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Michelin Promises The Coronavirus Pandemic Won’t Change the Importance of Its Stars

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It wants to be a guide for restaurants through a crisis that might just kill it

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Michelin Guide’s 2020 London star ceremony
2020, a simpler time for the Red Guide
Michelin Guide

Tyre manufacturing restaurant arbitrator The Michelin Guide has quietly, but confidently announced its plans for next year, telling the world that the coming constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants “will mean the same in 2021 as they always have.” The printed guides will be delayed, as reported by Big 7 Travel, but a “Digital First” version will go ahead.

With the restaurant world irretrievably altered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, international guide director Gwendal Poullennec has pledged that “wherever you are, whatever kind of restaurant you are running, with our local teams of inspectors we will work with you in any way we can to ensure that the situation gets back to normal as quickly, and as safely, as possible.” Its inspectors, famously anonymous, will no doubt find creative ways to help without revealing their identities.

Poullennec also laid out the guide’s commitment to judging restaurants for 2021:

To be as efficient as possible in our mission to reconnect diners with your restaurants when reopening, as well as to achieve consistent and fair 2021 selections, we will make the most of our websites and digital facilities. Therefore, a Digital First strategy and an unprecedented commitment by our inspectors. Don’t worry, a Michelin Star, and all our award distinctions, will mean the same in 2021 as they always have.

Michelin had planned its U.K. announcement to be the opposite of “Digital First,” inviting members of the public to its bizarre annual unveiling for the first time to sit and applaud its taste. More pressing than that, is how its announcement appears simultaneously clued in to the seismic changes occurring in the restaurant arena and utterly oblivious to what it might mean for its existence. For starters: it cannot judge restaurants that are closed.

The Michelin Guide’s ongoing relevance is most easily understood in the context of its continuing to exist. For all its Eurocentric conceptions of culinary excellence, persistent social and logistical gaffes, and lionising of a narrow, exclusionary definition of chef greatness, it remains the apex of career achievement for a great many chefs, and a guiding star for the kind of people who fly around in pursuit of luxury restaurants. Chefs still want stars, and diners still hold their telescopes up to them.

What its defiance of COVID-19 misses out is how its roadmap is fundamentally changed. With airlines slashing capacity and pleading for bailouts, divergent national lockdown policies inevitably leading to inconsistent travel regulations across its 32 countries, and a widely forecast recession tightening budgets, “destination” dining is likely to be one of the last restaurant fields to recover as restaurants look closer to home. When it pledges to “ensure that the situation gets back to normal,” it’s referring to a normal that its restaurants will likely never go back to.

Michelin built itself as a tyre company that recommended restaurant journeys so people used their cars and wore down their tyres; cuisines “worth a special journey” and a “detour” are its literal criteria for inclusion and for differentiating its star ratings. When no one’s making those journeys anymore, including the “digital first” inspectors, it’s hard to see what purpose it can possibly, immediately have. It’s hard to see how its criteria can be applied when one country’s road trip is another country’s fine waiting to happen. What use is a star that no-one can come to see, beyond hardening a system already entrenched in legacy.

Poullennec’s announcement does get at this — in its promise of “support” for restaurants, whatever that may look like. His contention that diners “will want to help in the recovery and a more sustainable food scene” hints at an acknowledgment that its world is changing. The guide has made moves towards something more keyed into global reality, with a “sustainability” push whose first draft, while noble, couldn’t get away from its essential irony of being introduced by a company that wouldn’t exist without cars and heralds a form of dining as wasteful as it is rarified. It has published a Michelin delivery guide for the U.K. which features 19 of its 187 restaurants without recognising what that might imply for its future. But claiming that its stars will “mean the same” is fantasy. Or perhaps it’s appropriate, given that when new starlight shines in the sky, it’s already years in the past.