BY SAM KASHNER
In 2003, the renowned, 52-year-old French chef Bernard Loiseau, then one of the most famous chefs in France and an inspiration for the chef Auguste Gusteau in the Pixar film Ratatouille, shot himself in the mouth with a hunting rifle amid speculation that the Michelin restaurant guide was about to pull his restaurant’s third star.
The pressure of maintaining Michelin three-star status (their highest rating) and the possibility that he might lose it were blamed by some for Loiseau’s suicide. True, there were other factors—he suffered from depression, was overworked, and was mired in debt—but in point of fact he had actually told Jacques Lameloise, then chef-owner of the three-star Maison Lameloise, “If I lose a star, I’ll kill myself.” Loiseau “was so scared of Michelin,” says Daniel Boulud, a good friend of Loiseau’s who is now the celebrated chef-owner of Daniel in Manhattan. “There was gossip that he was going to lose his star, and I think he was devastated by the idea of that. He couldn’t cope with the pressure.”
“Stars are not given to a chef,” the international director of the Michelin guides, Michael Ellis, is quick to explain. “It’s not like an Oscar—it’s not a physical thing. It’s really an opinion. It’s recognition.” Ellis, a 57-year-old American, supervises all editorial content for the guide as well as the awarding of stars. He fell in love with France on a high-school trip when he was 16 years old and now lives in Paris with his French wife and 6-year-old son. He started as head of sales for Michelin’s motorcycle-tire division—motorcycling being another of his passions.
When it’s suggested to him that some chefs are so afraid of the pressure of living up to their Michelin stars that they actually give them back, Ellis says, “You can agree with it or you cannot, but you can’t give it back. That’s not an issue.” The giving back of stars—that’s “kind of an urban myth.”
And yet, according to Fortune, in 2013 chef Julio Biosca returned the Michelin star held by his restaurant, Casa Julio, in Valencia, Spain, not because he’d lost faith in the Michelin rating system but because the star, he felt, meant that he could no longer innovate. He was tired of his complicated tasting menu and he wanted to do something simpler, so he gave back his star. The following year, chef Frederick Dhooge, in East Flanders, Belgium, also returned his star because he wanted to be able to cook simpler food, like fried chicken (not considered a “star-worthy dish”), without his customers’ expecting a grand spectacle at his restaurant, ‘t Huis van Lede. And in 2011, Australian chef Skye Gyngell, of Petersham Nurseries Café, in London, called a star “a curse” because of the high expectations it raises among customers. She gave hers back, too, after diners complained about the dirt floors of her “shabby chic” restaurant.
But losing a star can mean a dramatic drop in business. Ahmass Fakahany, the co-owner with chef Michael White of the wildly successful Altamarea Group (their Manhattan restaurants include Ai Fiori and Marea—the former has one star, the latter two) believes that “Michelin is the global currency. People are flying into New York from Asia, from Latin America. It’s a marker for the global traveler…. I have yet to see someone who has one who hasn’t hung it up in their restaurant.”
A great number of today’s most celebrated chefs trained under Michelin-starred chefs, which creates a reverence for Michelin that is part of the culture in so many restaurant kitchens. Ellis remembers his own experience as a younger man, when he thought he might want to be a chef in France. “There were 12 of us in the kitchen, and we were proud to have our one star. It felt as if we were part of a Michelin family. It’s like joining an exclusive club. Chefs tend to be artists, but they also tend to be competitors. They judge themselves against other chefs.”
The involuntary loss of a star is indeed a bitter pill. When Gordon Ramsay’s Manhattan restaurant, the London, lost its two-star Michelin rating, in 2013, Chef Ramsay wept. Even though he had previously sold the restaurant, he told the Daily Mail it was “a very emotional thing for any chef. It’s like losing a girlfriend.” He still can’t talk about it and wouldn’t do so for Vanity Fair.
When Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant, Daniel, on East 65th Street in Manhattan, had one of its three Michelin stars chopped off last year, the news stunned the culinary world. The day after Boulud received the bad news, Pierre Siue, his dapper general manager, gathered the troops in the gleaming kitchen, where they assembled for the daily (except Sunday) 5:05 P.M. pre-service meeting, in order of rank, from floor captain to assistant captain to food runner to busser. As in a dégradation militaire—the ritual of having your sword broken and insignia ripped from your uniform—Boulud faced his team. His staff felt the loss was like taking a star away from God. “We cried for one day—24 hours,” Siue recalls. Daniel’s assistant sommelier, Christine Collado, remembers how “Daniel came in and he said, ‘I’m disappointed, too, but we all have to do service tonight. And everyone needs to smile, and we need to pick up where we left off. And we’re going to make this better. Vas-y, team. Let’s get back to work.’ ”
On a late-spring afternoon, chef Boulud met with V.F. in his tiny office, floating above the kitchen at Daniel. The kitchen is dominated by a giant, blown-up photograph of the first Café Boulud, his family’s restaurant in France. Wearing his chef whites, Boulud, 60, appeared bright and brisk, calling to mind the French actor Marcel Dalio in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. “I didn’t choose this profession because the only thing I wanted was stars,” he explained. “I chose this profession because I love cooking.”
