Whatever the opposite of warm and fuzzy is (cold and bristly?), that’s what Michelin’s guide director Gwendal Poullennec is. He is one of the main reasons the Michelin Guide itself doesn’t have a friend in the world beyond the chefs who have one or more of its stars and why it seems that every week there is a disdainful or derogatory story about it in a French newspaper or blog site. By now it is evident that Michelin’s posture is never to send out Poullennec to comment or defend himself, besides which I have yet to read anything favorable other than when the sponsoring body of a country or city guide first publishes its dedicated Michelin Guide.
From time-to-time, I will post the most interesting and pertinent MIchelin Guide commentary from the mainstream media and the blogosphere. In order of appearance here, there is Gilles Pudlowski’s blog post of Marc Veyrat’s thinking since losing his November court hearing; a superb essay from the center-right general interest magazine Valeurs also about Veyrat, as well as the trials, tribulations and the economics of having Michelin stars; a Stern website story of two German chefs who no longer create in order to please Michelin; and the chef Christian Puglisi’s (Restaurant Relae, Copenhagen) criticism of MIchelin for awarding him its new green clover symbol solely on the basis of a quick telephone conversation, and why the award lacks rigor and good conception. Puglisi wrote it for his in-house publication Relae.j
1. Gilles Pudlowski on Marc Veyrat
He seems to throw in the towel by announcing the end of legal proceedings against Michelin. “That I was the victim testifies to the questionable procedures that this publication uses to establish its reputation. I had for a time considered appealing. It turns out that, confirming my complaints about the integrity and objectivity of the Michelin Guide, a major element has intervened with the withdrawal, in February 2020, of the third star at the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, the restaurant of the late Paul Bocuse, whose team maintains the service loud and clear without question. The facts are now obvious: the Michelin Guide does not base its ratings decisions on purely professional criteria related to the quality of the table and the content of the plates, but rather on its increased need for notoriety. It is a communications strategy that consists of attacking the restaurants with the biggest names and the most famous cooks, as it is already the case with Marc Haeberlin in Illhaeusern, or Alain Dutournier in Paris, as part of the rewriting of supposed elites in order to make room for the next generation and begin to saturate the dining world with a new “starry” beginning This reality is enough in itself to conclude that the Michelin guide is engaged in a cleansing in terms of the media and culinary politics, aiming to refresh a declining image. It certainly has this right.”
“Satisfying myself that I was treated with the same consideration as my glorious colleagues, and in the expectation of being joined by those who will follow, my judicial trial is now obsolete. I therefore have asked my lawyer to abandon an appeal . My devotion to the cause of French haute cuisine and Savoyard agricultural heritage remains more than ever intact. History will judge.”
Marc Veyrat continues to think that he was not really judged by the red guide and reiterates that when the judge in Nanterre asked the lawyer for Michelin to present its file on him, he replied that there was none. Veyrat therefore plans to continue the fight in other forms. “I have not finished with them.”
2. Frédéric Paya. Valeurs Actuelles. “Star Wars”.
Black hat, black waistcoat, white scarf, purple glasses and slow gait, Marc Veyrat walks around the dining room of the La Fontaine Gaillon restaurant, located near the Stock Exchange in Paris. The famous Savoyard chef ,who in the past has obtained three times three stars, the supreme distinction from the Michelin Guide, and twice the maximum score of 20/20 awarded by the Gault & Millau guide, stops at each table, greets the guests and poses for photos with them. It was Veyrat who Benjamin Patou, president of Moma Group that bought the establishment from Gérard Depardieu, entrusted the kitchen. The legendary outspoken chef has lost none of his creativity. This evening he has created a side dish of leek fondue and steamed fennel seasoned with horseradish sauce. But it is above all an injured man who still has not digested the loss a year ago of the third star of his restaurant in Manigod in the French Alps.
