Time to ditch the Michelin mindset?

By Tony Naylor

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Tony Naylor: Time to ditch the Michelin mindset?

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Michelin’s recent headline-grabbing controversies feel like the beginning of the end for the guide’s influence. What does that mean for restaurant culture?

Are we in the post-Michelin era? No. Not yet. The red book will exist in some form for years. But has its influence peaked? Is the industry wriggling free from the tyre company’s grip? Increasingly, yes.

In Michelin’s homeland, France, from where it has drawn such power and authority, there is growing dissent. Marc Veyrat’s court case was hilarious but it resulted in one of the country’s most acclaimed chefs declaring last month, as he took over Paris’ La Fontaine Gaillon: “I never want Michelin in here.” Mon Dieu!

In January, Michelin faced criticism for removing the third star from the Bocuse family’s L’Auberge, after 55 years. It was a huge error to drum up media attention, claimed food critic Périco Légasse, if less of a farce than the Suquet saga. Having successfully petitioned to have his restaurant removed from the 2018 edition, Sebastian Bras was shocked to see Le Suquet return in 2019, downgraded to two stars. “We no longer worry about stars or the strategies of the guide,” he told reporters.

A star used to be every chef’s ultimate ambition. Now, not so much. Recently, South Korean chef Eo Yun-gwon, who had requested his restaurant not be inspected, told CNN, Michelin is “cruel”, “forcibly listing [venues]… without a clear criteria”. “I don’t want any help from an opaque, subjective company,” he told the Korea Herald.

Chefs used to be terrified of criticising Michelin publicly. Many still are. A star is good PR. But that edifice is cracking. Those speaking out will inspire others and without that fear factor, once all-powerful organisations can collapse surprisingly quickly. Ironically, Michelin’s modernisation may have accelerated this process. Once remote and unknowable, its stern verdict unquestionable, Michelin is now on social media (its output uninspiring) and, anecdotally, inspectors are chattier than ever with chefs. Consequently, Michelin seems more human, fallibly so, and by definition incapable of genuine objective analysis. Food is all about opinions, not verifiable fact. The plan for Michelin ratings to appear on TripAdvisor (part of the ‘international strategic partnership’ that saw TA’s TheFork booking platform buy Michelin’s Bookatable) might only, by seeming to draw equivalence between inspectors’ opinions and the public’s, further erode its standing.

Inevitably, this will impact young chefs. The loyal old guard are retiring. Senior chefs are now often people who, at least privately, are open about the potential personal and psychological damage of relentlessly chasing a star. That damage, Michelin would argue, is not its fault, and that is true. Thankfully, things are changing and it is to the credit of many talented younger chefs that, rather than chase stars in pressurised, claustrophobic fine dining environments, they are finding professional satisfaction in other ways, by building sustainable, people-centred, multi-faceted businesses.

UK food culture has changed dramatically in the past decade. Endless channels now exist to elevate and scrutinise restaurants. Michelin’s influence is, naturally, diluted. People are self-confident in their food choices. They do not need faceless experts to validate their decisions or, in Michelin’s narrow way, define how food should be enjoyed.

The future lies in further breaking down the hierarchies Michelin helps maintain. It lies in a broader range of different voices, rather than one over-arching adjudicator, celebrating food and investigating the craft skill and ingenuity behind it across a wider variety of price-points, ethnicities and venues than (the broadly Western, luxury-focused) Michelin is capable of. To an extent, that is already happening. As a chef, is it time to move beyond the Michelin mindset?

This column first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector, subscribe to Restaurant magazine here​.​ 

Follow Tony on Twitter: @naylor_tony

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