Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection

It's that time of year again. Michelin mayhem: sleepless nights for chefs, winners leaked early, joy and pain in equal amounts. The power of the guide to grant chefs' dreams is undeniable; but only if you strive to 'dance to the Michelin drum' as Marco Pierre-White poetically claims. Is anyone else skeptical about the reliability of the guide, anxious about its impact on businesses, and most importantly, is it relevant?

These are some of the questions posed by William Sitwell in the 2010 BBC documentary 'Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection'. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about or incredulous as to the worthiness of a guide that started out as no more than a petrol station finder, then this piece of programming is a good place to start. Despite being two years old, its relevance seems ever present regarding the weight of Michelin, particularly at this time of the year. If nothing else, its worth a watch for Pierre-White's intense glare and rhythmic speech.

The pernicious influence of the guide is best demonstrated by the fate of French chef Bernard Loiseau. A notorious perfectionist, Bernard committed suicide after his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, was rumoured to be demoted from three to two Michelin stars. A tragic example no doubt of the pressure faced by award-winning chefs, but the documentary glossed over the fact that Bernard was also heavily in debt and suffered from bouts of depression.

Is it the fault of the guide or do the chefs themselves attach too much importance to the coveted stars? Marco Pierre-White, who famously handed back his stars, believes it is the latter, saying that chefs must accept that they are being judged by people who have less knowledge and skill than they do. Raymond Blanc, who publicly criticized the Michelin guide, wants chefs to aim for perfection rather than aim to please the whims of the Michelin inspectors.

The pursuit of Michelin stars undoubtedly drives chefs to be more creative, more exacting and hopefully leads to better food; but shouldn't chefs who want acclaim have these standards anyway?
And is the guide biased towards certain chefs? The programme claims that with the guide's heritage based firmly in the finesse of French cuisine, it naturally favours classically trained French chefs, citing the example of Alain Ducasse whose restaurant at the Dorchester was slated by well-respected food critics such as Jay Rayner, A. A. Gill, and Sitwell himself, yet was still promoted to three stars in 2010.

The big boss of Michelin explains that such decisions are not made lightly and when it is the case of awarding or removing a star the restaurant in question is visited numerous times throughout the year by different inspectors. One would therefore imagine a degree of objectivity and that bias is weeded out, but who truly knows when it comes to such a secretive organisation?

The best approach is surely one of ironic detachment. By all means, play the Michelin game but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out the way you want. There are great chefs producing amazing food who aren't deemed worthy of a star but should be very proud of their talent and achievements.

What do you think - do you turn to Michelin for places to dine on special occasions or do you shun this potentially outdated authority and rely on other, more modern authorities?