Do chefs really care about Michelin stars?
The results are in. Europe’s most famous judge of culinary craft has broken its silence. We now know which restaurants will bear small stars beside their name in the 2011 Michelin Guide for Great Britain & Ireland.
The reaction to the Guide’s ratings has already started, in particular why some restaurants attained a star and why others didn’t. What truly defines a one, two or three star venue still remains open to interpretation because of Michelin’s relatively ambiguous criteria. It continues to stir a mystique – so how does the rating affect the kitchen?
Gordon Ramsay's thirst for Michelin stars was revealed in the documentary series, Boiling Point
We’re often told that many chefs develop a parochial lifestyle in the obsessive pursuit of attaining Michelin stars. Perhaps the revered French Chef Bernard Loiseau, who took his own life in 2003, is proof.
A documentary last year by food writer William Sitwell investigated the Michelin Guide’s affect on chefs. Bernard Loiseau’s wife, Dominique, appeared in the programme to discuss her husband’s obsession with Michelin prior to his death. She explained movingly how and why the restaurant continued, despite the sad, sudden parting of its driver, the engine restarted.
Within the UK, Marcus Wareing had the support of fellow chefs to win the coveted third star, yet instead was awarded two stars. I spoke to him last week about the Guide to shed to light on why it’s spurred an emotional "roller-coaster" for the past 15 years.
“They are an accolade of great history and substance; I think I’ve built my life around it, in a good way and a bad way.” Yet he believes chefs are “starting to realise that there’s a lot more out there to achieve”, paying homage to other awards and social networking’s grip on a restaurant’s fate. “As you get a bit older you start to understand them and calm down.” What do other chefs believe?
Francesco Mazzei, whose restaurant L’Anima, was also tipped for a star, but missed out again. For him, “a Michelin star is the best achievement a chef can ever gain. It helps the chef to become a perfectionist. But in terms of running a restaurant, it’s a different story. You have to make sure that the restaurant makes money, so you can pay your staff and it can have a long life.”
Bryn Williams trained in several Michelin-starred kitchens before owning his own restaurant, Odette’s. He was equally restrained on how stars affect his life. “You do see places get a Michelin star and then eight months later they're no longer with us because of that pressure in trying to gain a star. For me it’s all about the business.”
Chefs don’t necessarily take a sanguine attitude to winning Michelin stars these days – activity on Twitter suggested the opposite. At the grass roots, William Sitwell told me that the majority of young chefs he meets at catering college still list a Michelin star and owning a restaurant as the aspiration.
Maybe Michelin stars are “not the be all and end all”, as Marcus Wareing says. Incidentally, he likens fine dining to Formula 1 – with the surroundings, levels of service and the running costs – and that being part of a “beautifully-oiled machine”, in the kitchen and front of house, is actually what drives him. But if the Michelin stars should ever disappear, then Dominique Loiseau is surely living proof that a bad review should never mean the end of the road.
Have you been following the ratings? What do Michelin stars mean to you?
Michael Kibblewhite works on the BBC Food website.