more than one inspector. This has inspired some critics to do the maths and conclude that the number of potential restaurants covered, the inspectors involved, and the incredible expense of transporting and accommodating them around the world, let alone covering their bills, is impossible for an organisation of Michelin’s size.

That is, of course, impossible to verify. As a restaurateur, you can’t invite an inspection and it isn’t a given that you’ll be on Michelin’s radar. Garvey certainly had no idea he’d been inspected. “We had a few people in who were asking all the right questions but they could just have been enthusiasts.”

When a place gets a new star, we can be sure that inspectors have been in. However, nobody knows if their restaurant was inspected and failed, or if it was inspected before keeping its rating for a further year. Michelin, meanwhile, maintains blanket secrecy over the process, as it probably should. The image of the highly qualified, dispassionate, totally anonymous expert is core to the brand and cannot be open to public scrutiny without destroying the magic.

And as my brutally honest anonymous chef friend put it: “You guys have to write about restaurants to sell papers, but you fancy yourselves as anonymous and expert. Maybe you just don’t like it that there are people out there being paid to be more anonymous and more expert than you.” Ouch.

So what of the accusation that Michelin is a kind of Francophile cultural police? For Garvey, running a proudly American restaurant in London, this is not in question.

“I lived in Tokyo for almost a year, doing stages and apprenticeships, and I can say, hand on heart, that it is the best place to eat on the planet. I’m not surprised it has more stars than New York or London. The Japanese idea of shokunin [an obsession with perfecting one particular thing and only that thing] is very in line with what Michelin look for,” he says.

“In the past few years, they’ve given out stars in China and South Korea and I’m sure they’ll get around to India at some point. I think the Japanese guides show that there isn’t much cultural bias any more and I think, given enough time, you’ll see as many three-star [awards] in China and Brazil as you do in France and Spain.”

Michelin has expanded to cover a wider scene but many still argue that in doing so it has created a single, homogenous, global pattern. In spite of honouring local ingredients, the food at Michelin restaurants still looks like “Michelin food”. It has matured from the narrow vision of haute cuisine but to replace that it has created an idiom — an overarching, wrought and tweezered artistry. In a sense, this is vital to Michelin’s worldview: the strange, very French notion of gastronomie as a branch of the beaux arts that doesn’t always translate easily to the cuisines of all cultures.

To be fair, most of the one-star restaurants around the world still fit Michelin’s original criteria: “a very good restaurant in its category”. They are affordable by local people and often haven’t had to remodel themselves too much to get their star. Most of the two stars are still “worth a detour”; indeed, many of them have rooms.

Three-star restaurants, though, have, in recent years, evolved into something else. Their prices, locations and impossible waiting lists have put them wildly out of reach for most. Those who can afford them are, often, internationally mobile, “high net worth” individuals, and, in appealing to them, “three-star Michelin” has become an international luxury brand as sure as De Beers, Gulfstream or Ferrari.

Affording and being able to organise a booking at a three-star establishment has become a symbol of influence and wealth. Today, you know these restaurants are “worth a special journey” because you can hear visitors landing their helicopters on the pad outside. At this level, the imprimatur is arguably more important than the food; up here, the Michelin brand is becoming more important than the restaurant or the chef.

It is easy to attack Michelin because it won’t engage. It doesn’t really need to justify itself to the media; in fact, it is us who seem to need Michelin more than it needs us. It’s us who like to turn dinner into a competition. We create cooking shows with artificial jeopardy, we lionise our chefs as celebrities with little reference to what they actually cook. It is we, the media, who demand a convenient league system. Yet the critics of Michelin still have one or two very good points.

If you’re a chef-restaurateur, stars can boost your business at the same time as dictating the direction you go in. Being awarded a star can make you rich, while changing your customer base forever. “It’s like the Heisenberg [principle],” says my chef friend, obliquely. “You can’t measure it without fundamentally changing it.”

So does Michelin successfully identify the world’s best restaurants? The value of Michelin probably depends on whether you think food is better considered globally or culture-by-culture. Haigh thinks it is missing something vital.

“I wish there was more representation from ethnic minorities and cultures. There’s an incredible number of restaurants that deserve the same attention and recognition as a restaurant . . . in Mayfair. [In the UK] the fact that we’ve only just celebrated a two-star Chinese restaurant in 2021 is outstandingly poor form, considering how many east and south-east Asian restaurants there are. But it’s a start. It’s up to Michelin if they ever want to move forwards and I hope they will in my generation.”

Is an international standard relevant to anyone except an “inter­national” audience — a literal “jet set”? It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that when interest in food in restaurants became a worldwide phenomenon and when Michelin followed, the guide could not help creating a set of global standards against which it could judge. It also became comfortably dependent on a type of global travel that’s been called into question by the pandemic, as well as by worries about its sustainability.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to avoid a certain queasiness around some of the meaner judgments that have been expressed by Michelin’s detractors. It feels like there’s a “class thing”, as there inevitably is in Britain. The Michelin brand has succeeded to such an extent that it’s now a very expensive game to play and we on this small island have always had a special way of dealing with privilege that is bought, instead of earned or learnt (or inherited).

Critics, and most of their readers in the self-appointed fooderati, have worked hard to attain their experience, their connoisseurship. Michelin isn’t part of that, they argue, if it’s just a club for the moneyed. When you don’t have to be able to “appreciate” starred food, just “afford” it, the response is a collective, defensive sneer.

© Jack Sachs

Yet at the highest three-star level, the standard that defines Michelin as much as Michelin defines it, stars seem more about the values of a luxury brand than of cooking, food and joy; not so much about what is consumed but rather the conspicuousness of consumption. There is undeniably a cohort of the super-rich who like the validation that Michelin provides and will pay for it. And there is the constant danger that Michelin will pursue this and forget more ordinary food lovers.

But Michelin can’t die — chefs won’t let it. They need the superleague, even if it does conspire to limit their craft. We, the media, seem to need Michelin too, if only because it’s easier to attach a star score than to explain, in words, why something as simple as a restaurant might deserve an international reputation.

Perhaps though, I should leave the last word to my anonymous truth teller, by now many cocktails into the conversation and warming to her theme. “Truth is, before 2000 a critic going into a three-star could expect to be surrounded by people who looked and sounded just like him (. . . yes . . . always “him”) and he could write it up for readers who might conceivably go there. That’s not true any more. It’s not a question of relevance. These days, I reckon you just can’t afford it.”

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