The Michelin Star Is Dead (Long Live The Michelin Star)Download the full PDF
The Michelin Guide was once the go-to guidebook for epicureans of the open road. It turned chefs into stars and food into art. In today’s digital age, however, a growing number of chefs and critics are beginning to question the relevance and integrity of the modern handbook. Is the Michelin Guide finally going off the boil? Or does it have the same authority it has enjoyed for more than a century?
In the summer of 1900, two French tyre makers had an idea that would change the way the world saw food forever. Of course, it wasn’t really about food — it was about rubber. But Édouard and André Michelin knew that if anything could persuade a Frenchman to buy more tyres, it was his stomach. So the pair wrote a restaurant guide. It was a marketing ploy that proved prescient and genius. Soon, France’s car-owning leisurati were wearing their tyres thin driving from brasserie to gastro-palace up and down the country.
By 1920, the brothers had stopped giving this valuable gastro-data away for free. And in 1926, they introduced a star rating system — one, two or three stars — and emoji-style ideograms that told diners where they could lunch on a terrace, soak up a view or bring their Bichon Frise. By the 1950s, the “tourist’s bible”, as Time Magazine would anoint it, was in every traveller’s glove box in France. Today, the “red book” publishes 28 editions in more than 25 countries. “It is the easiest, the most memorable shorthand term for a good restaurant,” notes veteran food critic and restaurant consultant Nick Lander.
But the Michelin Guide wasn’t just the go-to guidebook for epicureans of the open road. It turned haut-cuisine into a competitive sport. Chefs stopped cooking for clueless customers and started crafting menus for Michelin’s ghost army of undercover inspectors. Cheffing, after all, can be a thankless task— working long hours on poor pay, they slave over hot stoves when the rest of us are out having fun. The Michelin Guide gave them respect, and recognition for their craft.
In today’s digital age, however, a growing number of chefs and critics are beginning to question the relevance and integrity of the modern handbook. Is the Michelin Guide finally going off the boil? Or does it have the same authority it has enjoyed for more than a century?
“It’s almost like a lifestyle for a chef when you are working at that level,” says Helena Puolakka, former head chef of two three-Michelin-starred kitchens — Pierre Koffmann’s now-closed La Tante Claire in London and Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous restaurant at Hotel Balzac in Paris. She is now Executive Chef at Aster Restaurant and Cafe in London’s Victoria. “The respect you gain as a chef with a Michelin star, it’s a completely different story,” she adds. “You want to be a part of it because [Michelin] is the bible.”
Not just that. It is said the anointed few can see a revenue boost of up to 30% following a star. “It’s an automatic win for restaurants,” says Lander, whose son, Will, owns the one-Michelin-starred restaurant Portland in Marylebone. “First, it opens you up to a whole new clientele from overseas — the types of people with enough money to only eat at Michelin-starred restaurants. Second, they are prepared to pay more than your average customer.” (At the three-starred Araki, in Mayfair, the set menu costs £300 a head, without alcohol).
Little wonder, then, that when a chef loses a star, it cuts deep. “I started crying when I lost my stars,” said Gordon Ramsey in 2014. “It’s like losing a girlfriend.”
Others have fretted to the point of breakdown and suicide about how to stay in the Good Book’s good books. In 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau — one of the most famous chefs in France and the inspiration for the chef Auguste Gusteau in the Pixar film Ratatouille — shot himself in the mouth amid rumours Michelin was about to pull his restaurant La Côte d’Or’s third star. In the months leading up to his death, he reportedly told a friend, “If I lose a star, I’ll kill myself.” Then, in 2016, Benoit Violier did the same a month after the French government crowned his three-starred Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Switzerland “the best restaurant on earth”. While there was no suggestion he was on shaky ground with Michelin, there was speculation that the intense pressure of the epithet suddenly overwhelmed the young chef just as he struggled to cope with the double loss of his father and his closest culinary mentor.
A cloud is creeping over Michelin. Most telling, perhaps, are the closures. In the past 20 years, at least eight big-name chefs have shut their kitchens, or asked for their stars to be reneged, to escape what they see as the “curse” of Michelin. Take Sebastian Bras — one of France’s most celebrated chefs — who last September asked to be stripped of the three stars his Le Suquet restaurant in Laguiole had held for two decades, saying he no longer wanted the “huge pressure.”
