Monday, December 17, 2012

Michelin, Get Out of the Kitchen! - says A.A.Gill

I was reading my copy of the November issue of Vanity Fair yesterday and greatly enjoyed the piece by A.A.Gill who was such a star at the 2011 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. Always entertaining, frequently funny, often acerbic, in this article he gives a full broadside to the Michelin Guides and their restaurant rating system.
Here it is then for your enjoyment:

Just over a century ago, two French tire manufacturers created the Michelin guide. According to the author, it has blighted the lives of chefs from Brooklyn to Bombay, while spawning legions of checklist gourmands.

By Chris Crisman.
STAR-CROSSED The Michelin guide helped elevate chefs from being mere cooks into celebrities.
A little more than a hundred years ago, a pair of brothers invented the food guide. It was an inadvertent invention. What they thought they’d done was compile a directory of places in France where you could grab a baguette and a bed for the night while some rural blacksmith or farrier tried to mend your broken-down Boitel, Motobloc, Otto, or Lacoste & Battmann. The brothers, Édouard and André Michelin, made pneumatic tires and were staring down the road at the biggest blue-sky start-up industry of the new century.
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

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