Should we still care about Michelin stars?
It may seem odd that the international bible of culinary excellence bears the name of a French tyre company — and the unkind might compare those who have dined too well, while using their guides’ advice, with the spherical Michelin men of the organisation’s advertising. Nonetheless, a Michelin star remains the high watermark of culinary achievement for a chef. This week’s announcement of their latest British and Irish accolades has therefore attracted the usual mixture of interest, delight (from those who have received or at least maintained a star) and indignation and disappointment, either from those passed over or, humiliatingly, who have lost their once-prized symbol.
No wonder that people have killed themselves over the fear of losing stars
It is obvious what a Michelin star (let alone two or three) does for a restaurant. It elevates it far beyond its peers, turning it into a destination establishment that the well-heeled and gastronomically adventurous will happily travel considerable distances to visit. It allows its proprietor to raise their prices accordingly, on the grounds that “quality” should never be sold too cheaply. It vindicates a series of choices made by a chef who has invariably worked their way up from the bottom rung through endless lowly and stressful positions, often being terrorised by loud men who have themselves been awarded stars previously. Now, the Michelin-starred chef can recoup some of their effort in the lucrative form of television appearances, cookbooks, consultancies and, if restaurant life palls, private chef positions. No wonder that people have killed themselves over the fear of losing theirs.
Yet it is harder than usual to celebrate the latest round of awards, even as we acknowledge the hard work and effort that the chefs and their teams have undoubtedly performed to in order to deserve their enhanced standing. The hospitality industry is in a truly dreadful state after the pandemic has decimated countless restaurants across the country. From much-loved neighbourhood restaurants to expensive, glitzy places — not forgetting once-reliable, now-diminished mass market options — it has never been so difficult to open and operate a restaurant with the hope of breaking even, let alone turning a profit.
The arrival of “fine dining” in the British consciousness has been a gradual thing. Unlike on the continent, there has been no historic tradition in this country of restaurants that took real interest and care in their dishes and nevertheless managed to keep the prices relatively accessible. It was a common European sneer throughout most of the 20th century that what the ruling classes in Britain — i.e., the ones who had the money — really wanted was souped-up versions of nursery food from their childhood, hence the success of such (admittedly estimable) establishments such as Rules and Simpsons-in-the-Strand. Outside of a few places such as the Roux brothers’ establishments Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn, it was hard to find anywhere that was serving food that would attract Michelin’s interest. The few stars that were grudgingly dolloped out like gruel in the workhouse felt like damnation with faint praise. The expectation from the conservative industry was certainly not “please sir, can I have some more”.
Matters changed in the 80s with the rise to fame of Marco Pierre White, who must henceforth always be known as “the fiery Marco”. He managed to make the industry seem cool, and even though his extraordinary cooking was priced way beyond the budgets of the average diner, his chutzpah, good looks and charisma inspired a whole generation of younger chefs, many of whom are still firmly embedded within the industry, either as chefs, restaurateurs or both. Yet his restaurants remained stiff, formal places, with linen tablecloths, scrupulously “correct” service and enormous bills at the end of the meal. Whatever pyrotechnics were to be found away from the dinner plate usually came from White’s combustible behaviour, which included him throwing guests out of the restaurant if he took exception to them, and assaulting his unfortunate staff; he later admitted that his endless pursuit of Michelin glory made him “go fucking insane”. In 1999, he made a great show of returning his Michelin stars, something that was technically impossible to do, but White’s gift for self-promotion had never seen him abide by convention.
Dining out in Britain is no longer a joke
Since then, the Michelin-baiting industry flourished for decades. The ubiquity of the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal on television made it become almost obligatory for middle-income earners to save up their money for a meal for two at multi-Michelin starred restaurants like The Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay’s flagship on Royal Hospital Road. Why go away for a romantic weekend to Paris, the hype went, if you could have food just as good for the same price in Chelsea? So many of these Michelin-approved behemoths continued to lure punters in with their approximations of French and European cuisine, year in, year out. Some restaurants were excellent, others tired and stale, but the name of the chef above the door was sufficiently guidebook-friendly to ensure that there was little question of their losing their stars. The guides, the restaurants that they endorsed and the paying public all marched together in lockstep, each inextricably in thrall to the other.
This may be changing. Notably, several of the restaurants that have been awarded the highest accolades by Michelin, such as Simon Rogan’s Lake District star L’Enclume, the West African-inspired Ikoyi in London and the Welsh star Ynyshir (motto: “no bitching in the kitchen”), are as far from the traditional Gallic Michelin-baiting model as can be imagined. But other names on the 2022 list are predictable and cliched. Several of the perennial warhorses are now serving up deluxe versions of meals that are of little more culinary interest than what you might buy ready-made in your local Waitrose, at several times the price.
Dining out in Britain is no longer a joke. We have one of the most exciting food scenes in Europe, if not the world, and even the havoc wrought by the past two years has not stopped young, energetic chefs and restaurateurs coming up with new and exciting options, from pop-ups to portable food trucks to revitalising worn-out businesses. This is to be commended. But the idea that this industry, in all of its chaotic and often rude glory, should be coolly assessed by les hommes de Michelin on an annual basis, and that diners and restaurateurs alike should genuflect before their decisions, is now one for les oiseaux.
I’ll look forward to my next visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant. Chances are that I’ll have a great meal. But, for God’s sake, don’t tell me that it is the be all and end all in dining out in 2022. If you do, then I fear that I’ll do my best imitation of Marco Pierre White confronted with a recalcitrant customer. And nobody needs to see that.
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