“We got the three stars when we opened La Maison des Bois; the Michelin Guide took it away a year later. Unheard of for a century”, he says, sitting down at a table in front of a truffle soup. “I am a victim of ‘cheddargate ‘. In 2018, the inspectors applauded the ‘disappearing pasta ‘ (made with Tomme de Savoie and Reblochon that melted when an infusion of omble chevalier was poured on it). “The following year, they took this same preparation, cut this time into a square, and said I used cheddar. Michelin investigators do not know the local products; they do not have gastronomic skills“, he says getting carried away. Last year, the Savoyard, who trained 15 triple-star, 17 double-star and 21 one-star chefs, brought the case to court to understand the reasons for the downgrade; obtain evidence of inspections; and gain access to the deliberations that led to the decision. The judge rejected the suit a few days before the 2020 edition of the guide came out. “With all due respect to Mr. Bocuse, we can also ask ourselves the question of whether his restaurant was still worth three stars for years.”
As every year, the Guide MIchelin, having acquired over the years a quasi-monopoly on the evaluation of restaurants in France, revealed its share of good surprises with 49 new one-star establishments (there are 513 in France ), 11 new two-stars (86) and 3 new three-stars (29). In total, there are 628 starred tables in France. But there have also been many disappointments: 52 one-stars are no longer; 8 two-stars lost one of its stars while a legendary three-star was demoted: the restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, where Paul Bocuse obtained his first star in 1958.
“How did they dare attack Bocuse who trained the greatest chefs”? Marc Veyrat gets carried away. “It is an offense to French gastronomy. Do they want to dethrone the old generation? Yesterday was me; today is Bocuse, and tomorrow will be Georges Blanc? ” Chef Yves Camdeborde is more measured: “Those who are glorified must also accept defeats; the generation that complains today forgets that they were young and endured a form of gastronomic power. That said, with all due respect to Mr. Bocuse, we can also ask ourselves the question of whether his restaurant for years was still worth three stars. I just find it petty to have withdrawn this distinction after his death while the teams had not changed. “
Between certain chefs and the Michelin Guide, relations have become complex. “It is a relationship of love and hate, of high stakes and passion“ says Jean-Philippe Durand, the consultant to chefs who works with those who want to earn their first star or who, after having obtained it, try for two of them, or want the Holy Grail, the third star. He has worked with Nicolas Masse ( La Grand ‘Vigne ) and Arnaud Faye ( La Chèvre d’or ). The star? It is the embodiment of a career, of daily work carried out within teams, with clients , says Mathilde Dewilde, programmer of the Taste of Paris festival, which will bring together 50 renown chefs under the roof of the Grand Palais However, it should not be forgotten that stars are a reward put into play every year and that nothing is ever acquired“. What Yves Camdeborde puts in more sporting terms, ” Is the (rugby team) Stade Toulouse the champion of France every year? “
If the criteria for awarding the first two stars are understood (seasonality and quality of products, accuracy and balance of flavors, perfect seasoning and cooking, regularity in service and menus, culinary personality and identity), the chefs recognize that those of the third star seem obscure to them: “The rules of the game are opaque“ , judges Yves Camdeborde for whom the Michelin Guide under Gwendal Poullennec remains the only French representative with a truly French soul. Jean-Philippe Durand tries to decipher it. “It must no longer be an exceptional cuisine but a unique cuisine; it is no longer the one that is worth a detour but the one that is worth the journey. This is where the Michelin is put in difficulty. It puts forward the criterion of emotion of what I can hear, but it is also what is the most enigmatic. “
And as soon as you reach the emotions, you also reach the human, so too the artist, because at this level, haute-cuisine is an art made of subtleties of flavors and tastes, of explorations, discoveries and memories: “You can feel aesthetic emotions comparable to those that you can experience when hearing a piece of music or standing in front of a masterpiece,” states Jean-Philippe Durand. It also highlights the sporting character of the chefs, who question themselves every day because, at any time, a Michelin inspector can walk in the door of an establishment. For Yves Camdeborde, “It’s a job where nothing is fixed: you can not be good at noon and be excellent at night”.
If the starred chefs tremble as much each time the Guide is published, it is also because the Michelin star is double-edged. In the event of loss, this culinary distinction rhymes with financial difficulties. “To understand this, it is necessary to explain what happens when a star is awarded” notes Olivier Gergaud, professor of economics at the Kedge Business School and specialist in the economics of gastronomy. After studying 172 establishments, Gergaud finds that “restaurateurs have more customers, but they cannot push the walls outward; the waiting list lengthens with a mechanical effect on prices. However, if turnover increases, profit does not evolve in the same way. Profitability remains around 1 to 3%, identical to that of non-star establishments. Michelin-starred establishments accumulate capital thanks to the rewards, but at the cost of significant debt and fixed costs.”
