In a bid to hold onto relevance, Michelin — tyre manufacturer and distributor of cherished restaurant accolades — will makes its return with a brand new, digital-only set of stars for Great Britain and Ireland in January next year. It originally planned to hold on to relevance by inviting the public to sit and applaud its taste in restaurants, but owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic now says it will review the situation closer to the announcement.
The Red Guide, responsible for Michelin stars, ordinarily publishes its index in October, but has announced this morning that the date has been moved to January “not only allow time for the hospitality industry to get back on its feet, but [to] also let [the company] prepare a full and comprehensive guide for our readers,” guide director Gwendal Poullennec said.
The event has been coloured by gaffes, incongruous corporate alliances, and a generally amateur and bizarre cadence since 2017. This year is no exception, with the Guide choosing to host its “revelation” at a hotel owned by the Sultan of Brunei, a nation which reintroduced the death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality in April 2019. It has since said it will not enforce the law, but the law has not been repealed.
The Guide, meanwhile, will this year not just issue stars and celebrate its version of quality but “highlight the resilience...and potential of the industry across the UK and Ireland,” as well, reflecting that these are strange times for a guide that has always leaned heavily towards the upper-end of the restaurant industry. Michelin stars across the world are synonymous with fine-dining, and have over the years been more readily handed out to European restaurants run by men, in addition to expensive sushi restaurants and high-end South Asian establishments in London. While the full impact of the pandemic on London’s restaurants is not yet known, the acute vulnerability of that section of the industry — so reliant on high-rolling (gastro)tourists, for one — has been revealed by some of the big, early permanent closures in the capital: The Ledbury and The Greenhouse both held two Michelin stars, while Indian Accent, another early casualty, was thought by some to have been perplexingly overlooked by the Red Guide.
Early in the pandemic Michelin’s communications wing was keen to emphasise that the almost complete shutdown of the restaurant industry would not impact its importance, emphasising that its latest set of stars would “mean the same in 2021 as they always have.”
That’s what the corporate machine behind the guide hopes. But the messaging from Poullennec today takes care to emphasise its delay being as much about the practical complications of coming so soon after the reopening of restaurants as it is about giving inspectors the time they “need to be fair to restaurateurs and to ensure the consistent, expert advice our customers demand.”
Poullennec later leans more explicitly into the language of support for an industry it knows has taken a hammering and whose survival it is existentially reliant upon. Those famously anonymous inspectors “are eating out and supporting the industry across Great Britain and Ireland,” he said. Seated not as frightening adversaries, but “busy sharing their joy and posting about their experiences on our social media platforms,” he claimed. “We hope this has enticed many customers back into eating out and supporting their local restaurants and the restaurant industry at large.”
Michelin, like the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, finds itself at a curious juncture: with no option but to lend whatever it chooses to categorise as support, it must also retain the authority on which its brands and business models rely. “Restaurants have been through challenges we previously couldn’t even have imagined — and I want to applaud chefs and owners for the passion, ingenuity and entrepreneurship they have shown this year,” Poullennec offered with as much sincerity as he’s probably able to muster.
It leaves the Red Guide with little option but to shift its emphasis: Michelin not merely as arbiter of good and bad, but Michelin as benevolent provider of footfall itself. In Poullennec’s words: “The future may look different but our goal remains constant: to connect customers to the best restaurants around the country, whatever the occasion, and to celebrate this most magnificent of industries — one that brings so much joy to so many.”
Without question, Michelin has brought a lot of joy to the restaurants it has ordained. It can also bring misery to those it overlooks, such has been its effect in instituting a hierarchy that for a certain type of chef can be impossible to ignore.
Now, it says it recognises the “adaptability and commitment shown by chefs and restaurateurs” as showing “signs of an industry with huge potential.” With a new degree of compassion, just how Michelin manages to balance support with its inherent selectivity is just as uncertain as the future of the industry itself.