Why Chefs Have Such a Love-Hate Relationship With the Michelin Guide
It was a crisis that could have only emerged in France.
In September, the award-winning French chef Marc Veyrat announced he would be suing Michelin for demoting his restaurant, La Maison des Bois, in January from three to two stars on account of…cheddar cheese. An inspector from the storied Michelin Guide is said to have mistakenly believed the decorated chef incorporated English cheddar into his cheese soufflé instead of local varieties such as Beaufort or Tomme de Savoie.
In an interview with France Inter, a public radio network in France, the chef made clear his animus toward the tire company’s little red guide, saying, “I put saffron in it, and the gentleman who came thought it was cheddar because it was yellow. That’s what you call knowledge of a place? It’s just crazy.” Veyrat now refuses to accept any stars at all, likening the unhealthy levels of stress and grief he has suffered upon being demoted to those he’d experienced after the loss of his parents.
Michelin, however, has no intention of removing Veyrat’s restaurant from its guides.
As comical as the war-of-egos debacle appears, it highlights one of many issues that have generated heated debate about the Michelin machine in recent years: a lack of transparency in evaluations and its expansion to new markets; the dominance of Eurocentric and Japanese cuisines while other “ethnic” cuisines are relegated to a separate list, the Bib Gourmand; the untenable pressure felt by chefs to maintain the stars; the guide’s glaring lack of recognition for female chefs (and its unwillingness to assume any responsibility for its role in perpetuating the industry’s boys’ club dynamic), and, most of all, how much importance both diners and chefs attach to an organization that jumped into food as a marketing strategy for its core business in tires and has been built up as the ultimate authority on good taste and talent.
Veyrat is by no means the first to cry foul and “give back” his stars. British chef Marco Pierre White went rogue and rejected the Michelin establishment in 1999, five years after becoming the youngest chef and the first British chef to earn three stars. In 2008, beloved chef and activist Olivier Roellinger cited his limited physical capacity, the result of having been gravely attacked years prior, for his unwillingness to have his restaurant Maisons de Bricourt considered year upon year for the recognition (he ended up closing the restaurant altogether). And last year, Sébastien Bras’ award-winning table Le Suquet in Aveyron, France, was the first to be removed entirely from the guide after the chef insisted he wanted the freedom to take his cooking in different creative directions—without any Michelin rulebook looming overhead.
Despite highly publicized Michelin sparring and increasing resistance to the idea of rankings altogether, there are plenty of chefs for whom the recognition is a worthy ambition, particularly in France. Anne-Sophie Pic, the most well-known award-winning French chef, is the fourth generation of a family famed for its culinary excellence and whose establishments are largely aided by its long tradition of stars. This month, she earned her second star for La Dame de Pic London, which she adds to her six additional stars across Paris, Valence, and Lausanne. Julien Lucas, the 31-year-old head chef at L’Auberge du Jeu de Paume’s one-star La Table du Connétable in Chantilly, says the starred trajectory isn’t only for the chef but his or her entire team. “It’s a motivator, it gives us something to strive for together, and it keeps us challenged, day in and day out. We’re absolutely working toward a second star.”
In the U.S., a star can mean a massive boost for business. “The PR machine in the U.S. is so intense and constant in major culinary markets that after the initial buzz of a new opening has faded, an award like Michelin can really generate sustainable coverage and interest, particularly from ‘special event’ diners, tourists, and foreigners. It also generates renewed interest in the restaurant’s chef, leading to opportunities for extending the brand well beyond its brick-and-mortar real estate,” says Stephanie Fray, president of Conundrum Marketing, a firm that represents award-winning chef Daniel Rose, who earned a star for Le Coucou in Manhattan. “That may not be the case everywhere, and I would suspect that in markets less dependent on the marketing machine, the Michelin effect may be less apparent.”
So while the inner circle of the food media might be highly critical of the Michelin operation, chef-author and Good Food radio host Evan Kleiman says the buzz the award generates likely still appeals to the everyman diner and even a fair number of sophisticated eaters. “We love lists, and [Michelin] is the OG where-to-go-to-eat list,” Kleiman observes. “And in an age of overexposure, competition, and limited dining funds, anything which brings customers to operators is a welcome thing.” That doesn’t mean the culinary focus is an adequate reflection of where our culinary culture is headed. “The Los Angeles guide feels like it was put together by people who barely visited and have no idea what fine dining is in our context,” Kleiman says. “I wish there was more nuance in the way the inspectors approached each city with an eye to how much the global dining scene has changed in the past 10 years.”
Ultimately it comes down to context and one’s definition of fine or exceptional dining within that context. Accessible street food in Thailand earns top honors, but it’s still buttoned-up classic fare that gets the bulk of the attention in Western destinations. What remains to be seen is how much longer diners will ignore such a slight to a food culture that has moved on.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Welcome to the first cannabis restaurant in America
—Do fashion collaborations actually make restaurants money?
—Toast is still trendy—but it’s getting more creative
—Plant-based meats have huge potential in China, but Beijing wants a homegrown champion
—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis