2017 has been a strange year for the mighty Michelin guide. October might mark the publication of new guides for Great Britain and Ireland, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and New York, but there’s been a slow restaurant revolt bubbling in kitchens around the world with a number of high profile chefs seemingly turning their back on the famous red book.
At the end of 2016, as Michelin announced their 2017 selection for Belgium and Luxembourg, one chef, Karin Keyngaert, had already decided she wanted to return the star she had held for five years. “Until ten years ago, a Michelin star was a blessing, but in these economic times it is more of a curse. People go to star restaurants just to go for a festive occasion, to dine long and extensive, but personnel costs have become so high that it's unpayable,” she told Vice in an interview at the time.
More recently, Sébastian Bras, son of the legendary Michel Bras and heir to a three star Michelin dynasty, shocked the culinary world when he said he would like to return the three stars he had inherited and maintained for ten years.
Bras shared the sentiments of Keyngaert, explaining on Facebook that he wanted to carry on creating, just away from the watchful eye of the guide’s anonymous diners. “You’re inspected two or three times a year, you never know when. Every meal that goes out could be inspected. That means that, every day, one of the 500 meals that leaves the kitchen could be judged,” he wrote.
Just days after the announcement from Bras, and just days before the publication of the new guide for Great Britain and Ireland, the owners of the Boath House restaurant in Scotland joined the list in asking to have their stars removed, citing the “enormous stress” and financial strain cooking for the star had caused them and their business. They told the BBC they wanted to move their restaurant in a more “informal direction” in an attempt to responding to diner demand: “The feedback we are hearing time and time again from our customers is that they want an experience that is more informal and relaxed and this extends to the restaurant, the food and even how it is served."
Michelin heard and responded to the comments, “It's obviously up to individual restaurants how they want to run their businesses, and there is absolutely no formula for winning or retaining a Michelin star,” they said, however, Boath House was included in the guide for 2017. Giving back stars, as Michelin director Michael Ellis told Vanity Fair back in 2015, is not actually possible. “You can agree with it or you cannot, but you can’t give it back. That’s not an issue ... kind of an urban myth,” he said.
What’s echoed across all the cases above is the want from chefs for more freedom in the kitchen, a chance to be more informal in the dining room, and a way to adapt menus and ingredients to match with demand they are receiving from customers.
Michelin on their part have recognised this, the editor of the Great Britain and Ireland guide, Rebecca Burr, told the BBC that the organisation had noted the trend towards more informal dining over the last 10 years and that it was something they had been at the forefront of celebrating and recognising.
In 2016 a street food vendor in Singapore was awarded a star, they’ve given stars to places like Tsuta, a super informal and cheap ramen place in Tokyo, but this isn’t enough it seems, especially in Europe. To be fair, they have followed the trend of restaurants that create more informal atmospheres paired with high quality food, think of The Clove Club or Lyle’s in London. There’s also the more recent example of Elystan Street, also in London, where they awarded a star in the 2017 guide to chef Phil Howard for his attempt to create something “informal and crowd-pleasing”.
They also have a few relaxed and affordable dim sum places in London and Hong Kong, but this street-food style preference, where delicious wins above all else, is something that's only been celebrated on a small scale in Asian editions. They are launching guides in new foodie cities, Bangkok will come at the end of 2017, surely a place where street food will play heavily. They’re moving in the right direction, but as they do this, chefs are rapidly firing out new ideas and concepts to feed a growing army of food savvy consumers who are eating out more than ever, in a landscape that's changing faster than ever. Evidently, at least from the examples above, chefs are asking for the freedom required to create and challenge these changing palates, in changing times.
Many young people now choose to express themselves through the food choices they make, just look at the crazy amount of food pics shared on social media, or the demand for pop-ups and celebrity chefs. Food is part of pop culture in a way it’s never been before, because of this it moves and fragments quickly. Michelin’s difficult job is to constantly evolve while reflecting the now, to predict the future while maintaining and respecting history and tradition. The ironic thing is, this is also a goal shared by most great chefs.