On Michelin 2011: What’s in a Star?

by Emily Bell
October 7, 2010

Additional Information

Michelin Guide New York City 2011

That holy bible of restaurant credentials, the Michelin Restaurant Guide, has yet again unleashed a torrent of frustration, elation, and even a little confusion among the chef-and-industry ranks of greater New York City, a Zagat-town if ever there was one. And the web, for one, is abuzz with analysis, discussing stars won and lost, rankings earned and undeserved, patting backs and patching wounds as chefs rejoice and reel in the wake of the 2011 rankings.

Even we can’t help but get a little giddy about the stars. Beyond the twinkling factor, we’re just darn proud to see our Rising Stars earning (and keeping) stars of their own, whether it’s Gavin Kaysen at Café Boulud, George MendesAldea, or John Fraser at Dovetail. And apparently our 2010 New York Rising Stars cleaned up: Gordon Ramsay at the London weighed in with a hefty two stars (one for each of its 2010 New York Rising Star chefs?), Gilt kept its two stars, Gotham Bar & Grill held onto its star, and Rouge Tomate, home to our 2010 New York Rising Star Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, is twinkling nicely with its own star. But even as bling-bedazzled as our Rising Stars are, we’re slightly hesitant to buy in to the rankings whole-hog. On one hand, we staunchly believe Paul Liebrandt and Corton deserve three stars, not two. On the other hand, we’re not entirely sure what those stars, or our opinions, actually mean in the context of Michelin.

And it’s not just us. More than a few people seem confused by some of the results—Eleven Madison Park didn’t get a second star, and Le Cirque got absolutely no stars. On the other hand, Kajitsu, a once little known kaiseki gem (and home to one of our 2010 Rising Star Chefs), earned its second, much-deserved star. As Michelin’s demure figurehead Jean-Luc Naret explained to Grub Street (in reference to Eleven Madison Park), “you have to go to other restaurants to see the difference between one and two stars,” which begs the obvious question—can Michelin stars at any two restaurants mean the same thing? New York is a town of diverse concepts of service and cuisine, from the Converse-clad, house-made Brooklyn types to the haute-hospitality of an EMP. Would a restaurant-to-restaurant comparison of Michelin rankings actually work?

Naret generously volunteered to speak to us from Paris, where presumably there are much grander things to do than oblige a pestering journalist. No doubt it's been a busy couple of days for him, but he spoke to us as if we were his first call, more than likely because he simply (and ardently) believes in the Michelin process. In answer to whether a restaurant-to-restaurant comparison is viable, Naret compared the phenomenon to music. "You’re going listen to one artist and you might be very impressed," he said. "It's the same with restaurants...If you’re not used to dining a lot you might be impressed, but you have to get yourself a reference, you have to get a benchmark." Michelin inspectors work for a year and a half on average in order to achieve an authoritative frame of reference for each city, a benchmark standard which, presumably, enables them to gauge whether Eleven Madison Park deserves a second star. Or, in this case, not.

Noticing that all of three star restaurants are among the city's most expensive, we asked Naret whether a restaurant could only earn three stars with the sizable resources of a Daniel or Per Se. "In a sense, yes," he told us, "because in New York you can feel that everywhere, the beautiful dining room, expensive produce, the haute cuisine." But "Brooklyn Fare would make a different statement," Naret said, in reference to the low-key, but high-concept dining experience at Chef's Table ("you literally eat in the kitchen") that earned two stars. On one hand, this seems to back up what Naret told us, that "it's about the cuisine absolutely." On the other hand, it's notable that Chef's Table only earned two stars, not three, maybe because diners are indeed sitting in a kitchen as opposed to the culinary cathedral of a multi-million dollar investment. Even lower key than Chef's Table are lower-cost restaurants, typically relegated to the "Bib Gourmand" category, which makes it seem like being affordable (two courses and a glass of wine for under $40) will disqualify most restaurants from star-status. But this is a bit of a gray area for the guide. "Sometimes we have a moment," Naret explained, "when we know it’s a very good value for money, but at the same time it really might be a star, so what do we do?"

Danny Brown in Queens might have easily qualified as "Bib Gourmand"-worthy, but it actually earned a star. As Naret explained to Grub Street, “a restaurant deserves to be recognized when you go there and are surprised by the quality of the product and the personality of the chef on the plate.” This sounds a little bit like saying lower expectations make for higher chances of getting a star. Would it follow that high expectations—say, those applied to a Le Cirque—inevitably set some restaurants up for a fall? That might explain what we call the "Craig Hopspon Mystery." When Hopson was at Picholine, it earned two stars, no doubt for the “quality of the product and the personality of the chef on the plate.” Now at the helm of Le Cirque, the same chef—and presumably the same personality—is in command of a kitchen teeming with top quality product, and toils away, starless. But Naret stands by the work of the inspectors.

And we don’t doubt the thoroughness of the Michelin process, the nobility of its goals, or the sizable financial impact of star-status. The truth is, whatever disagreements arise, most people in the industry wouldn’t call the rankings into question, mostly because they’re either doggedly in pursuit of more stars or they’ve taken the (wise?) decision to simply not care. But the variance in opinions about the 2011 rankings among chefs and critics (e.g. Del Posto is hot off its four-star NY Times review) nags the question—in the spectrum of critical opinion, how much weight should Michelin stars carry? Especially in an age of high-tech, fast-paced, democratized criticism, will the loss or gain of a star mean as much from year to year? Sure, snarky and snarling bloggers might be about as helpful to a chef as the formalized mystery of Michelin rankings, but in an age where we literally comment instantly on the those rankings, can the protracted (and sometimes inscrutable) star-stamping system stay current? Or will Michelin stars go the way of the black dwarf?

The Michelin process is even longer than a year, usually closer to two, and we couldn't help but wonder whether this meant that by the time the guide was published, at least a few of its rankings would be out of date. Naret definitely conceded there can be difficulties with timing: "By time we publish the book, it's possible a restaurant can be closed," like Veritas and Anthos in this year's guide. Not only that, but the mere fact of receiving a star (or two or three) might catapult a chef to greater fame and opportunities. "A chef could be tapped for a better job somewhere," said Naret. "Some people see that as a benchmark to move to another company," meaning that in an ironic twist, the Michelin rankings can actually make themselves obsolete: a chef earns a star and capitalizes on it, movin' on up in the industry and leaving the restaurant, and Michelin's exhaustive research, in the dust.

But Naret seems unfased. "Even five years later, the guide has so much quality," he said, a Parisian ambulance blaring in the background. And he's right to feel confident. Michelin has a serious impact, even in a town that typically clings to its Zagat 27's and four-star reviews. Even in the midst of disagreements, Naret knows the book will sell because New York is a food town at heart. And the Michelin Guide, while maybe not a bible, has a kind of stone-tablets-cachet: a value system decreed from on high and given to the masses with an almost sacrosanct authority. In an age of frenetic, endless commentary on cuisine, the infrequency of the Michelin rankings might actually be their greatest currency, even if those rankings tend to upset a goodly number of hard working chefs (and opinionated critics). “People will always disagree with our selection because that’s the rule of the game," Naret explained. "But after all," he added, "we're in the business of selling books." And a little controversy never hurt sales.

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