A radical feast: why we need Michelin’s culinary elitism
As the one per cent are called to the pillory by the jeering masses, where do they hide? In the reverent hush of the Araki, perhaps, where a maximum of nine customers line a sushi counter carved from centuries-old cypress near London’s Savile Row. They pay £300 each, excluding drinks, for a set menu that never bends to dietary requirements.
On Monday, the Araki won three Michelin stars. That is three more medals on the breast of Japan as the favoured culinary nation of the elite, having overtaken France at some indistinct point around the millennium.
Without trying to, the Michelin guide becomes a more radical concept each year. A provocation to the mob, almost. It stands for rule by experts in a world aflame with populism. It serves the transnational rich who can afford to take the guide’s breezy criterion for two stars (“mérite un détour”) entirely literally — I once met an American who booked his flights via Heathrow so he could sneak to Bray during layovers: three of the village’s restaurants have seven stars between them.
If rebellion is a defiance of the majority mood, whatever that mood is, then there is nothing more punk rock right now than this unembarrassedly exclusive periodical. Michelin is the opposite of social media, of democracy even. We are free to ignore it — almost all of us do — but we cannot sway it.
Michelin inspectors tend to be nameless, faceless and inaccessible. They do not care what you think. They have no “engagement” strategy. Call them elitist and they might thank you for the compliment. If their standards are uneconomical for proprietors, well, that is someone else’s problem.
Last month, the owners of Boath House, a hotel-restaurant in the Scottish town of Nairn, said they would have to renounce their star as the “expectations from Michelin are at odds with achieveable profit margins and put an enormous stress on a small family-run business like ours”.
Michelin weighed these concerns and, on Monday, gave Boath House its star all over again. Well, if you will insist on cooking so well.
Nor do the judges respect persons or trappings, at least in theory. The restaurants they decorate with honours include money-pits such as the Araki but also unprepossessing coastal pubs.
The Clove Club, Michelin-starred and the highest-ranked British establishment in the World Restaurant Awards, grew out of a pop-up run by young friends above a bar in London’s East End. The elitism is of technique, not milieu.
Because experts are so out of favour, Michelin feels somehow obnoxious and precious all at once. Comparable awards, such as the Oscars and the Man Booker Prize, tend to compromise with popular tastes, which may explain why artists do not chase them as lustily as chefs go after Michelin stars.
A BBC documentary in 2010, The Madness of Perfection, exposed the darkness of this pursuit. Colder than the awarding of stars is the removal of them, often for marginal drops in quality that even educated palates would fail to notice. More than one suicide of a chef has been attributed to feared or actual downgradings.
A decade ago, Michelin was a timeworn brand. As the world has changed around it, the guide feels daring, even transgressive. The point is not whether its ratings are right or wrong. The point is the commitment to absolute standards when the trend is to the relativist and the non-judgmental.
It is classic France, a nation that held on to an idea of excellence in all fields as something measurable and teachable even as its postwar philosophers questioned whether there could be such a thing as objectivity.
For all this Frenchness, the most countercultural thing about Michelin now is its international consciousness. What started as an annual hymn to French cooking began to take the rest of Europe seriously, then gave North America a try, and now, if anything, has a bias towards Asia. Japan bestrides the guide, hence the acclaim for the Araki. Elitist and globalist: nothing bucks the tide of public sentiment quite like Michelin.
As the levelling ethos of populism spreads through the west, institutions that cherish excellence above all else will stand out more. Professional sport is one example. The trading floor, where you either make money or get culled, is another. Michelin is part of the same resistance. A world run according to its principles would be uninhabitably miserable. But a world without it at all would lose some sense of what, when pushed by informed and exacting invigilators, people can do.