Think the James Beard Awards inspire both hysteria and controversy? Those accolades take a back seat to the Michelin Red Guide, which is now published in 14 editions covering 23 countries. Top restaurants are awarded either one, two or three stars; at the apex of the pyramid, there are currently about 110 three-stars around the world “worthy of a special journey.” Three-star restaurants are expected to be perfect, every day and in virtually every dish. Since the publication of the Red Guides is staggered throughout the year, there’s an ongoing supply of hysteria for proprietors.
Last week, the 2014 Red Guide for France was released. France, of course, was the birthplace of the Michelin system, and the stars have more impact there than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. There are now 27 three-star restaurants in the country, nine of which are in Paris. The newest addition is L’Assiette Champenoise in Reims---a baffling choice to me, since I dined there several years ago and couldn’t figure out why it even merited two stars at the time. The only three-star demotion was Alain Ducasse at the Plaza-Athenée in Paris, which is currently closed for renovations.
As always, the Guide has no shortage of controversy. Criticism this year was led by food critic Gilles Pudlowski, who accused Michelin of making “bizarre” choices by favoring young chefs over more established ones. He’s partly correct, since the 2014 Guide awards stars to seven chefs under the age of 30. However, since Pudlowski publishes his own restaurant guide that competes directly with Michelin, his comments should be taken with the proverbial pinch of sea salt.
The typical criticism of Michelin as being staid and old-fashioned wasn’t heard much this year. As usual, most of the attacks against the Guide were confined to chefs who were demoted or no longer included, such as Pierre Marco White. Despite the growing importance of the Internet, the Michelin stars remain the food world’s ultimate accolade---the one that most chefs yearn to have, and the one that causes the most anguish when taken away. Gordon Ramsay cried when he lost some stars a few years back, and many consumers still believe that Bernard Loiseau committed suicide because he thought the loss of a star was imminent. The quest for perfection may be frustrating, but it still holds center stage in most restaurant kitchens.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June. For more information, go to amazon.com