Treading Through Michelin

Last week, Michelin raised a more than a few eyebrows when it revealed their Hong Kong and Macau guides are sponsored by companies instead of the respective cities’ tourism board. This led to foodies everywhere wondering if the sponsorships, which ranged from Nespresso to Mercedes-AMG, had influence on the famous guide’s restaurant selection – or even worse, their ratings. Did such admission imply they were in the “pay for play” business? Even if it doesn’t, did it sully their reputation as a bastion of the culinary arts?

These seem like important questions. The addition or removal of a Michelin star can have profound effects on a restaurant’s business. Legendary French chef and nouvelle cuisine pioneer Paul Bocuse once stated it was “the only guide that counts.” Even people that spend most of their dining out dollars on chains have heard of the Michelin guide, although those folks may dismiss it as symbolic of frou-frou culinary experiences. In other words, Michelin has the clout to warrant such scrutiny. However, these questions have already been answered, and it could be argued they were answered over a century ago. A sponsorship inspired the Michelin guide’s genesis. It just doesn’t look like one, because they were their own sponsor.

A history lesson: the Michelin tire company came up with the guide in 1900 to increase the number of cars on French roads – and, ultimately, increase the demand for car tires. These guides had practical car care information within its pages – stuff like maps, instructions on how to replace a tire, and gas station listings. They also threw in places to eat, with the rationale being that French motorists would drive all over the country to dine. This activity would, over time, require them to potentially purchase a new set of Michelins when their car tires worn out. If your knowledge of the Michelin guide only extends to that of an organization that gives stars to really good restaurants, you may not even realize it’s a part of the tire company.

The Michelin Man (real name: Bibendum) indeed represents both, and the guide’s self-promotional roots occasionally bubble to the surface, creating controversies equal if not greater than the current Hong Kong and Macau incident. When Japan was revealed to be the most Michelin star-studded country in 2010, allegations of the gude being a little too generous with the country arose. Those that claimed they went a little too star-happy accused them of deliberately wooing Japanese customers to make it easier for the company to market their tires. Add these claims to longstanding accusations of the guide being biased toward French cuisine and French dining standards and criticisms that certain culinary superstars are wrapped in Teflon, and the guide’s sheen lessens. Contextually speaking, these items make the news about the Hong Kong and Macau guide feel less scandalous and more symptomatic.

It also makes this latest incident a talking point on how to treat Michelin’s reviews. It’s important to remember it’s a guide and not a bible or some similarly sacred culinary text. Stories of sponsorship or rumblings of modern-day self-promotion shouldn’t necessarily diminish their usefulness, but it should serve as a reminder that it’s not without its flaws. More importantly, all the Michelin stars in the stratosphere doesn’t change the notion that the culinary arts, like any other art form, is subjective. Le Bernardin may have three Michelin stars, but I know people that had disappointing experiences there. There is still a risk of a less than optimal experience at play, regardless of acclaim.

This is not to say it’s not exciting to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s just that, because of subjectivity and the guide’s own imperfections, the star shouldn’t be the focal point of the experience. When my wife and I ate at Agern in New York last month, neither of us realized it had a Michelin star until we saw a star sticker on its front door. I remember thinking how cool that was to see, and it gave me a certain level of assurance that we were most likely in for a memorable evening. However, the star didn’t come up in conversation that night. The focus remained on the food, which was phenomenal. The notion of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant didn’t really come up for the rest of the trip. When we did bring the star up during trip recaps with friends and family back home, it just came up in passing, a little detail to add a sprinkle of color to our story. We were too busy recounting the excellence of the three-course dinner we enjoyed to emphasize what some famous guidebook had to say.

That’s how it should be done with any guide really, whether you’re using the mighty Michelin or *gasp* the lowly Yelp. If you found a great place because the experts (or fellow amateurs) pointed you in the right direction, terrific. In the case of the Michelin guide, corporate sponsorships may shape this direction if you’re in Hong Kong or Macau. But if you like the place the suits funneled you to, this hardly matters. Just enjoy.