“The chef who commits to the logic of Michelin must be ready to follow an implicit code that the Guide does not recognize ,” continues Olivier Gergaud. The financial windfall is therefore mainly used to invest, hire more staff and pay for ever more noble and expensive raw materials. “ This is confirmed by Marc Veyrat about La Maison des Bois : ” “I have invested more than 8 million euros in it and I have 40 employees”. In other words, Michelin-starred establishments accumulate capital thanks to rewards but at the cost of significant debt and fixed costs. The chef then finds himself on the knife edge, forced to continue to progress unless he opens in his name additional restaurants, bakeries, etc. to diversify the risk.
As long as his establishment keeps its stars, everything is fine. But when Michelin inspectors remove one (there are normally several anonymous visits, followed by explanations and a conference between the representatives of the Guide and the chef), the descent into hell begins, and there is no insurance for this type event. Patronage quickly falls while the expenses are still running. Olivier Gergaud calculated that profitability then went from 3.3 to – 1.9%: “I am not worried either for La Maison des Bois of Marc Veyrat or for the Auberge du Pont de Collonges of Paul Bocuse whose reputations ‘will remain popular. But for other restaurateurs, it’s not the same. “We had dinner with Bernard Loiseau a month before he lost his third star” , says a couple of Alsatians we met at La Fontaine Gaillon . Loiseau said, ‘If they take my third star away, I’m screwed.'” The false rumor of the loss of the star was probably one of the triggers for his suicide in 2003.
Faced with implicit pressure from Michelin, some restaurateurs decided to no longer be included in this ranking. They can thus lighten their burden and have a slightly less luxurious setting without sacrificing the quality of the dishes. “I left this system , says Yves Camdeborde. “It brings a lot of human and psychological pressure to a job which, when done with passion, is already very stressful.” In 2015, Stéphane and David Rétif also decided to give back the star they had obtained for D’Antan Sancerrois : “We are going back to basics.… No frills. Back to basics. All of this lowers the cost of the dish. It is unthinkable that gastronomy be elitist. Too often we hear from people who tell us that they can’t come here more often to have fun”, they explained to the newspaper Berry Républicain .
For his part, Sébastien Bras received three stars in 2017 for his restaurant Le Suquet in Laguiole, in the Auvergne. It was then that he asked MIchelin to de-list it from the guide “to give a new meaning to my life: my life professional, my life in general, and redefine this essential ”. But in 2019, the Michelin Guide re-listed it with two stars: “This contradictory decision leaves us skeptical, even if we no longer feel concerned, either by the stars or by the Guide’s strategies ,” explained Sébastien Bras in a press release. I expressed my position last year and I am still in the same state of mind, again and again with the trust of our customers.” For some, apparently, like in the soap opera The Prisoner , it is not easy to get out of the Michelin!
3. Denise Spieguole Wachter. Stern. “Martin Scharff is Tired of Michelin Stars.”
Top chef Martin Scharff held a Michelin star for 28 years and was once the youngest in all of Germany to receive it. For a chef, a Michelin star is actually the culmination of his work and definitely a reason to celebrate. Some chefs work their entire lives towards the coveted award while others cannot do anything with them. At the beginning of March, the Michelin Guide distributes its stars again, and many top chefs will be eagerly awaiting the announcement. Will there be a new three-star restaurant in Germany? Will the chefs be able to keep their stars? There is one who will not be particularly interested: Martin Scharff.
Scharff has been able to keep a Michelin star for over 28 years. But at the beginning of this year, his restaurant Schlossweinstube in the Heidelberg Castle was turned upside down. “I want to go back to my roots, to give myself more freedom without having to consider the basics of star cuisine,” he says in a statement that he published on his website . His dishes are inspired by his travels. He is always looking for new recipes, products and spices. But as to how the MIchelin star kitchen develops, he can no longer identify with it.
