On Monday at the live announcement of the 2018 Michelin stars for the UK and Ireland in London, chefs and staff from the event’s two biggest winners — Bibendum and The Araki — cried, somewhat unexpectedly, on stage. It was perhaps the best answer to a question posed and debated in the industry ahead of the announcement: Is Michelin (still) relevant?
Notwithstanding the emotional outpouring from chefs and restaurateurs whose pedigree is indisputable and whose restaurants are models of a certain type of excellence, the question of whether Michelin is relevant will continue to be asked. A guide, after all, is always that: a guide, replete with prejudice, contrary to objectivity.
Another neat way to assess the degree to which Michelin matters is to have a quick look at the food media’s coverage of the awards. Yes, including on this very site, it was by some distance the biggest event in the calendar for months; it has always been and continues to be one of the most important days in the year.
The first thing to say is this: no matter how much the media — rightly — highlights the guide’s many flaws, receiving a Michelin star to many chefs (not only of a certain style) means an enormous amount; it remains, in the words of Claude Bosi, on Monday, “the top.” So for as long as it matters to chefs, it has to matter to those who report on and analyse their profession. It’s no coincidence that it awards stars — as distant and intangible as they are symbolic.
The media may hope for Michelin’s hastened irrelevance, but its apparently undiminished reverie among chefs — and the resultant global fixation — will do little to realise that hope. This of course leads only one way — why should Michelin’s relevance be questioned at all?
Its annual, notable omissions aside, the guide has other, more fundamental flaws. The first concerns the opacity of its methodology. Although they have, albeit quietly, amended their official wording this year, the categories into which starred restaurants are placed read as follows: One star: "high quality cooking, worth a stop"; two stars: "excellent cooking, worth a detour"; or three stars: "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” During the ceremony at least one chef stormed out of the auditorium after a restaurant he presumably saw as a competitor was awarded a star and his restaurant was not. It’s not difficult to imagine his asking what, precisely, separated his restaurant from the winner. The truth is, it’s almost impossible to know.
What is clear is that a restaurant, more often than not, has to do exceptional things to win a Michelin star. But there are restaurants that do those same things and are not recognised. To a certain extent, it is a club. On Michelin's radar are chefs who have worked at places that had or have stars; or restaurants that subscribe, or pay lip-service, to that club. These restaurants are not always bad — often they are good — but, almost by definition, they do not have to be as good as a restaurant that exists outside of the orbit of culture-Michelin.
The irony is that inscrutability leads to scrutiny — commentators are forced to interpret the guide’s method for judging a restaurant’s merit. The overwhelming evidence suggests not just an historic bias towards French restaurants, but also towards expensive ones, towards formal ones, and to restaurants that adhere to the model of “fine-dining,” even if that definition has had its boundaries blurred in the past decade, and even if they have shown a more modern bias towards high-end Japanese restaurants (in Japan), and, for example in London, south Asian cuisine.
But almost more puzzling than the criteria are the agents of this index: the deified, anonymous, career professional Michelin inspectors. Their secrecy is closely-guarded and no-one really knows who they are, yet they roam the planet, allegedly eating ceaselessly, always unannounced, interrogating restaurants. And therein lies one of Michelin’s interminable assets: it’s much harder to delegitimise an entity about whom we know very little. The inspectors issue their judgement, according to their own personal albeit brand-sanctioned, preference. In doing so, they enjoy a very specific power.
That, it could be said is the very nature of any human being — be it a professional restaurant critic, a blogger, a diner who tells their friends — chronicling their experience of a meal. But the effects of a Michelin inspector’s evaluation are idiosyncratic, if not unique. Their judgement, most often without exception, diverts the course of a restaurant’s fate — it’s not just an award in a guide, it is an award in a guide that is also a brand. A brand that has, because of history, and because of a sustained monopoly, become a quasi-official hallmark of brilliance. Michelin are tastemakers, even if their definition of taste is often out of date or arcane.
Michelin, like Apple, say, is principally a successful brand story. Its reputation is more than the sum of the quality of its product. It is an award that is noticed and understood by those from outside of the industry. It spans demographics. The overwhelming majority of people who know what a restaurant is would know or assume that “a Michelin starred restaurant” is a very good, excellent or exceptional restaurant; consider what it would be like just calling restaurants “starred”. There’s no hook, no catch, no entity to look up to — just a distant constellation in the sky. To be able to maintain that import through practices that implicitly downgrade its accuracy or contemporary relevance must be an integral part of the brand’s strategy. To diversify would threaten their prestige.
Perhaps only to a certain extent. The industry has changed. Thanks not just to the Internet and, in the UK, the recession, the nature of understanding what a restaurant is or can be has changed. Influences are more plural, chefs are different and customers expect more for less. The democratisation of the restaurant industry has questioned not just the traditionally successful, but also the arbiters of that success.
And with that, Michelin, the brand, has sought to affect change from within. As demonstrated by its recent acquisition of the French food guide — Le Fooding, a sort of proto-union for restaurants that would for reasons of style be typically overlooked by the Red Guide — they have formally acknowledged that there are in 2017 other indexes that matter, too. The World’s 50 Best is the most notable, but there are probably at least 38 others, too — the digital age and the increased interest in food has developed much faster than Michelin’s ability to adapt.
It’s difficult to identify exactly what their strategy is but it’s one of two things: they’re either trying to gain modern relevance or are attempting to eliminate their competition in a quest to regain their monopoly. The case for relevance is a complicated one — they have awarded restaurants stars that were in a different galaxy but five years ago — the likes of Barrafina and Ellory — but they also appear more readily emboldened to remove stars from those very restaurants. Note Hackney’s Pidgin and their quiet removal from the guide this week. Commentators assume it was because they lost their chef; in fact, the restaurant had already lost its chef — Elizabeth Allen — when the star was awarded. What’s more, take Alain Ducasse, Michelin’s star man, as an example. The chef is rarely at his London outpost at The Dorchester, and yet it’s difficult to point to a reason other than his association for the inexplicable, perennial, predictable award of three stars.
To the extent that food, chefs and the places in which customers experience both has garnered a different kind of cultural relevance, a restaurant remains — more than anything else — a business first. For a restaurant to change the way we eat or to introduce a new trend, even to disrupt the hegemony of existing structures of categorisation, it must first exist. And to exist, it has to make money. To get a Michelin star gives a restaurant the ability to make more money. In the words of Michelin’s international guides director Michael Ellis on Monday, it is “an indisputable business asset.” And that matters. Like driving a car on a treadmill, Michelin appear to be moving forward all the time, but really, they’re standing still. The thing is — they’re still driving the car.