Recently in Chicago many restaurants received their first Michelin star. Some received one, some two and in a singular instance the coveted three Michelin stars. When the stars were awarded it was exciting to have so many Michelin worthy restaurants in our midst. However, many of the stars seem misplaced and the star ratings just didn’t seem to match up in my opinion.
Since the Michelin stars were awarded it has raised the question, are the standards for the United States vs. restaurants in Europe the same? By my observations they seem grossly unequal. While this may be a known dilemma I was uncertain which compelled me to put my thoughts down and see how the ChefTalk community felt.
Many years ago it was my privilege to work in a one Michelin star restaurant in France. In addition I have also been blessed with many opportunities to dine in some of the finest restaurants in the world.
- Georges Blanc - Vonnas France (3 stars)
- Comme Chez Soi - Belgium (2 stars)
- Le Grand Vefour - Paris (2 stars)
- La Tour D’Argent – Paris (2 stars).
In the US:
- Alinea - Chicago (3 stars)
- Charlie Trotter - Chicago (2 stars)
- Blackbird, Courtright's, Moto, Schwa, Naha, Tru, Nomi, Avenues, Vie, Topolbampo and Sixteen - all in Chicago (all 1 star at the time I dined there).
After years of fine dining experience my observation is that US based restaurants don’t even come close to the European restaurants who have the same number of stars.
Years ago while dining at Georges Blanc in Vonnas France I enjoyed a meal that was truly something special. After the meal it was clear why this wonderful restaurant received 3 stars. Every aspect of the experience from the plates and silverware, to the decor, to the amazing food and beyond belief service were all perfection. Not one mistake and I mean that not one.
One experience I have had repeatedly when dining at European restaurants that have been awarded a Michelin star such as George Blanc, Comme Chez Soi, or Le Grand Vefour is this. The patron is made to feel that their experience and enjoyment are the focus. Not the restaurant, not the chef, not the wait staff but the patron is the center of attention. Often when I dine at a restaurant in the United States I get the feeling that the wait staff is doing me a favor instead of providing great service. In my opinion it will never matter how great the food is if it ends up being served by someone who does not understand and has never received proper training on the art and craft of service.
I like to think how Anthony Bourdain might put it and in my mind it would go something like: “Look, it doesn’t matter if you have Escoffier himself in the kitchen. If you have some buffon actor wannabe who has worked as a waiter for 3 years serving the food you are going to have a crappy experience.” I digress…Back to the issue at hand.
The food is the other side of the coin in this dilemma. While some of the restaurants truly deliver awe inspiring food (Alinea and Tru come to mind) many simply don’t. Yes, the dish often has interesting flavors and unique textures, but the composition as a whole rarely rings true of a skilled chef. That probably sounds harsh but I believe that if a restaurant is asking a guest to pay large sums of money to dine in their restaurant it should be excellent, not ok. Numerous restaurants that are publicized as the “top” restaurants charge incredibly high prices for food that is at best, just ok.
What distinguishes between a good meal and the truly spectacular? The diner knows from the very first bite. The food tastes so wonderful that you find it difficult to believe something from nature can be crafted in such a way. And, you remember the meal for years to come. Though it has been over 15 years since Georges Blanc I have fond memories of a once in a lifetime experience. It was a restaurant that clearly worked hard for their three stars and in my opinion deserved every one of them.
To receive a Michelin star a restaurant needs to posses great food, and great service. You simply can’t have one without the other. The sad fact is few of the restaurants that received Michelin stars in the United States have both elements, it is usually one or the other and in many cases neither. It is as if the star was awarded just because stars needed to be awarded to some restaurants to help promote interest in the Michelin guides. To read more about the criteria of the Michelin star ratings visit their site at: http://www.michelintravel.com/methodology/
A great article about this topic is over at Chicagoeater.com. They do an excellent job of pointing out that although North Pond chef Bruce Sherman received the James Beard award this year his restaurant did not receive a single star. http://chicago.eater.com/archives/2011/11/15/michelin-guide-revealed-alinea-gets-3-stars-l20-drops-to-1-avenues-off-list.php