What’s black and white and red all over? The Michelin Guide of course. ‘The little red book’, as it’s affectionately known, has become synonymous with exceptional dining experiences, from elite 3-star fine dining to the “Good Little Restaurants” that make up the Bib Gourmand. Each year, the guides are released to much acclaim in more than 25 countries. They’ve been going strong since their launch in 1900, until now.
Last year, Michelin made headlines when they announced the delay of their 2021 American guides in the wake of the pandemic. A spokesperson told Food & Wine, “Restaurants are the heartbeat of our communities, and we look forward to recognizing their unwavering strength and talent at the appropriate time.” In the same article, they said the guide was, “fully committed to support and promote restaurants by being flexible, respectful and realistic as recovery takes shape.”
It seems like a fair, even supportive stance to take after 2020. The year was devastating to the restaurant industry, with over 110,000 venues closing their doors across the country. And for those restaurants that have managed to stay in business, it would be ridiculous for the Michelin Guide inspectors to accurately assess their quality through take-away meals or the sporadically available dine-in service.
So, why weren’t other markets, like France, Britain and Hong Kong - all of which have had guides released this month - not given the same consideration? Those restaurants were still battered by the pandemic, mandated closures, uncertainty and fear.
It’s a callous move on the part of the Michelin Guide, and one that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by the media nor guide representatives.
The Michelin Guide can be a major boost to business. According to the late chef Joël Robuchon, a Michelin-darling, the economic benefits are powerful. In an interview with Food & Wine magazine, he claimed one star can boost business by 20%, two stars by 40%, and three stars - by an incredible 100%.
Of course, that’s not always the case. Sometimes Michelin recognition can actually contribute to restaurant closures. I won’t get into the specifics of it here, but Google ‘economic pressures of Michelin stars’ if you’re curious. This CNN article about the rise of chefs rejecting their stars is also an insightful read.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to deny that the Michelin Guide is a powerful boon for restaurants, granting them global recognition and an immediate profile boost. All of which is crucial at a time like this, when the industry has practically been decimated.
The Michelin Guide actually launched a barometer that assesses the global state of the restaurant industry each week. According to their own barometer, only 26% of Michelin-starred restaurants were open last week, worldwide. That proves that industry needs as much support as possible right now, especially from titans like The Michelin Guide.
In an official press release that went out this week, Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guides said, “The Michelin Guide is about so much more than recognizing those at the top of their profession; it is about promoting the hospitality industry as a whole and we want to shine a light on the hard work, tenacity and commitment of chefs and restaurant teams.”
And so, I have to ask - if all of that is true: if barely 30 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants are able to operate right now, and the guide is so concerned they’re literally monitoring that number each week - why did they decide to punish venues by removing stars at all?
To their credit, Michelin Guide has vowed not to demote any of the elite three-starred venues, and they have doled out far more accolades than they’ve rescinded. But even so, it’s bizarre that they would actively punish restaurants at all.
Forty five French venues, 22 British ones and six Hong Kong & Macanese restaurants lost stars this year. Permanently closed venues account for many of those losses, but not all. For restaurants like Aquavit, Social Eating House and BELON - who are still open in some capacity - to fall from grace after such a brutal year seems cruel, and out of touch.
While the financial ramifications are unknown, the loss of a star is a devastating emotional blow, and certainly doesn’t lead to more business.
If the Michelin Guide actually wanted to support restaurants, they could have made a historic exception, by only added restaurants to their ranks this year. They would have joined the ranks of other notable guides such as James Beard Awards, World’s 50 Best and La Liste, who chose to pivot their strategies. The James Beard Awards and World’s 50 Best cancelled their 2020 editions and La Liste, France’s answer to World’s 50 Best, decided to highlight innovative chefs instead of publishing rankings.
Clearly those other guides understand what the Michelin Guide does not: the hospitality industry needs to be defended right now, not judged. In a year of exceptions, their iconic brand could have - and should have, in my opinion - made one too. It seems neither fair nor kind to punish venues that have spent a year struggling to survive.
The Michelin Guide had an opportunity to act as a true defender of the industry, a protector during its darkest hour, and they failed. Shame on them.
At the time of publishing, neither the Michelin Guide nor the aforementioned restaurants have responded to requests for comment.
All views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. For questions or comments, you can reach her directly at [email protected].