The Michelin Guide returns later today, but it’s not been the best year for the guide. With chefs giving stars back and politely requesting inspectors don’t enter their premises, it begs the question: does Michelin matter for chefs or consumers anymore?
Before we get to that rather big question, here’s a quick run through of what’s been going on.
A recent guide to the Guide
Last September, Le Suquet restaurant in southern France was the first restaurant in history to have itself removed from the Michelin Guide. It had held an incredible three Michelin stars for 18 years, but chef Sebastien Bras said enough is enough, and requested to be removed. He found the pressure of retaining stars was too great and held him and his team back from serving the food they really wanted to.
More recently, The Checkers in Montgomery, Powys, also handed back their one star, which it’s held since 2011. Their reasoning was to “put family first” after “years juggling the kids with working split shifts and late hours”.
And then there’s Marco Pierre White – the original rock star chef who continues to own the news. The enigmatic chef told an Asian lifestyle website “I don’t need Michelin and they don’t need me”. He’s stated that the Michelin Guide does not have permission to visit and inspect his new Singapore restaurant, The English House.
Why are chefs turning their backs?
So, it’s been a tumultuous year for the Guide, which for so long has been considered the pinnacle of restaurant reviews worldwide. It’s famed for high standards, incredible expectations and brutal honesty. And therein lies the problem.
Getting a star is still an exciting achievement for any restaurant and head chef. But retaining it becomes as big a part of the job as pleasing customers. An inspection can happen at any time, meaning all-year round, a restaurant has to tick the many boxes that Michelin is looking out for.
Not knowing when a restaurant could be reviewed makes trying out something new an even more terrifying ordeal. What if the inspectors arrive on the day a new menu is introduced, and it’s just not quite right? The star’s gone.
So, it’s best to just stick with what you do.
Does the Guide take everything into account?
The judging criteria used by inspectors is a mystery to most. In a recent tweet, Michelin said that it’s the food on the plate that’s judged, which is why street food vendors have an equal chance of winning a star.
In a way, this is great news. The food is what matters most and great food deserves praise, wherever it’s from and however it’s served. But, speak to any chef and you can be sure that it’s not all they care about. Food is experiential, more so than ever. The décor, the feel, the atmosphere, the restaurant as a whole, they all play into the dining experience, not just the food.
If the Guide is purely critiquing the food, is that really enough? Because food today is much more than just what’s on the plate, however pretty the plate may be.
The cost of creativity
Chefs are inherently creative individuals. They want to cook and create the perfect menu that represents them, their tastes and their culture. Holding back a creative person is like locking a cheetah in a cage. It doesn’t want to be there, it’s not going to be happy, and the moment it gets out, you know it’s going to run.
The constant pressure of inspection causes even longer hours and even greater expectations in an industry that’s already full of long hours and great expectations. And these hours and expectations often occur at the detriment of profit, with margins often said to be lower at Michelin-focussed restaurants.
But, is that why chefs and consumers are turning their backs on the Guide? Or is it because the world of reviews has changed?
Reviews beyond the Guide
The Michelin Guide has been around for an astonishing 118 years. But today, there’s a world of reviews beyond the guide.
Bloggers, journalists, TV critics and review aggregator websites such as TripAdvisor have changed the face of reviewing. The Guide sits at the top, but for the average customer, why would they listen to a Guide that’s criteria for success is a secret, when they could just see genuine peer-reviews?
Restaurant A has a star, but the last 20 people that visited had a dreadful experience. Meanwhile, Restaurant B is star-less, but has page after page of flawless reviews. Where would you eat tomorrow?
We live in a society where everyone is now a critic, and everyone has a platform to share comments, pictures and reviews. This happens every day, not just once a year, making the Guide essentially behind the times as soon as it’s released.
Who is the Guide really for?
This begs the question, who is the Guide really for? Is it for chefs or for consumers?
Consumers undoubtedly want to enjoy the best cuisine and cooking possible and the idea of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant still has a great appeal. It has pulling power, but it’s no longer the only factor a consumer looks at.
For chefs, winning a star is still one of the highest culinary accolades out there. It can change a career in a heartbeat. But, as we’ve seen, retaining a star is often a step too far for many creative chefs. It limits them and stifles creativity; two things that a lot of chefs won’t enjoy very much.
At the end of the day, the Michelin Guide isn’t perfect. But, it still matters a great deal to chefs and consumers alike. As Adam Coghlan, Eater London Editor, puts it: “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.”
One thing’s for sure. We’ll still be watching to see the updated list, because today it still is the pinnacle. The question is, how long will that last? And will we see any restaurants ask for their star to be removed in the same week the Guide’s released?