“For me this has become a very visual uniformity and often has nothing to do with classic craft. I want to get away from the playful decorating and back to the basic taste with first-class products,” says Scharff. This is how he wants to keep it in the future. The menu will then no longer contain dishes that need to be tweezered, but his favorite dishes instead, such as variations of the veal or classic braised dishes, but also cosmopolitan dishes such as ceviche from the Odenwald salmon trout. He calls it “a seasonal and regional taste cuisine in dialogue with the world”. And in terms of price, Scharff wants to cook into the hearts of the locals again and not only attract tourists. So there should be a regional three-course menu for about 50 euros and the tasting menu for less than 100 euros. Individual dishes from the menu are available from 24 euros.
Maria Gross, once one of the youngest star chefs, also left her starred restaurant when she realized that she was becoming “increasingly more of a jerk”. In addition, she no longer wanted to hand over the pressure to her employees. Gross is now devoting herself to her home in Thuringia working with local producers and cooking the way she likes best. Without pressure. Without a star circus.
4. Christian Puglisi, owner-chef of Restaurant Relais in Copenhagen, writes in his newsletter how his restaurant received Michelin’s brand new clover symbol for sustainability.
Monday night it was showtime. The Michelin Guide came out and a mix of anxiety, pressure, and expectations were released all over the Scandinavian food scene as the “ins and outs” of the year were revealed.
This year, though, the good old guide is trying hard to be up-to-date with the rest of the world. This year, ladies and gentlemen, red is going green: The guide is starting to talk about sustainability. Are we going to see a challenge put out by the most powerful entity in fine-dining and gastronomy that will make all restaurants thoroughly review their practices?
I was excited to hear that the Michelin Guide had wanted to take sustainability seriously. After decades of making chefs trim fish and meat into exact squares and perfect rolls, it was about time for some redemption, no? Is Michelin considering restaurant’s sourcing of produce, its impact on the planet and letting cooking connect pleasure with good and responsible practices? Please tell me. Will I live to see us start making the world a better place by meticulously picking one micro herb at a time? Will we?
No. Not this time around at least.
To ‘Young Up’ the Michelin Guide
I used to be all about the Michelin Guide back when just over a handful of restaurants in the city had a star—back when two stars seemed to be achievable only by demigods. You didn’t know who the inspectors were, where they went or what the hell they wanted. They were revered and feared and very incognito. The morning of the day the guide would appear, restaurants would huddle up and invite the staff for breakfast. While expectations would build up around town, you would just sit around and wait for someone that somehow knew: to call up the restaurant on the phone and bring the news that you got a star.
But in reality, most mornings in most restaurants would be like every other morning – nothing happened, nothing changed, no one got a star. That approach of non-communication seems now to belong to another era.
Today the Michelin Guide has turned around and wants all the attention it can get. It has also understood the importance of the Gala – the event, the need for some showtime. So they throw a party very much like their antagonist, the “World’s 50 Best” , which has succeeded in getting loads of attention from both industry and the media doing just that. The guide is following the example, and just like the 50 Best probably having someone paying for it. The “Visit Trondheim” financial contribution might very well have been the greatest reason for flying chefs in from all over Scandinavia to Trondheim.
Give ‘em something green, they would say. And the guide seemed to listen.
Stars and oversized jackets were handed out, sassy graphics displayed the name of the restaurant with suspense and momentum as a sort of Oscars on a budget. Once again Michelin was trying to “young up” the guide. But if you are hungry for attention in 2020, all the communications consultants in the world would queue up to suggest that you talk about sustainable practices. Give ‘em something green, they would say. And the guide seemed to listen.
“Those at the forefront with their sustainable gastronomy practices are highlighted by a new symbol, with the restaurant’s vision also outlined via a quote from the chef,” states the Michelin Guide’s homepage.
“Interesting! What an initiative,” I thought.
I looked through the list of restaurants receiving the new, green emblem and found Relæ among the 11 other Danish restaurants.
Then it hit me. How did we end there?
A Phone Call
I tried to rewind to whatever kind of investigation we had been a part of. How did the Michelin Guide know about our sustainable practices? How did we qualify for this fabulous new “sustainability emblem”? Or did we all just get lucky by picking up a five-leaf clover?
I came to learn that the thorough investigation we were put through was… a phone conversation. Yes sir, literally someone calling up the restaurant and asking:
“So, you are sustainable?” ” Yes?”
“Tell me, how?”
“Ok, thank you.”
