Why Michelin is Important—but Not Infallible
by Jeff Ruby
Whether you love the Michelin Guide, loathe it, or associate it with tires, November 17th represents a moment of arrival for the chefs and restaurateurs around us. That’s the day the century-old standard bearer for restaurant criticism releases its first red book for Chicago, and it’s bound to lead to some bitching and braying. I wouldn’t dream of belittling the exhilaration charging kitchens around town right now, but before the coronations and the coronaries likely to accompany Wednesday’s announcements, let’s all put things in perspective, shall we?
Now, then. Michelin’s verdicts may carry unparalleled weight, but they’re not handed down from God on stone tablets to some sage French gastro-prophets. Michelin is one more stable of food writers trying to sell copies like the rest of us—just another range of opinions on the same restaurants. And the opinions we’ve seen so far are human, all too human. Michelin’s 46 “Bib Gourmand” choices (basically, good cheap restaurants not judged to be star-worthy) released last week baffled some and angered others. They delighted me. If the hallowed, anonymous Michelin crew got all amped up over Ann Sather, Twin Anchors, Frances’ Deli, and Bistro 110, then I realize that Michelin, no matter how stringent its regulations, may be no better at gauging our scene than other outsiders are. It produces just another flawed list, like all lists.
The difference is this list is likely to change the lives of those who land on it. To land even one star from Michelin is wonderful validation for a chef; it may even represent the pinnacle of his career, personally and financially. Will the average Chicagoan see that, say, Avenues got two stars, and book reservations immediately? No. The average Chicagoan does not eat at Avenues and does not read The Michelin Guide. Nor is the guide is aimed at the people who know Chicago’s upscale dining scene intimately; it’s hard to imagine Michelin’s ratings could possibly change our eating habits or how we feel about certain restaurants. No, the rating is aimed at the culinary tourist, the person who comes to Chicago with money to spend and little idea where to spend it. That’s why Michelin is hugely important: It means a whole new clientele for restaurants like Avenues, and it means an influx of cash to Chicago.
“What a fun day for Chicago restaurants,” Jason McLeod and Danny Grant, chefs of the Elysian Hotel’s Ria and Balsan, tweeted last week when the Bib Gourmands came out. “Love it or hate it, hype like this is good for business when business is needed by lots.” I hear you, boys. I hope Michelin is gentle and generous with its praise. At moments like these, I find it tough to stifle my instinct to root for the restaurants I’ve spent years criticizing, because at heart, I love Chicago and I want the rest of the world to understand why. But no matter what happens on November 17th, I feel compelled to say: Chicago had a world-class restaurant scene before Michelin deigned to pass judgment on it, and a million stars wouldn’t change that.