Lately, it seems like all that anyone can talk about are the hot, “must-try” restaurants that have been awarded Michelin Stars. Many choose to dine at a Michelin Star restaurant without even knowing what the award means. With the rise in popularity of food shows that heavily feature Michelin Star restaurants, like Netflix's "Chef’s Table," it makes sense that many flock to the famed red circle when they see it on the exterior of a restaurant. Why don’t we hold James Beard awards and Zagat ratings with the same regard as Michelin? What has made the Michelin Star the be-all-end-all of restaurants in the past few years? Let’s dive deeper into what a Michelin Star rating actually means, and why we should take it with a grain of salt.
People seem to be intrigued by the mystery of the Michelin Star establishment. The history is a bit fuzzy, and no one really knows who the Michelin critics are. It is like a secret society: the Illuminati of the restaurant industry. So, where does the prestige of Michelin actually come from? How did a tire company become the ones who dictate what is good food and what is not? The Michelin Guide was created in 1889 by the Michelin brothers, founders of the Michelin company, in an effort to boost car and tire sales. This French guide featured maps, gas stations, hotels, and restaurants to make the road-tripper’s life easier. This guide was initially given out at no cost, but in 1920, it started to sell for 7 francs. As the guide grew in popularity, the Michelin brothers hired “mystery diners” to anonymously critique restaurants in France. In 1926, Michelin started to award single stars to restaurants, and in 1931, they introduced two and three star ratings. In 1952, Michelin started reviewing restaurants in Spain and continued throughout various countries in Europe until 1995. In 2006, Michelin finally decided to try to expand to the U.S., starting with New York City. Today, Michelin has rated over 30,000 establishments in over 30 countries on three continents.
The Michelin Star quickly became the most prestigious award a restaurant could earn, and chefs began to covet them. It became the proof that a chef needed to show that the hard work and countless hours of training were worth it. It threw chefs’ insecurities out the window, and, with it, went authenticity. Chefs arguably stopped producing their own authentic food, and started producing what they believed Michelin wanted; and it worked. The food was no longer being made for the real, alive, human customer, but for the enigma of the mystery diner; doing anything to please the mysterious guest that could (or could not) walk in the door at any moment.
Although France has not been awarded the most Michelin Stars out of any country, Michelin has been accused of having a bias towards their origin country. There have been conspiracy theories surrounding how the stars are doled out, the number of critics per country, and the level of skill of the critics. Also, what’s up with Michelin Stars in the U.S. only being allowed in New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco? How is it that Michelin can award stars to any city in any European or Asian country, but in the U.S., the stars are limited to these four cities? Michelin is not as objective and impartial as they seem to be. Additionally, there are no Indian restaurants on the Michelin guide with more than one star, and many of these restaurants have been criticized for not being deserving of the one star that they do have. Clearly, Michelin may not be as reliable at indicating the quality of Indian cuisine.
Michelin ratings have not only changed the quality of the restaurants, but also the quality of the customer. Foodies now flock to different cities looking to satisfy their craving of checking off another box on their food bucket list. They want an unparalleled experience from each and every Michelin Star restaurant, but with over 30,000 Michelin rated restaurants, there is bound to be disappointment. Michelin Star chef, Skye Gyngell, actually quit her job after receiving a Michelin Star claiming that the award was a “curse.” Gyngell has gone as far as saying, “If I ever have another restaurant, I pray we don’t get a star." Customers' expectations of Michelin Star restaurants are unrealistic and extremely difficult to satisfy. They want each Michelin experience to be unique and brag-worthy. However, with restaurateurs creating what they think Michelin wants, the awarded restaurants are becoming more and more homogenous. Michelin has created a cycle that will leave both the chef and customer unsatisfied.
With the increase of praise for the Michelin Star, there also has been public scorn for the award. Some chefs are even rejecting their awarded stars. Chef Marco Pierre White, returned his three stars after he realized chefs with much less skills and knowledge than him were receiving the same award. Suddenly, this award has lost its luster and top-tier chefs may not want to be associated with the new award winners. Michelin has unknowingly diluted its own value by awarding the amount of stars it has to seemingly undeserving restaurants.
So, when the next opportunity arises for a dining experience, think twice before choosing a Michelin Star restaurant just because of its award. Michelin has caused chefs to lose their authenticity and individuality. Instead of choosing to dine at a Michelin Star restaurant, try a local hole-in-the-wall, a restaurant with a female head chef (out of 77 Michelin Star restaurants in NYC, only six have female head chefs), or a place where YOU think the food looks good. “Michelin” has become synonymous with “the height of fine dining” and it needs to end. Let’s stop giving into the gimmicks of Michelin and start empowering the creativity of chefs once again.