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thoughts on Michelin & haute-cuisine

by Tom Cannavan, 06/05

Last summer I enjoyed a two-week vacation in southern France, staying for a few days in six different places, on a leisurely tour of the coast and rural countryside of the Mediterranean. The hinterlands of the Languedoc and Provence wine regions were included in what was basically a gastronomic fortnight, including the consumption of no less than 13 Michelin stars in the shape of 1 X a three-star meal, 2 X two-star, and 7 X one-star. Food experiences ranged from the sublime, to the very good. But somehow I am left with a feeling of being slightly disappointed by the lack of adventure and variety in this cooking. Basically, it seems to me that Michelin is both good and bad. Whilst it does encourage and promote incredibly high standards, and chefs that push the boundaries of technique and excellence, the famous red book is is also causing too many chefs to follow a formula in everything they do, from pricing and menu layout, to ingredients, cooking style and even the construction of whole dishes.  

I noted a remarkably restricted range of main ingredients on all these lists. Luxury ingredients - finest beef, lobster, pigeon de Bresse, truffles and foie-gras where everywhere, whilst rabbit, pork, wild boar, ox-tail or game appeared perhaps once in the whole fortnight. Methods of cooking were remarkably similar too: there was a chocolate soufflé pudding of some sort on every menu, pan-fried foie-gras, fillets of red mullet "croustillante" - by the end of the fortnight I think I could predict the main shape of the menu without seeing it.

I acknowledge that the ingredients perhaps reflected some regionality and seasonality (I was always within 80 miles or so of the Mediterranean coast), but this experience of eight or nine different star-studded restaurants has really made me reconsider whether the Michelin effect is too powerful, and not necessarily all for the good.

By contrast, we ate half a dozen much simpler meals in restaurants that were not adorned by stars, and in many ways the experience was better, and prices between half and a fifth as much. One Sunday evening a fine bitter leaf salad topped with a heap of crayfish tails was followed by melting confit of tuna, served with a rich Provencal sauce, followed by pain perdue - a posh bread and butter pudding served with home made ice cream. The food was delicious, and the bill - including two glasses of Champagne and a bottle of wine - came to 100€ for two, which as about the average cost per person in a one-star place if drinking modestly.

The wine lists are another gripe. On the plus side they are very strong on regionality, with great lists and sommelier knowledge of local wines. But the mark-ups are ferocious, and even in one-star places the wines were too young and Burgundy choices restricted to the big negociants like Jadot and Drouhin by and large. I used a local wine I always enjoy called Haut-Gleon Blanc as a bell-weather of pricing. One top place sold this 12€ wine for 67€ on its list, whereas it was around 20€ - 25 in the less fancy places.

I'm not sure what I make of it all. I guess we overloaded on "Michelin-style" in the space of two weeks, and of course had some mind-blowingly good food. But in the end I was left doubting the wisdom of Michelin's power in France: are their standards what most restaurateurs aspire too, or are they dragged towards them if they want to succeed? Certainly, mavericks doing something different seemed few and far between.

Michelin does not divulge the criteria by which it awards stars, but the front of the book has the basic decription for the star levels: one-star is for food alone and can include quite rustic places as long as the food is excellent, but two- and three-star restaurants must play a different ball game. Michelin would claim that a simple place serving a well braised shin of veal could win three stars if it is good enough - but don't you believe it: the huge brigade in the kitchen labouring over complex, expensive dishes and the highly-polished staff, crystal and silverware is exactly what Michelin three-star is all about.

An average meal in a two or three star place will end up with around 10 courses including al the tidbits. For each, fresh silverware will be brought, wines will be opened, tested and poured, plates will be cleared, food will be delivered, tables will be rearranged.


In all, you are likely to have 40 or 50 visits to your table by numerous staff in the course of a three hour meal. It is hardly relaxing, but that pomp and ritual is what the three-star experience is all about for most diners. Sure it is about amazing food, but it is also about fuss, and it is the huge fuss that many big-spenders want most - to impress clients, family or friends.

I am definitely not willing to write Michelin three star experiences off just yet. But for me visiting the top Michelin-starred restaurants has been some a kind of right of passage. When I first dined in such a place about 15 years ago I found it intimidating - as would anyone - but the food experience was truly sublime. Having now experienced this "performance dining" quite a few times - the hordes of staff with precise roles, hugely long wine lists, complex dishes, posh cutlery, arrays of amuses bouches and petit-fours and all the trappings of the gastronomic temple - I have probably crossed through that right of passage to emerge into another place. Now I am just as happy - often happier - with simpler presentation and surroundings, and above all total dedication to the quality of food on the plate and wine in the glass rather than the paraphanalia to impress.

The Michelin guide has been a powerful and very, very positive force in preserving and developing luxury cooking. This is definitely not an anti-Michelin rant. But I do feel that its power pressurises and shapes what comes out of the kitchens into too a predictable style. I still love this quality of dining experience and no doubt I will jump at the next opportunity to eat in a star-studded restaurant, but places that eschew the "system" and do their own thing really well are of even greater interest, and offer more diversity and excitment by and large.

Perhaps Michelin has to encourage more diversity, and make an obvious declaration that its criteria have changed with the times. Then the restaurants that strive for two or three Michelin stars may loosen up a little, and encourage a whole new set of wine and food lovers to cross their thresholds.