The Complicated Sky of Michelin Stars

This entry has been rolling around in my head for weeks. I had no idea how to start it, what exactly to say, which tone to use, all in a vain attempt to keep from repeating what has been said all along by a dozen other writers and commentators. Futility, I suspect. 

Michelin. The French-born guide to the most notable (“best” is no longer a word I will choose to use however, explanation to follow) restaurants in a particular area. Arguably, Europe pays far more credence and attention to Michelin stars than Americans as it is still a new concept to us. We’re more the Zagat (and to a lesser extent, Yelp)-influenced crowd. Besides, who wants to admit that something that comes from the snooty French would actually be useful to us (aside from like, a massive influence on food)? Well, that last question may have recently been answered actually. 

It began last year. We started to hear rumblings that Michelin was doing a book on Chicago, which is exceedingly appropriate, important and arguably long overdue. Some of the most notable and influential chefs have come from Chicago in the last several years and the spotlight has most definitely been on us in recent times. We were due. New York and San Francisco already had books which while important, didn’t make much of a rumble here in Chicago. Aside from French Laundry, what food stuff happens in/near San Francisco anyway? New York is a no-brainer. It’s the closest to Europe that America has, it’s fitting they should have been the first.

So after some speculation, attempts to keep ears to the ground and gossip at a minimum, the stars started to come down. Or I should say, the rumors of stars started to come down. We all had a feeling who would get the coveted three stars. Alinea was a shoe-in and the second of two awardees, L20, was no shock. 

Interestingly, or maybe not, I interviewed for a host position at L20 about 14 months ago. It was warm out so I was in an above-the-knee skirt, black top, red pumps and had my short nails painted a dark red. Sounds questionable but I promise it was more hip than whore. I sat across from the hiring manager who looked me up and down slowly before focusing on my fingernails. “You can’t have that color nail here”, he said rather cooly but matter-of-fact. I knew right then that I would not accept the offer to stage which came the following day. I politely declined stating that I felt I was the wrong fit for them, but thanks for the opportunity. Bullet dodged. I was looking for a second job but I knew that could not be it. [My restaurant] would never say something like that, I remember thinking. L20 it seemed, was/is/was perhaps the sort of restaurant that wants its staff to blend into the background. Be seen, briefly, and rarely heard. The food is the focus. Don’t joke, don’t connect, don’t interfere. The opposite of what we do at my current place of business. Thank God.

Onward. So the book was meant to come out on Wednesday the 19th. Parties had been planned, champagne was chilling, nails were bitten. Then, out of nowhere, some guy apparently got hold of an early copy and blew it for everyone. Michelin Powers pushed the publication date up by 24 hours as well as all announcements. I was working the lunch shift on Tuesday morning so I was in front of Twitter by 9am, watching the feed grow and explode with real-time confirmations. Congrats, popped corks, high fives, shout outs – it was like when you graduate from High School and all hell breaks loose after they tell you to move your tassels over. It was exciting, tense and just… bananas. 

Except for us. My restaurant’s star, one star, had a dark cloud hanging over it. Our sister restaurant experienced a small fire in August which prohibited Michelin from reviewing it one last time prior to its September shut-down in time for its November publication. Not knowing when our sister would open, they couldn’t in good faith include it in the book just in case worse came to worst and it remained closed. That cost our sister at least one star and it was tragic. The sadness, disappointment and helplessness was palpable. It overshadowed our own star. Well, that’s one element that overshadowed it. The other was the company we kept in our one star. 

This is where it gets tricky and this is what I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’m trying to examine motives – is it snobbery? Straight up indignant disappointment? Or do the French (and American Michelin reviewers) really just have no freaking clue what they’re talking about when it comes to American cuisine? I think, kinda, it’s all three. The list of one stars is long and varied. We have here a representation of everything from the casual flannel-and-mustache clad hipster gastropub to the jeans-are-ok date restaurant to white tablecloths and coat check establishments. Some have been around for five years, some are about to hit their 13th and some, for less than a year. 

So what does one star mean? We know what three stars means, three stars is as good as it gets. Period. Three stars and little room to move beyond that is in part, why Marco Pierre White gave his back. Things had started to shift for him, the stars changed the way he thought about his passion. The stars became bigger than what he set out to do and that was make great food and give a total experience to people.

During this great roundtable interview with the (recently former) head of the Michelin Guide and three Chicago chefs (two who won stars this week and one who received a Bib Gourmand last week), some hard questions are asked regarding aging yet still respected chefs, how Michelin decided on some of those stars and those glaring omissions… ok, one in particular. At one point, the interviewer asks if business is expected to increase due to the stars and while the restaurants who are established and are already at capacity most nights won’t be expecting much of a bump in domestic growth, hope to see some more international diners visit. That’s important to note. I’ve said this all week since the disappointment set in: If the restaurant is worth its salt, the restaurant makes the Guide and not the other way around. The Guide would not exist were it not for the restaurants and their hard work. The restaurants function just fine without that Guide. Stars are an afterthought in most (arguably, deserving) cases. The goods are there to back the stars up and that is the point. It’s when a restaurant gets on that one star list that no one, if not very few, people can understand why that is the frustration we now feel. That is being made to sit next to the stinky kid in class who talks too much when you’re just trying to keep your head down and get your work turned in on time. It has, to some, discredited all we thought Michelin could give.

All in all, the overall afterglow is much less intense than I think those chefs were feeling about it just this past Monday. Some are feeling totally elated, some are feeling quite disappointed. Grateful, but disappointed. Michelin will revisit next year and things will absolutely change. At some point they’re going to have to acknowledge Hot Doug’s and its ilk. This town is not built on foie gras in the slightest. We eat some serious meats and cheeses here, folks. Pizzas, beefs, dogs… these things are in our bones. Built into the city plan. The DNA. The water. No really, the water. Our day will come, both Chicago and my second home. And third home. And maybe my hot dog home near my home. Either way, 2010 is not the end of the story and I think we’re all pretty interested to see who rises and who falls.

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