Sunday, October 30, 2016


I just watched a BBC-produced documentary on IFC about how the Michelin star system affects restaurants and chefs.  It concentrated mostly on the situation in England, but the effect is worldwide.

It's an odd story how a tire manufacturer became the arbiter of fine dining.  The Michelin brothers founded their tire company in the late 1800s. In 1900, they published a free guide for French motorists, featuring maps, places they could get gas, nearby hotels and restaurants, and so on.  There weren't many automobiles on the road yet, and the brothers wanted to encourage them.

The Guide spread to other countries.  Eventually they started charging for it.  But the big moment came in 1926 when they started awarding restaurants stars.  In 1931, the system of one, two or three stars (or none) was created.  In 1936, the Guide explained what they stood for:

One star is a very good restaurant.
Two stars is an excellent restaurant, worth a detour.
Three stars is an exceptional restaurant, worth a special journey.

Today, the Guide, which comes out annually, is all about the restaurant ratings.  Michelin employs anonymous inspectors around the world.  They visit restaurants more than once, trying to get a sense of the menu, to make their appraisals.  Just getting to the one-star level takes some doing, and most restaurants can't manage it.  To get to the three-star level requires something approaching perfection--according to the inspectors.  There are less than 100 three-star restaurants in the world.  I don't think Los Angeles has any.

The documentary follows particular chefs trying to climb.  One chef hopes to get his first star, but fails.  A chef with two-stars--a high achievement indeed--works to get his third, but fails.  That's what happens in documentaries when you follow people not knowing how they'll end up.

But there are some who feel the system makes no sense. First, there is, or at least has been, a general bias toward French cooking in the Guide, which is only one cuisine among many, after all.  Second, when it began it was about the cooking, but has it now become about the money?--an extra star has people flocking to a restaurant and allows the chef to charge more for the same dishes.  Third, who are these inspectors, and how do they know more about food than the chefs?

Then there's the tremendous pressure it puts on the chefs.  Competition can be a good thing, but if it's all you work for, it can become a mania.  The classic example is French chef Bernard Loiseau.  It took him almost twenty years to raise his restaurant to the three-star level, and he maintained that rating for over a decade.  Then he heard rumors he would lose a star, and committed suicide in 2003. The story was front-page news in France, and shocked the world of haute cuisine. (It's not quite that simple, of course--he suffered from depression, didn't like new trends in cooking which meant the foodies were abandoning him, and so on.)  His wife still runs the restaurant, and it still has a three-star rating. Did Michelin feel the pressure?

I rarely go to fancy restaurants.  Few do.  They're too expensive and my palette has trouble telling the difference between what's great and what's good (or fair).  It's a fascinating world, but not one I need to know that much about.  Do we really need to dress for a meal like it's church?  Must we greet the food with hushed tones, and applaud the one who prepared it?

Mind you, I can understand how some people are into it.  I've been accused of being a snob, myself--for instance, when I read fiction it's usually classic novels, not modern trash.  And while I've got nothing against super hero moves, I often prefer art house fare (as some claim my year-end wrap-ups prove).  As long as you come by it honestly--and you've got the money to support your habit--fine, read the Michelin Guide and seek out those fancy places.  But judge for yourself.  I would hope an extra star doesn't convince you something tastes better than it does.

*If you're wondering about the title of this post, in the documentary, one of the chefs says we may call it a star rating, but in the Guide they look like macaroons, which is what many in France call them.  I don't know--they look like asterisks to me.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I don't know where the food photo came from, but it's going to give me nightmares. But then again, my restaurant criticism is limited to noting how Carl's Jr. has gone downhill in the past decade.

Fortunately, in the future this will all be moot.

12:46 AM, October 30, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I Googled something like "expensive food" or "fancy restaurant" or "Michelin three star fare" and chose from the many photos available. I admit I was looking for something offbeat.

The general page the photo comes from is a website that reviews restaurants, Elizabeth On Food.

If you want to see a photo on this blog closer up, just double click on one to get it on a separate page. This will also give you its URL.

1:30 AM, October 30, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

An episode in last season's "Bullsh*t" by Penn & Teller (definitely a macaroon), they discussed Fast Food and the over charged bias against it. The showed a Cornell study where people were given a Taco Bell salad, and half the people were told it was Taco Bell, and the other half were told it was some from made-up healthy sounding restaurant. Predictably, the patrons downgraded the flavor, and overestimated the calories when they thought it was Taco Bell, and vice versa when they thought it was from "Greenfields."

4:41 AM, October 30, 2016  
Blogger New England Guy said...

Who dresses up for church any more?

6:34 AM, October 30, 2016  

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