Now that all the Michelin results are in for the year, it's interesting to take a look at the mother of all Guides---the red Guide to France, which details ratings for hotels and restaurants. According to Michelin, the restaurant tally reflects “the vibrancy of French gourmet cooking.”
A number of things are startling about this year’s guide. To begin with, the roll call of starred restaurants is so predictable that any respectable foodie could recite the list in his or her sleep. True, there is one new three-star establishment (Emmanuel Renaut’s Flocons de Sel in Megève) and ten new two-stars; 58 restaurants received their first star, including five that were upgraded from Bib Gourmand (good value) status. There are some famous names among the downgrades, notably Le Jardin de Sens in Montpellier (from two stars to one ) and Parisian restaurants Jacques Cagna and L’Angle de Faubourg (from one to none). Beyond that, it’s the same tired list.
When I first went to France, sushi bars were close to nonexistent. Robert Courtine, one of the preeminent food writers of his time, dismissed Japanese food as “a cuisine that is disconcerting for those not accustomed to it.” Today there are more Michelin stars in Japan than France, and the number of three-star establishments is 32 (compared with 26 for the French). There are even ten three-star restaurants in the U.S., a country historically regarded in France as the land of fast food and peanut butter and jelly.
The Michelin inspectors appear to be light years ahead of the French population in their evaluation of their country’s culinary scene (or at least, light years ahead of that segment of the population that can afford to eat in starred restaurants). This is remarkable, considering that Michelin for many years was criticized as being stodgy, stuck in the past and resistant to change. Officially the Guide is upbeat, declaring that “quality everywhere is on the upswing,” but the facts tell a different story.