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For Those Who Care, Michelin Is Giving Out Some Stars

They might be the most consequential and least important Michelin stars yet

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Salut, still here!
THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP via Getty Images

New Michelin stars for restaurants in the U.K. and Ireland will be announced on 25 January 2021, at 6 p.m. The only restaurant arbitrating tyre manufacturer in the world is pressing ahead with doling out its accolades despite restaurants around the country being closed for most of 2020 and all of 2021, saying that it is “supporting the industry across Great Britain and Ireland.”

Digital-only and streamed live, the ceremony’s usual cadence of gaffes, incongruous corporate alliances, and a generally amateur and bizarre vibe is unlikely to change. The demographic of its stars — over the years more readily handed out to European restaurants run by men, in addition to expensive sushi restaurants and high-end South Asian establishments in London — is unlikely to change. But these could be the most consequential and least important, the most meaningful and meaningless stars yet. Not just for restaurants, but for the future of the Michelin Guide itself.

The most common criticism levied at the French, Francophile institution is that it is out of step with modern times; the second most common is that its attempts to appear more modern are either tantamount to greenwashing or so far wide of the mark that they are just insults. It is extremely bad at social media and its general aversion to explaining any of its rationales doesn’t help matters. But in the run-up to this year’s announcement, it has very consciously taken the line that the awarding of stars is a mark of support — the bookings and footfall and presence one will bring in is, in its view, this year designed to help a restaurant world reeling from COVID-19. That is, by anyone’s definition, moving with the times.

But that doesn’t mean it comes without a sense of ineptitude. Michelin’s entire reason for being is telling people — people who drive cars, or, by now, fly around on gastrotourism trips that aren’t happening — the best places to eat, and that means not telling them about the not-best places to eat. It is a selective guide. Support for some restaurants inherently means not supporting others. And even if this could be leavened by only altering existing stars, and indeed, only altering them upwards, it has already signalled that it is willing to both award new restaurants and even demote others, justifying those demotions by saying they are for restaurants that have closed (permanently) or... Changed their menus. To survive a global pandemic. But, it has promised not to demote any three-star restaurants! That sounds less like moving with the times.

And while the fact that Michelin’s apparent reticence to change being by design means that perhaps the easiest thing to do is just ignore it, the change in profile, bookings, and bottom line a star can bring is very hard for chefs wrapped up in its rubber folds to ignore, especially at a time when bookings are non-existent and the bottom line is more desperate than ever. It has tangible impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods, positive and negative —people still want to go to Michelin-starred restaurants, when they’re allowed, and it seems, at least, to be acknowledging that this year in particular great power comes with great responsibility.

This is why this year’s stars are set to be both hugely important and almost meaningless. If the promise of vaccination makes good, restaurants that earn — or keep — stars will reap the rewards. Those that lose them may feel the pain. The awards themselves are likely to feel anti-climatic in the extreme. They doesn’t really matter. But the longer term consequences of a guide that prides itself on selectivity trying to pivot to support can’t be underestimated. Michelin is undermining its reason for being in order to make itself relevant during a global crisis that is unlikely to have a commensurable impact on next year’s awards, and laying down a position that it will find it hard to withdraw from in 2022 without once again coming across as wildly out of touch.

What’s certain is that today, Monday 25 January, it will hand out shiny stars to restaurants that aren’t even open. And that’s Michelin to a tee. What that means for Michelin’s authority? That’s for next year.

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