Once again Michelin has found itself plunged into direst controversy over the recent news that celebrated Aussie chef Skye Gyngell has left her much-acclaimed quirky restaurant at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond because of the ‘Michelin curse’ brought about by her deserved star rating. She claims that customer expectations rocketed to unreasonable levels and complaints have soared – not, let it be noted, about the food, but about the rickety tables, the outside toilets and the greenhouse surroundings; ie, customers expecting the intimated level of opulence evoked by a star rating were disappointed at the ‘au naturel’ surroundings of a working plant nursery. It seems that Michelin ratings bring with them a certain level of customer expectation; the organisation has educated – indoctrinated – the once-naive customer to such an extent, the centre doesn’t hold when the framework is not adhered to.
This is not a new argument. Michelin is renowned for awarding points, if not whole stars, for such fripperies as flowers and decorations, linen quality and the like. Parisian chef Alain Senderens handed his three stars back in 2005 after spending stupid amounts of money on flowers, convinced they were the key to retaining his status. The financial and mental cost became too onerous. Once a dependable guide to the quality of the food in ‘routiers’ around France, the concept of Michelin has become synonymous with the kind of obsequious luxury that seems out of touch with today’s austere times and quest for ‘real’ food.
It’s worth reminding ourselves how the star ratings were once defined. One was awarded for ‘very good cooking in its category’; two for ‘excellent cooking – worth a detour’; three for ‘exceptional cuisine – worth a special journey.’ Not one remark about the surroundings or even the service, you might notice. The Michelin guide is based on the French model: no – a French model that has rapidly become outdated in an era when countries are more integrated than ever before, constantly borrowing from each other’s food cultures and style.
To give it some credit, Michelin has made, some admittedly tokenistic, efforts in trying to diversify in this brave new world, but one senses they do so cautiously, reluctantly and with some alarm. Non-Frenchified restaurants may receive a star – remember the outcry when they began rating pubs – and they have even ventured into Asia, but you might find the venues perhaps not as authentic as you might like.
Jonathan Meades wrote an excoriating piece in The Telegraph shortly after Skye’s news broke. He denounced not only the notion of ‘fine dining’ and the framework of Michelin, but also the star-blinded chefs driven mad by their desire and even the customers that chase the stars, not the food. Although the piece was perhaps a little harsh, particularly on those who simply enjoy that style of food, his point is a good one. As AA Gill concurs, chefs are sometimes guilty of working for Michelin rather than the customer.
Clearly Michelin has some work to do. When the pressure of retaining an award leads to the ruination of a dream or passion, the passing of a much-loved institution or even, in the sad case of Bernard Loiseau, a death, there cannot be much credence in the award system. The value placed on something as ephemeral and joy-giving as food should reflect its nature; the receipt of a star rating should invoke celebration, not desperation. If Michelin continues to regard itself as the leading restaurant rating system, it also needs to accept the responsibility of such a status, both towards the chefs striving for excellence and the customers seeking it.