A simple phone conversation addressed to the chef of the restaurant. Yep, not an audit, not a questionnaire, not an effort – and by no means a critical question of any type. A phone conversation that gives us the right to display a clover next to our Michelin star. Like ten other restaurants in Denmark. Like 26 other restaurants in Scandinavia. Like 50 in France.
I came to learn that the thorough investigation we were put through was… a phone conversation.
Now let me just be clear. I don’t believe that we are utterly sustainable. We do serve meat (which is not unsustainable per se, but that’s another topic); we do emit CO2; we do produce waste; we do heat the restaurant in the winter; we do use cling wrap, even though we are phasing it out; we do sometimes travel to cook dinners and give demonstrations..
At Relæ we put plenty of effort into making up for those issues though; we have worked exclusively with organically certified produce since 2014; we limit our waste; we make informed choices when we can; and gather information when we are not informed enough. We established a farm in 2016 to find answers to some of those questions. We have been audited, and have audited ourselves for years trying to improve in all aspects and dimensions. I believe that being sustainable is a state of mind, a way of seeing the world with a deep sense of responsibility. I have always felt that this approach is hardly compatible with the traditional world of fine-dining, which I never wanted Relæ to be a part of.
The idea of perfection made as a geometrical exercise reduces the most beautiful cuts of meat to ridiculous portions and turns out nature’s bountiful gifts into small dots and circles.
Continuity, standardization, perfection are simply not words that harmonize with reducing waste and sourcing natural and organic produce. The idea of perfection as a geometrical exercise reduces the most beautiful cuts of meat to ridiculous portions and turns nature’s bountiful gifts into small dots and circles. The excessive manipulation and a wasteful and, in my taste, distasteful, approach to cooking is at the very core of the fine-dining that Michelin represents. It is therefore utterly and totally unacceptable to think a phone call is enough. It’s a kind of making ridiculous our industry by the same power structure that has been praising the opposite practices for many decades up until now.
(The article continues below video.) Editor’s note: This is well worth watching for its insight into what is wrong about todays restaurant gastronomy.
Christian F. Puglisi on the Michelin Guide’s new sustainability emblem. Watch the full video on IGTV.
Lead – Don’t Greenwash
For most of my colleagues’ restaurants, I know as little about their sustainable practices as the Michelin Guide does, but I know for a fact that three of us are certified organic while eight are not. I know I have colleagues on that list that I respect greatly for the work they do and the responsibility they take–work and responsibility that need much more than a phone call to understand and acknowledge. Let me remind you that this is the industry where focusing on waste products can be interpreted by picking parsley off the stem, serving the stem and ditching the leaves. Instead, kitchens that take the chance to challenge the status quo and embrace whole beast butchery, limiting off-cuts and applying dynamic menu structures that allow for less waste should be rewarded, but also challenged to do better.
That the Michelin Guide wakes up to take responsibility for the sustainability practices could be a dream come true. But in a field such as gastronomy, which should lead the way more than any other in making our transition into a more sustainable food system that is flavourful, delicious and full of great gastronomic experiences, well, this just doesn’t cut it. Is there no one in this industry capable of asking critical questions and taking us all a bit more seriously?
Lifting a pretty glass dome to puff out some green smoke and sound like you care does not cut it in 2020, dear Michelin Man. It is disrespectful towards those in this industry who take the current problems seriously. It is hurting the credibility of the restaurant scene to announce leaders to be “setting the standard for the rest of the world to follow”, simply by their picking up the phone and saying, “Yeah, we’re sustainable.”
There is only one word for this practice, and that is “greenwashing”.
That not a single gastronomical journalist has asked himself the obvious question–how? and why? In regards to this, let’s say, new move from the Guide keeps blowing my mind into pieces. Is there no one in this industry capable of asking critical questions and taking us all a bit more seriously?
If the Michelin Guide wants to do something about sustainability, they need to challenge us. If it wants to do something about sustainability, then they need to challenge us. They need to make an effort to try to make us make an effort. We need gastronomy to wake up and put its money where its mouth is. We know that acknowledgment and stars are HIGH currency in this industry. Make a sustainable mark, set a new standard, but make an effort in making it, and reward those who are going a long way to get it. Not someone who picks up the phone for a quote.
Christian F. Puglisi