The Michelin men

Pub date October 10, 2006

Although the Michelin guide is no worse an offender than Zagat as a distant judge of our restaurants — its offices are farther away, but only because the guide is French and cannot be blamed for the relative remoteness of France — there is nonetheless something galling about the colonialism of outsiders’ kiting in to assess us, then trumpeting their findings to the rest of the country and world as authority.
Zagat relies on a vox populi method, actually: its surveys reflect the views of hundreds of locals. Michelin, on the other hand, uses “inspectors” — none of them, we hope, named Clouseau — to provide “objective evaluations” of eating establishments’ kitchen performance, including the “personality” of the cuisine under review. Hmmm. Could it be that “objective” is just ever so slightly subjective? Is there any other way to talk honestly about food?
Last week Michelin brought out its first-ever evaluation of restaurants in San Francisco and Northern California. As in France, Michelin awards us stars for jobs to a greater or lesser degree well done. (Seinfeld’s sonorous dandy Mr. Peterman to Elaine, after deposing her as president of his mail-order clothing company: “And thank you, Elaine, for a job … done.”) We do not seem to merit the subtleties of half stars, but we are graced by the presence of a three-star establishment, and that is Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry, in Yountville.
I cannot say I found this judgment stunning. In fact, there could scarcely have been a less newsworthy bit of news. Somewhat more interesting was the guide’s granting of two stars to Aqua and Michael Mina while a host of other worthy — and, one would have thought, comparable — places, including Gary Danko, the Ritz-Carlton’s Dining Room, and Chez Panisse, must make do with one. Two-star places are supposed to be “worth a detour,” while one-starrers are merely “very good” in their categories, with “cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.”
Implicit in all this is Michelin’s bias toward inventiveness and innovation — “personality,” if you will, or perhaps “tinkering.” It is not unexpected, in this sense, that les inspectors would not fully grasp the meaning and fineness of a place like Chez Panisse, whose very philosophies — of cooking, of agriculture, of living richly but wisely on this fragile earth — emphasize ingredients, even make stars of them.