The Cost of Michelin Stars

The Michelin Guide is a series of annual guide books published. The term refers by default to the Michelin Red Guide, the oldest and best-known European hotel and restaurant guide, which awards the famous Michelin stars. They use a three-star system for recommending sights: three stars, “worth the trip”; two stars, “worth a detour”; one star, “interesting”. Getting a three star rating in the guide book is seen as a pinnacle of restaurateurs career and can easily mean world wide accolades in the food world. Chefs have strived to get a three star in these guides, and some have given their lives at the thought of losing them.

That is, as Travel and Leisure points out, until now.

For 28 years Senderens held three stars, the guide’s highest honor. Adding his voice to those of colleagues across France who are taking their destinies out of Michelin’s hands and into their own, he disdains the stars for what he says they reward: puffed-up service, boilerplate “luxury,” and dishes with sticker-shock ingredients like lobster and caviar.

There are two things going on here that Michelin is probably reluctant to admit:

  1. Michelin reviewing standards aren’t as unbiased as they would like the rest of us to believe.
  2. In the long term, it makes more economic sense for many restaurants in the guide to appeal to consumers than it does to appeal to the biases of the Michelin reviewers, especially if the restaurant is going to be seen as “less than” a three star restaurant.

Clearly Michelin wants to be perceived as non-biased, stating on the record that “When it comes to the stars, it’s all about what is on the plate.” But in practice, this is clearly not the case. One needs only look at the recently released New York City Michelin guide, where the much lauded Union Square Cafe was absent, not only from the three star list, but also the two and one star lists. Also of note in the Guide, more than half of the restaurants that drew at least two stars could be considered “French”.

As Travel and Leisure also notes, of the four places in New York awarded three stars, three have Frenchmen at the helm.

So what does it take to become a Michelin three star restaurant? Consider the following paragraph in the aforementioned Travel and Leisure article:

“I was pounded with useless monthly expenses—$23,000 for laundry, $6,000 for flowers,” (Alain Senderens) says, noting that his average dinner tab is now $130 without wine, or 75 percent less than it was at Lucas Carton. At his new restaurant, turbot and bass are sidelined in favor of very un-three-star, blue-collar mussels and sardines. There are two sommeliers instead of eight. Tables are innocent of cloths. And there’s not a strangled pincushion arrangement of tea roses in sight.

All of these costs, by the way, are passed on to the customers.

What we have here is basic economics at work. Granted, for many of us with lower incomes, there’s little difference between a $175 dinner tab and $130 one. But for restaurant owners, there’s clearly a market threshold that’s crossed when you lower your costs. The lower the bill , the more accessible your restaurant becomes to a wider market. For chefs such as Senderens, Philippe Gaertner of Aux Armes de France, and even Mario Batali in New York, there’s more money in making their restaurants accessible than there is in trying to please the Michelin Guide reviewers.

Or to put it another way, creating great food at a restaurant is fine and dandy, but if you can’t make a profit at it, you’re not going to be making great food for long. It’s an idea that Michelin has either forgotten, or has ignored.

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