The Michelin guide turned out to be prescient and inspired. This motoring thing wasn’t going to be about what you went in but where you went to. The guide quickly became not an emergency manual but a destination invitation. They added a star system—one, two, or three stars—and a hieroglyphic lexicon to show you where you could eat on a terrace, take your dog, or make a phone call.
The Michelin guide made kitchens as competitive as football teams, becoming the most successful and prestigious guidebook in the world, and along the way it killed the very thing it had set out to commend. It wasn’t the only assassin of the greatest national food ever conceived, but it’s not hyperbole to say Michelin was French haute cuisine’s Brutus.
Chefs are strange creatures; their trade is more of a calling, a vocation, than a career. They start young; the training is hard, the hours long, the pay meager. Chefs work when others are having fun. They don’t have real friends. Their marriages don’t work; their children don’t like them. And no one ever invites a chef round for dinner. But the Michelin guide took them seriously, showed them respect.
Craving the love and the approbation of a stern parent, chefs yearned for the Michelin stars. This wasn’t business; this was personal. They stopped cooking for dumb, annoying customers and began making food for invisible, mercurial, undercover inspectors. Chefs invested everything in building dining rooms that would attract Mama and Papa Michelin. They worried to the point of breakdown and suicide about how to keep the love.
The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit. Michelin-starred restaurants began to look and taste the same: the service would be cloying and oleaginous, the menus vast and clotted with verbiage. The room would be hushed, the atmosphere religious. The food would be complicated beyond appetite. And it would all be ridiculously expensive. So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.
Being French, of course the guide has always been the subject of conspiracy theories regarding the allocation of stars, the number of inspectors, and their quality and disinterest. Having made the hierarchy of chefs, the guide found that it was in its interest to maintain it. A handful of grand and gluttonous kitchens seemed to keep their rating long after their fashion and food faded. Michelin evolved from the wandering Candide of food to become the creeping Richelieu: manipulative, obsessive, and secretive.
Full article at Vanity Fair