Australian-born chef Skye Gyngell called her star “a curse” because of the high expectations it raised among customers, and closed her Petersham Nurseries Cafe in London in 2011. And most famously, in 1999, Marco Pierre White walked out of the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge, effectively giving up the three stars he’d been the youngest on earth to earn.
“When I was a boy, winning a Michelin star was like winning an Oscar,” he told Waitrose Kitchen editor William Sitwell in 2014. “Today they dish out stars like confetti. What does Michelin mean any more? Not much. I don’t think Michelin understands what it’s doing itself. It’s unhinged.”
In London, there are 58 restaurants with one Michelin star, nine with two stars and three res- taurants with an almighty three. Mark Hix — one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs — does not run any of them. “Michelin stars have never been important to me, so I’ve never chased one,” he tells me. “I’ve got nothing against them, I’m just not sure what they really mean.” Hix spent 17 years bossing the kitchens of such legendary London dining palaces as The Ivy and Le Caprice. The 55-year-old now owns six restaurants, has written seven cookbooks and was last year awarded an MBE for services to hospitality. His food is simple, seasonal and widely touted as objectively very good. Yet, when it comes to the food bible, he is happily heretical: “I know a lot of Michelin-starred chefs are thinking, ‘I’d much rather be cooking simpler food.’”
Simpler food. That’s what real Londoners hunger for, according to many of Michelin’s critics. Or, as the late A. A. Gill put it in 2015: “In both London and New York, the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people actually eat, still being most comfortable rewarding fat, conservative, fussy rooms that use expensive ingredients with ingratiating pomp to serve glossy plutocrats and their speechless rental dates.”
In 2008, as an experiment for a book, Observer food critic Jay Rayner travelled to Paris to eat at a different three-star restaurant every day for a week. “It was an awful and deadening experience,” says Rayner, whose latest book Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights (Guardian Faber, £5), is out in October. “You’re pelted with amuse-bouche, and I know this is a bit, ‘Ooh, my diamonds are pinch-ing’, but you are dragged into a particular setting which seems to have much more to do with status and financial heft than it ever does to do with appetite or greed.”
If you think three-Michelin-starred food is expensive, it’s nothing compared to the Michelin Guide’s overheads. It won’t reveal its inspectors’ salaries, nor even how many there are — their identities are as closely-guarded as state secrets. (This, it says, plus the fact they always pay for their food, is how they stay impartial). But it doesn’t take a quant to imagine their expense forms. And given how many more restaurants there are in London alone compared to three decades ago, it goes without saying that Michelin’s guide is a very expensive operation.
Which is why eyebrows were raised in 2011 when the company — having just launched editions in Macau and Hong Kong — moved its HQ from one of the most elegant streets in Paris, in the city’s salubrious 7th arrondissement, to a bland banlieue on the outskirts of town. Staff were “not happy,” an insider told the Financial Times, which claimed Michelin was haemorrhaging $24 million a year on the guide.
If financial woes were at the heart of the move, Michelin stayed tight-lipped… then began charging itself out, first in Hong Kong then Macau, Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai. Korea’s tourist board, for example, reportedly paid Michelin £1.4 million to bring the Seoul guide to the country. “Michelin has gone slightly bonkers,” says Lander. “Just this morning I got an email from something called ‘Bookatable by Michelin’, offering three courses and a glass of bubbles at Quaglino’s — where I wouldn’t eat if you paid me. Hand-chopped beef tartare! And it doesn’t even say what kind of bubbles. I know it’s expensive to produce, but I just don’t understand why they’re doing this. There must be some money to be made somewhere, but it’s cheapening the whole brand.”
Back in London, Rayner’s not impressed. “If you go back 15 years, finding the good stuff was much harder,” says Rayner. “So having something to literally guide you was useful. But now, anybody who eats out widely across London knows there is a far more fascinating world out there than the one that is presented by the Michelin Guide. So the idea that we need a guide book that takes a year to produce, that is handed down from anonymous experts feels bizarre.”
Two things have changed. First, the rise of social media has made it much easier for diners to spread the word themselves — complete with over-saturated photos of their plates — rather than trust the say-so of a faceless restaurant inspector. And, second, the recent existential troubles of the high-street food chain (read Jamie’s Italian, Strada, Byron etc.) has created space for an explosion of freewheeling inde- pendent restaurateurs who care more about customers than they do about inspectors.
