As a cook I hear a lot of talk both at work and from people curious about the industry regarding Michelin stars. They are the talk of the food world and it is difficult to watch an hour of the Food Network without hearing them mentioned at least once. People seem to think a restaurant is hardly worth eating at if they don’t maintain at least one star. Though we don’t currently have them in Canada, many countries around the world have food industries strangled by the constant looming shadow of the little red guidebook. Sure the Michelin guidebook has served some great purposes in the past and yes, it is a great resource for annyoing foodies wanting to earn bragging rights over everyone they come in contact with but are these stars really a good thing for the food industry? For that matter, do most consumers even understand the intricacies of the award or exactly what they mean? This is a controversial opinion and I’m sure I will get flak for it if anyone I work with reads this, but when you look into the history, management and effects of Michelin stars it starts to become apparent that they have been grossly over glorified in today’s culture by both cooks and customers.
The first thing on the minds of many people is why do these stars share a name with tires? Well that would be because they come from the same company. In 1900 the Michelin brothers realized that despite their quality product there simply were not enough people driving to maintain a strong business. With this in mind they created the first Michelin Guide Book with detailed maps of France including restaurants, gas stations, hotels, general maintenance notes for cars and a blue cover. Their hope was to encourage people to go out on longer road trips and explore the country more because this would obviously lead to more wear and tear on the tires. Well it worked. And as the guide became more popular they started printing updated versions and guides for other areas. These books were in fact so well detailed that allied forces would later use them to find their way through occupied France during WWII. In 1926 with the popularity of the guide booming, it introduced the star rating for exceptional restaurants then in 1931 the current three star rating system was brought in. The following year it began sporting the iconic red cover and the Michelin guide as we know it today came into being.
But today it is no longer thought of as a handy companion to have on a road trip. It carries a much deeper and “important” message. It is now the ultimate authority on good food throughout many parts of the world. It has been published for 9 different regions with detailed books for 19 different cities. The stress put on chefs in these places to achieve and then maintain a star rating in these book is incredible. It means not only prestige but also a marketing boon. It is looked at in the culinary industry as one of if not the highest honor a chef can be given. Cooks volunteer to work in these restaurants free of wage just for the experience and bragging rights. People spend their whole adult lives working towards just one star being listed next to their name. All this comes with consequences. Many chefs have recently started renouncing their stars because they feel the pressure is too much and they don’t carry the perceived significance. We get into cooking because it is a labor of love. It is a high stress job, punishing on the body and not great pay. However we walk into that kitchen every day because we love making good food and this is exactly what the best restaurants should be. When a chef says that the standards and expectations of people on a Michelin starred restaurant are too much then that should be sending a message. What’s more is that the Michelin stars have been cited as an influence in multiple suicides. Chefs who have had their rating reduced or are worried of it happening. In an industry already plagued by a high suicide rate why are we allowing something like this to drive it up even more?
But does this book even really tell you the best food? Of course not. How could it? “Best” in regards to taste is so subjective. Everyone has different taste and standards for food. But okay, there are things people will generally agree are better than others. That doesn’t matter though, Michelin has repeatedly shown biases among types of cuisine and sexism. France, where the guide originated, has 27 restaurants which currently hold a 3 star rating. Italy, a country known for its cuisine, a country people flock to for the food has only 10. Spain isn’t doing much better at 11, and even the United States which includes food and celebrity chef Meccas like New York and Las Vegas was only able to reach 15 restaurants to hold the prestigious rating. The book has been accused constantly of favoring French cuisine making it extremely difficult for other styles such as Indian to achieve even a single star. But it isn’t just any French cuisine they’re after. They want what’s trendy. Plates deconstructed and new flavors invented, which is all well and good. Creativity and originality should be encouraged. However for a rating system which claims to be all about finding the simply best tasting food, that can’t be all they look at. How many people reading this right now would tell me that the best food they’ve ever had was cooked by their grandmother, or that little family owned diner on the corner? Shouldn’t they get Michelin stars too if their food is that good? Though there are exceptions the Michelin guide does clearly show a bias towards the french style, modern cuisine while ignoring really good tasting and enjoyable simple foods from other countries.
Now don’t think it is just national cuisines Michelin’s book shows bias towards. In 2016 out of 77 restaurants to be given a star rating in NYC only six of them had female head chefs. It is true that males out number females quite a bit as head chefs worldwide. But the numbers are not that drastically far apart. Maybe it’s possible that just not many of the female chefs in New York are very good. However with the number of restaurants in that city, and the competitiveness of the food scene there I find it hard to believe that only six of them can stand up there with the other 71 male chefs. To add to this Michelin Guide’s social media posted “It’s rare to see a completely female kitchen team — and one so utterly calm under so much pressure as the place was packed” which at best shows a lack of understanding and empathy in the choice of words but has been much more widely perceived as a back handed comment on women in the kitchen.
This isn’t just the view from the outside though. Michelin tries very hard to keep their reviewers anonymous to avoid preferential treatment. But none the less some judges have spoken about the job after they retired or came out against the organization while still working for them. Areas around the world seem to be quite inconsistent with others despite the claims of a world wide standard for ratings. In 2014 one judge revealed the list of stars ahead of the release of the book and claimed that they favored younger chefs over the older and more classical ones. Pascal Remy, a former judge came out against the book after being fired. He claimed that there were 5 reviewers in France which listed 10 000 eligible restaurants. It doesn’t take a math wiz to figure out that contrary to the book’s claims, not all of those establishments were being judged each year and especially not multiple times. He went on to also claim that about a third of the 3 star restaurants no longer meet the criteria, however since they have been on the list so long there were deemed “untouchable”. The Hong Kong guide has been criticized as being extremely inconsistent and unreliable. In 2016 Vogue Korea made accusations against the Michelin guide claiming they were corrupt and catered to the elite of Seoul giving out stars to restaurants which clearly did not deserve them.
People, and especially those in the culinary world place a ton of importance of the opinions of anonymous food critics. They spend their lives chasing this dream of either making the best food or eating the best food while in reality taste and opinion are too subjective to state outright. While reviews of any business can be good for a consumer they have to have the reasoning ability to sort through the good and the bad, the relevant and the frivolous to make an informed decision instead of just going by the findings of one person who may have had a uniquely good or bad experience. Food should be enjoyed by both parties, those making it as well as those consuming it. To live by the opinions of someone else is insane and will not lead to a good outcome, yet it seems like these types of awards are telling us what to like instead of what they should be, a recommendation. This goes for any type of review or rating and especially in the culinary industry. The significance and prestige held by this bias, corrupt, inconsistent and arrogant tire company needs to be done away with. Go out. Try something new. Form your own opinions and most of all eat what you like.