The Michelin Guide and its star rating system evoke a deep-seated reverence among chefs, restaurateurs and food lovers across the planet. Their respect is aimed at Michelin’s anonymous band of “inspectors,” charged with visiting and objectively rating restaurants from zero to three stars based on five criteria: quality of products; mastery of flavor and cooking techniques; the personality of the chef represented in the dining experience; harmony of the flavors; and consistency between inspectors' visits.
Said inspectors dine at restaurants on Michelin’s dime and have seemingly no conflicts of interest with the restaurants they visit. Never mind that Florida’s tourist boards collectively paid Michelin more than $1.5 million (as reported by the Miami Herald) to bring their restaurant inspectors to the Sunshine State.
Fact is, Michelin stars translate to tourist dollars, and their reach has become increasingly global.
It’s why the guide is gospel for jet-setting gastronauts bent on seeking out finer dining establishments around the world, and why a star can earn a restaurant unprecedented prestige, not to mention an influx of cash.
Does Michelin matter?
But in an era of internet democratization, does the Michelin Guide really matter? Michelin inspectors, after all, aren’t the only arbiters of taste. There are influencers on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok; “experts” who clickity-clack on subReddits, as well as crowdsourced sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor; and more who promote and market restaurants in the food blogosphere.
There are organizations like the James Beard Foundation and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, dedicated to showcasing the most noteworthy restaurants in the biz, though both have certainly seen their fair share of controversy around inclusion, propping up bad players and Eurocentricity.
Many legacy media outlets, including Orlando Weekly, still employ critics tasked with steering people toward good restaurants and away from subpar ones, while newer media outlets like Eater are a go-to source on where to dine in major metropolitan areas.
So, it begs the question: Is the Michelin Guide necessary? Opinions of chefs and food professionals seem to run the gamut.
“We don’t need a guide, especially in the age of social media,” says chef-owner Mark Berdin of Michelin-starred Kadence. “If you make great food consistently, people will come to your restaurant consistently.” (After this interview, Kadence received a Michelin star; this story was edited after the Michelin ceremony.)
Joe Yardley, who cooked at Michelin-starred Agern in New York City as chef de cuisine before opening Rebellion Wine Bar in Cocoa last year, feels that if Michelin is going to build a presence in the United States, it’s important they visit Florida. “I think anything that brings awareness and business to restaurants in Florida has to be seen as positive. As far as whether we need the guide, it’s always nice to be recognized, but only places trying to show off or express dominance in the marketplace truly need it.”
“It’s a pay-for-play situation,” says Knife & Spoon’s John Tesar about the taxpayer dollars used to bring the Michelin Guide to Florida. “Our business loves adulation, but there is no truth in food anymore. Only politics, popularity and pandering.” It’s a blunt, if conflicted, declaration by the five-time James Beard Award nominee, whose restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton Orlando also earned a Michelin star after this interview.
Others, like chef-owner Bryce Bonsack of Michelin contender Rocca in Tampa, welcome the Michelin Guide, saying it’s necessary to legitimize the state’s dining landscape.
“Never before in the history of Florida has there been more anticipation and conversation about our restaurant scene. Modern food journalism has been trending towards less restaurant criticism, or reviews with no stars or ratings given, and I think that trend is generally hurtful to restaurants and chefs. People like to discuss who got what and what they think a restaurant should get, and stars and ratings facilitate that.” (Rocca did not end up receiving Michelin recognition; no stars were awarded to any Tampa restaurant.)
The star system
But there’s a reason why stars and numeric rating systems have quickly faded from restaurant criticism. Stars can offer a generalized snapshot of a restaurant’s worth and value, especially to the attention deprived, but they’re all too often reductive. In CBC News’ “Front Burner” podcast, food writer and former Toronto Star restaurant critic Corey Mintz takes issue with the arbitrary classism of doling out stars.
“There’s never a problem with more people making suggestions of where to eat, that’s always helpful,” said Mintz. “I think it’s the star system and the pressure it puts on people, particularly in the Yelp and social media ‘5-stars-or-it’s-worthless’ era.”
The pressure of maintaining a Michelin star, or the risk of losing one, is believed to be the primary reason why French chef Bernard Loiseau, of 3–Michelin star–rated La Côte d’Or in Burgundy, France, took his own life in 2003, and why Benoît Violier, the French-born chef of Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland, did the same in 2016.