Given all the controversy, does the Michelin Guide still have the same currency in London it has enjoyed in Europe for more than 100 years? Or is it going a little deaf with age? Are younger, trendier guides stealing its limelight — like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the National Restaurant Awards (only two of its Top Five this year were Michelin-starred), TripAdvisor, Open Table, even Instagram?
“Here’s the thing,” one head chef who asked not to be named, but has worked at the top-end of the industry for ten years, tells me. “Chefs used to crave the love and attention of Michelin, like the child of a stern parent. But now that child has grown up. He has other outlets. He no longer needs the validation.”
Barely a week after Lee and Kate Tiernan opened Black Axe Mangal in 2015, dinner queues stretched halfway round the block (he chefs, she manages). The Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler called the tiny fusion eatery in Islington, “a phenomenon”. Giles Coren, in The Times, branded their food “brilliant” and “balls-deep”. And Tom Parker Bowles drooled squid-ink saliva over the Daily Mail’s food pages, opining: “[the menu] is thrilling … the very quintessence of the modern dining scene.”
Such high praise — plus a tongue-tingling menu comprising things like squid-ink flatbread, smoked pig cheek, watermelon and pickled ginger or quail in a fermented black bean sauce — has propelled BAM into a destination dining experience for Londoners with alternative tastes.
But is BAM Michelin-star material? The penis graffiti on the floor and UK grime music, or heavy rock, blaring from the speakers every night might suggest not. But then, people said that of Fergus Henderson’s St Johns — where Tiernan spent 11 years climbing the ranks — until it got a Michelin star in 2012. “Some people fol-
low the formulaic Michelin system with pressed table cloths and a change of cutlery every course and square plates,” says Lee, a quiet 41-year-old with tattoos up to his gullet. “If that’s what they’re passionate about then who am I to shit on their chips? But the Michelin star is something that’s always baffled me a little bit. I’m very cautious not to criticise something I don’t understand. I’m just not bothered.”
Kate, who herself has worked in restaurants since she was 16, goes on: “No doubt, Michelin stars mean a lot to the restaurants who want one, and I say all power to you if it doesn’t get in your way. But, for me, the Michelin Guide is a vanilla experience. That’s not bad. It’s probably very good, but I pretty much know what I’m going to get.”
She even suggests there is a formula to winning a Michelin star, if you’re prepared to play the game. “I know when I go to a restaurant that’s gunning for a Michelin star,” she says. “I walk in there and I get a certain level of attentiveness from the staff, a certain volume of music, if any, certain spacing between tables. I think [Michelin] are looking to see, say, a beef medallion cooked in a sous vide, lightly finished in a pan with a demi-glaze. And if you’re really going for it you’ll probably have tweezers somewhere with which to place something on top in a certain position. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a very skilled thing to be able to achieve that. I just wonder if it’s a bit archaic.”
What does the future hold for the world’s most famous guide? “I certainly don’t think it is dead,” says Lander. “They’ve cleverly tapped into the Chinese and Japanese markets, and as long as England remains incredibly good value for these people, and tourism grows, they will plan their journey around Michelin-starred restaurants. And that will be good for them, for Michelin and for the restaurants. But I do think it’s lost its lustre.”
“I wouldn’t like Michelin to lose it’s currency,” adds Puolakka. “I think it’s important. It has that history. There’s nothing wrong with the classics, or with doing things the old-fashioned way. Yes, there are other ranking systems, which is really exciting. And yes, there are tenfold more great restaurants in London than you would read about in the Michelin guide. But it is still the bible.”
As for Lee and Kate Tiernan, the customer is their god. “I don’t like going to a restaurant and being made to feel like I’m going to pray at their alter, which you get in many of the more old-school Michelin-starred restaurants,” says Kate. “‘You’re very lucky to be here’, is the message. But I’m like, ‘I’m dropping £500, I don’t feel that lucky.’”
Then she laughs: “At the end of the day, it’s just dinner. And if I’ve learned one thing in 21 years in the restaurant business, it’s about about having a good time. You can’t digest your food if you’re not having fun.”