The value of a Michelin star
“Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” is all that accompanies three small, rounded stars next to a restaurant’s name in the “Michelin Guides.” Yet those three stars are a gateway to global fame. People from around the world (well, certain kinds of people) will indeed go out of their way to go to that certain restaurant. Reservations will have to be made months in advance. The award isn’t accompanied by a gaudy ceremony or any more fanfare at all really. But for chefs around the world, those three little stars are worth sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice.
By now, the origins and mystique surrounding Michelin Stars are well known. Those who award the prizes in the first place are completely anonymous, known to no chef, no journalist, not even their own families. The first star for a restaurant is extremely difficult, and gaining each subsequent star becomes even more so. The pressure mounts exponentially as well. Even with one star, a chef is at least a minor celebrity. But once a chef gets two or three, they become something only short of royalty. Yet the higher one rises, the more precarious the fall.
Bernard Loiseau, graduate of the legendary kitchen La Maison Troisgros and head chef of his own La Côte d’Or, committed suicide in 2003 after rumors that his restaurant would lose its third star. His story was the inspiration for “Ratatouille” four years later. The pressure in kitchens of this level are beyond our wildest imaginations, but are these three little stars really worth anything at all?
Perhaps it is a rather silly question to ask. To many (maybe most) chefs, at least in the Western world, these stars represent the pinnacle of their profession, the equivalent of the Nobel, Oscar, Pulitzer, etc. Ultimately, though, the value is created by us, the consumers. But, once again, who are the consumers? France, Japan and the U.S. are the most represented countries in the list of Michelin starred restaurants. As one can expect, the majority of restaurants can be found in the Parises, New Yorks and Tokyos of these countries. And they’re not cheap — the tasting menu at Benu in San Francisco is $310 a person.
It’s clear that the people creating the demand are the one percent. Moreover, the cuisine very noticeably represented in any list of Michelin-starred restaurants is French. There’s no doubt that French cuisine is highly influential, and the layout and structure of the modern kitchen is thanks to the French. But it’s important to keep in mind that several rich and varied cuisines of the world are not represented on these lists due to a lack of chefs trained at top kitchens overseas and a lack of clientele in their own cities.
It’s hard to deny that meals from Michelin starred restaurants are often spectacular. However, it might be more valuable to completely ignore these ratings and simply seek out the unique and special. Follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Gold and explore every nook and cranny of your local city to find every great meal you can. Highlight the upstart immigrant chefs who already make so many of your meals. Celebrate the women and other minorities who are so under-represented in these lists. And perhaps even more importantly, be willing to pay top dollar for certain cuisines. A fancy dinner need not always be French or Italian. Anthony Bourdain once said, “I’m very excited about the possibilities for that (Mexican) cuisine, and I think we should pay more attention to it, learn more about it, and value it more. This is frankly a racist assumption that Mexican food or Indian food should be cheap. That's not right.” I’m inclined to agree, and more importantly, to advocate for this type of attitude for any cuisine from around the world which we already enjoy, and whose flavors already influence every major Western cuisine today.
The idea is, yes, Michelin Stars are a great metric to judge a restaurant. But we can extend our pockets and our gratitude towards so much more.