Several others have renounced their stars or requested to be omitted from the Michelin Guide, because of the pressure maintaining a star can place on a restaurant’s staff and inner workings. British chef Marco Pierre White went so far as to ban Michelin inspectors from his restaurant in Singapore.
“Eater got rid of its star rating system last year,” said Mintz, “the San Francisco Chronicle did it a couple of years ago, L.A. Times 10 years ago and, particularly during the pandemic, a lot of newspapers that still did a star system suspended it because they recognized restaurants are going through the hardest time ever. So it’s particularly antiquated for Michelin to come along with the star system as if the hospitality world hasn’t been underwater for the last two years.”
“Readers will have to work a little harder to grapple with the text of a review now,” writes Eater’s chief critic, Ryan Sutton, “and that’s a good thing, because they won’t be able to rely on the crutch of a star and all its baggage, ranging from empty authority (that’s you, Michelin) to veiled objectivity to false accessibility. I’ve put a lot of thought into my starred ratings over the years, but I’m certain they were one of the most arbitrary parts of my job. I’m glad I won’t be using them anymore.”
Out of touch?
Since 1926, the Michelin Guide has promoted automotive tourism by bestowing restaurants that warranted a stop with stars. A 1-star restaurant is deemed to have “high quality cooking” and is “worth a stop”; a 2-star has “excellent cooking” and is “worth a detour”; and a 3-star restaurant offers “exceptional cuisine worth a special journey.” Since 1997, “good quality, good value restaurants” were awarded with a Bib Gourmand. These are typically handed out to places where two courses and a glass of wine or dessert costs no more than $49.
‘Our business loves adulation, but there is no truth in food anymore. Only politics, popularity and pandering.’
In recent years, however, the Michelin Guide has faced increased scrutiny over its judging criteria, in which the focus is placed on food and cooking techniques while issues of equity, race, labor, culture and health go unchecked.
In an op-ed in the Globe & Mail, noted Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg was highly critical of Michelin’s star rating system and its role in perpetuating a caustic mindset in restaurants.
“If you were to work in [a restaurant] that tries to win ‘best of’ lists like Michelin, too often you’d find a toxic culture — places where they focus on hospitality and being a ‘house of yes’ to the diners, yet say no to reasonable requests from employees, such as asking that they not be sexually harassed on the job, or wanting to, y’know, be paid for all their hours worked. Of course, Michelin doesn’t pay attention to all that — if they did, a lot of places would be disqualified.”
“They do not consider labor a part of their adjudication,” said Mintz on the “Front Burner” podcast. “The pandemic and the Great Resignation has been an opportunity for restaurants to rethink how they can operate in a way that values everyone, whereas the Michelin Star Guide is a return to that old-school way of thinking — it’s an elitist system that rewards exactly the kind of behavior that needs to change in the restaurant industry.”
Agg concurs. Chefs are overwhelmingly excited about the Michelin Guide — which, she wrote, says a lot about the change that hasn’t happened in the industry.
“To hold on so lovingly to something so rooted in old-school kitchen hierarchy and the kinds of restaurants that mete out real punishments for lack of compliance or failure to perform under immense pressure is the microcosm of why change doesn’t happen. This is an awards system that is so tangled up in the lifting-up of white men with access to capital that even when it throws a bone at a street-food restaurant, it feels very much like that: scraps.”
So it’s not surprising that Agg has repeatedly stated that if one of her restaurants were to win a Michelin star, she would return it.
Then there’s the issue of transparency. Michelin is tight-lipped about the financial deals hammered out with governmental bodies, like the one with Florida’s tourist boards. “That hasn't stopped persistent reporters from poking holes in the guide's carefully cultivated image of editorial independence,” writes Eater’s Brenna Houck. “Can the guide continue to maintain its brand reputation when it’s accepting private money and sponsorships?”
And what do we know about the secret cabal of inspectors? How many are there? Do the roles they hold in the industry pose a conflict of interest? How often do they visit restaurants? Are inspectors primarily white men? What’s their racial, gender and cultural makeup? It’s troubling when former Michelin inspectors, like Chris Watson, consider the idea of giving three stars to an Indian, Chinese or Japanese restaurant “radical.”
But supporters of Michelin — like Rocca’s Bonsack — say the guide offers an informed opinion and acts as a sort of catalyst to propel the industry forward. “They’re easily the most respected restaurant guide in the world, and for good reason. The attention Michelin draws will ultimately lead to higher compensation and respect for serious restaurant professionals here, which is wonderful.”
