Michelin inspectors in Florida: One Orlando chef on the angst of waiting for external validation

‘Will I win a Bib Gourmand tonight? Probably not. Do I want the barest of minimum recognition from a French tire company? Yes, more than most things.’

click to enlarge Chef Eliot Hillis - Photo by Rob Bartlett
Photo by Rob Bartlett
Chef Eliot Hillis

It's 5:50 the morning of June 9th, my stomach in knots, panicky, getting cagey. I pore over Faiyaz's article a few more times, maybe there's something else I can glean from it. Probably nothing that will help ease the anxiety.

6:01, I've been awake for 2 hours and I realize I got the days wrong, the awards are tonight, not last night. The pressure eases off a bit behind my eyes and I feel all the drugs take effect all at once.

Faiyaz Kara, the most warm and witty a gourmand since J. Gold left us, wrote a truly thoughtful and insightful piece concerning the stuffy and overly political awards in the food industry. I trust him, but I can't shake this suspicion that I am in fact missing out.

Wry. Faiyaz is wry, too.

Why Michelin? Why James Beard? Why Julia and Jaques and why the goddamned San Pellegrino list? I admit, I'm not sure if Jaques Pépin has an award named after him; he is still alive. Why isn't there an Escoffier award? But there is the Bocuse d'Or, which is more of a competition than an award. I digress; why do I covet these supposed meaningless objects?

Faiyaz even quoted our modern St. Lawrence, Anthony Bourdain. Well, if you read all his books, St. Anthony cared a lot more than he'd like to let on, he really really really gave a fuck. So do I.

Some years ago I went to France; as a cook this was to be my pilgrimage home, to feel my mother's embrace, to be with my people. When you are a young cook (at least at that time), France is it, and nothing is more French than cooking. It's all at once light and joyful, full of possibilities but rigid and codified in so granular a fashion that galantine and ballotine are considered different dishes. (Don't bother looking it up, same dish methodology different serving temperature).

I was told ad nauseam that France was my true home and spiritually nothing was more instructive than spending time in Paris. Well, I spent that time, and the food was good, excellent, it was all the superlatives anyone ever said about it, but it wasn't my home. Of all the time I spent in France, I only wanted to be in Opéra, a neighborhood in Paris that is mostly Asian immigrant food. It was the best of the best, not a damn Michelin star in sight. On that trip I realized something for which I am still searching out the words — but my closest approximation is "France isn't it."

Heresy, to be sure.

Then why? If France isn't it, and JBF is a political mess and Le Guide Michelin is a bunch of stuffed shirts, why is it that I want it so much? I know, I know in my heart, even in my deepest fantasy, I'll never hit the Pellegrino list — but I still want it.

In searching for my own voice in a sea of shouting people I looked to the ancient and the newly minted, east and west, inward and outward, and the only commonality that I found is that the people doing the things I idolized were doing those things because they were driven to. Possessed, as if by some otherworldly entity, maddening and yet simultaneously a savior to those willing to kneel at the altar.

I decided to kneel.

I gave everything, every day. Every bit of me left on the dance floor. About eight years ago, I decided to go after a James Beard Award nomination in earnest; I knew I wasn't ready then, and JBF seems to think I'm not ready now. I have been crowing for years about Michelin coming to Florida, since the Surf Club opened up in Miami. If TK can't bring around the inspectors, no one can. Now that they're here, what do I think? How do I feel? I still want the call, more than most things in life. For me, it's not simply validation — it's a milestone on a path well-trod by nearly every single cook I adore. At least the Beard nomination, maybe a star. Only gods make it to the list. It means a book deal and it means that this highly subjective work we do has some kind of satisfying objective measure.

In the trenches, how do we measure success? Better cooks than me have died broke without a restaurant. We can measure it by the minute: How is the food? Well, on whose palate and by what authority? If art is subjective and we measure our success in commercial terms, then logically the most commercially successful restaurants should be the best, it doesn't take a super-taster to tell you that Starbucks pastry ain't catching a star anytime soon. I'm not even sure it's better than the toxic packet stuff in the 7-Eleven across the street. But Starbucks does brisk business and is so damn ubiquitous that the excuse people use for drinking their swill is nearly always: "It's close, there's nothing good by my house, they aren't that bad."

Nowhere in that sentence did I hear: "Starbucks is doing some really cool things and their chef is real cute."

So, if money isn't the measure, how do we do it? Every cook worth their salt hates themselves. We cook because we are seeking the validation that maybe we aren't so ugly inside and out, that maybe we are deserving of love, and through our food, we are capable of being loved.

In all that incoherent, aimless shuffling, it doesn't appear that we came any closer to the truth. Is Michelin for everyone? No, certainly not. Will I win a Bib Gourmand tonight? Probably not. Do I want the barest of minimum recognition from a French tire company? Yes, more than most things. If I'm being honest, I'd clip off one of my pinky toes with tin snips to get hold of a star. Even with the full knowledge that it won't make me a better cook or even make me happy, I want it, and I'll never stop trying to get one.

Or maybe we can look at it from another perspective: The old adage to "always shoot for the moon — even if you miss, you can land among the stars." Disco, correct. If I push to my absolute limit and I still don't get a star or a Beard nomination or even win Best Chef Orlando, then at least I did absolutely everything in my power to feed the good people of Orlando the best that I could produce.

I fall in with Frankl on the nature of happiness. It certainly is fleeting, and seeking to be fulfilled is our highest reward. So maybe Einstein had it right: "Only a life lived in the service of others is worth living.”

Eliot Hillis is the culinary director and co-owner of Orlando Meats.