On the “Front Burner” podcast, food writer Nancy Matsumoto said, “There’s this way to think of Michelin and that tier of fine dining as sort of like the equivalent of haute couture. Would I ever buy a dress that costs $5,000? No, but I’m sort of glad it exists, because it creates really top-level artisans.”
Even Berdin concedes that the guide is a gauge of the rarefied heights of gastronomy and, at its best, “maintains and raises the caliber of the restaurants and chefs because it gives those people in the industry a rabbit to chase.”
But maybe they're chasing the rabbit for the wrong reasons.
In an essay for Vanity Fair, the late A.A. Gill railed against chefs under Michelin's spell, accusing them of no longer cooking for their diners but instead, for the mysterious inspectors.
"Michelin still holds a withered widow's grip on the aspirations of cooks," wrote the former Sunday Times restaurant critic, and "spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks' abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments."
Should we care?
While newspaper restaurant reviews and their “Best Of” lists may resonate with locals and provide chefs with the compliments to which Gill refers, a Michelin star unquestionably brings international recognition and the power to attract tourists. But should we care?
In an interview the late Anthony Bourdain gave with Maclean’s magazine in 2016, he was asked if a city’s lack of Michelin-starred restaurants equates to a subpar restaurant scene.
“No, no, no, I think you’re doing it right if Michelin hasn’t come,” said Bourdain. “They’re utterly useless, and in no way prepared or capable of evaluating restaurants in a modern setting. How do you award stars? What’s the throughline of spectacular soup dumplings or a little tower of foie gras and truffles? No single organization is competent enough to put it all on the same scale.
"The world they live in now is in no way the world the Michelin system was set up to evaluate back in France, which was all about motorists and seeing if it was worth driving an extra 50 miles for a restaurant. It’s a silly thing. Why do you want to help a tire company? You don’t owe them nothing.”
In Orlando, we tend to wear our inferiority complex on our collective sleeves. How else to explain the longevity of the hashtag #orlandodoesntsuck? We gobble up national and international recognition and too often act like “we don’t belong.” I don't think any Orlandoan was overly surprised to hear that Kadence, Capa, Knife & Spoon and Soseki received a Michelin star. Or to see Bombay Street Kitchen, Domu, Papa Llama, the Ravenous Pig, the Strand, Swine & Sons and Z Asian earn Bib Gourmands.
What was surprising, however, were the glaring omissions and head-scratching inclusions. Neither Kabooki Sushi nor Luke's Kitchen received stars; restaurants by James Beard-nominated restaurateurs Jason and Sue Chin weren't recognized at all; and why would a restaurant that's been open for just six months (like Bacán and Four Flamingos) get a recommended listing? Oh, and in a slap to the face of Visit Tampa Bay, no Tampa restaurant received a star.
But aside from the uninformed grasp of our restaurant scene, Michelin seems to have an uninformed grasp of good writing as well. The reviews in the guide aren't just abysmal, they're an embarrassment, and A.A. Gill was certainly no fan:
"Food writing is already the recidivist culprit of multiple sins against both language and digestion," said Gill, "but the little encomiums of the Michelin guide effortlessly lick the bottom of the descriptive swill bucket."
Accuracy also seems to take a back seat in the guide's reviews. Consider this gem from the Z Asian capsule: "Behold the simple yet sublime dia nho, or sautéed bok choy with crispy garlic." Dia nho means "small plates," not sautéed bok choy with crispy garlic.
"This sort of hideously embarrassing faux grandiloquence makes you seriously wonder about the inspectors," Gill continued. "The anonymity that was so obsessively preserved as a proof of impartiality is also the sad hiding place of craven hobbyists and amateur wannabes."
So do we really need Michelin to tell us what we already know? Or do we so crave international recognition that we would pay a French interloper to pat us on the back and tell us we're worthy?
"Orlando is young and still finding its place in the world," says Ricky Ly of food blog TastyChomps. "It would be a shame for the city to have to conform and mold to Michelin's preconceived Old World criteria and framework of 'good taste' rather than truly forging its own path."
“You’re not missing anything,” said Bourdain about the Guide and its stars. “Who needs that kind of validation?! I think it’s meaningless. We’ve moved way beyond that.”
Others, perhaps, need to catch up.
(The Michelin Guide handed out stars to Florida restaurants in an invitation-only ceremony June 9 at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes.)