He described his time from 1986 to 1992 at the famed Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque, back in an era when French restaurants in New York were run like private clubs. Important people went to them to see and be seen, and less important people were tucked away in the back room—generally referred to as “Siberia.”
Regular customers were catered to above all else. Flounder was one of Le Cirque’s signature dishes, and Boulud was told that the businessman and investor Ronald Perelman “ ‘will eat his flounder well done every day. Burn, burn, burn the shit out of it!’ ”
The reason Michelin gave for taking Daniel’s star back was lack of consistency. It’s a word that haunts many chefs at Michelin-starred establishments. “I know many of the three-star Michelins never change their menu in order to have perfect consistency,” Boulud explains. “It’s basically robotic cuisine; they cannot afford to change, because that was the winning formula…. Emotionally, I’m going to want to cook something else than what I’ve done.”
Given the controversy, does the Michelin guide have the same prestige in the U.S. it has enjoyed in France and much of Europe for nearly 100 years? Or have other guides and food critics stolen some of the limelight—the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, for example, or the James Beard Awards, the New York Times reviews, Zagat surveys, even Yelp?
I’ll tell you this,” says Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent, globe-trekking former chef, best-selling author, and host of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, in a phone conversation with V.F. “The only people who really care about Michelin stars in New York are French guys…. We could live without it quite nicely. I don’t know how the game works, but I think it’s bullshit that Daniel lost a star—it’s utter bullshit.”
Bourdain is suspicious of the way stars are awarded. “Michelin is very generous to some chefs with whom they seem to have a prior relationship, and harsh, even punitive, to others,” he says. “It’s like sausage—no one wants to see how the hell it’s made.” Asked about the importance of consistency, Bourdain answers, “It’s funny that you use that word. The French take that shit a lot more seriously than we do. It means something different in France, and particularly in the Michelin-starred-chef world…. There’s no other profession where it’s all about consistency. It’s one thing to do the greatest plate of the greatest piece of fish in New York, but that’s not enough. You have to do it exactly the same, and do it forever.”
Bourdain has had a raffish reputation in the food world ever since the 2000 publication of his lively and iconoclastic best-seller Kitchen Confidential (“never order fish on a Monday”). Michelin’s “principal enterprise,” he’s convinced, “is keeping itself in business and maintaining relevance, assuring another 10 years of chefs kissing its ass…. Now that [also] goes for [the James Beard awards]. What would they be doing without chefs? I see them as essentially a predatory organization—all of them.”
Michael Ellis naturally disagrees. He insists that Michelin is “much, much happier awarding stars than taking them away.” For a chef, gaining a Michelin star “will definitely change your life,” says Ellis. “When you get your first star, your second star, your third star, your life changes, your customer base changes.” When Daniel lost its star, Boulud says, Ellis called him as a courtesy. Ellis says he often speaks to chefs to discuss the direction of their restaurants.
THE STARS ARE BORN
It took only 105 years for Michelin to reach the United States. Founded by the Michelin brothers, André and Edouard, the guide was first published in August of 1900 during the Exposition Universelle, in Paris. An engineer (André) and an artist (Edouard), the two brothers were also competitive auto racers who created the first detachable automobile tires. The little book with its red cover started out as a free guide for motorists, and it quickly became Europe’s most popular travel guide.
At first it was all about cars and places to stay. But suddenly you could go to Brittany and eat the food there, whereas before you could only read about it. You could go to Burgundy; you could go to the Jura and up into the mountains. You could go to Marseille. Even the trains didn’t serve all these places. By 1920 the guide was no longer offered free; by 1923 it had added a new element: recommendations of restaurants independent of hotels. In 1926 the Michelin stars were born, noting not just the comfort of this or that hotel but the excellence of its kitchen as well. Eleven years later, the transformation was complete: the guide was devoted to gastronomy.
There are currently 24 guides for 24 different countries. Their reach extends to “Warsaw and Kraków, in Poland, Oslo, in Norway, Stockholm, in Sweden, and Athens, in Greece,” explains Ellis. There are 30 three-star restaurants in Japan, as of this writing, compared with 26 in France and 12 in the U.S. Michelin began rating restaurants in Japan around the same time the guide came to America. When asked why Japan had the most three-star restaurants in the world, Ellis answered, “There’s a great symbiosis between France and Japan. Both countries have fantastic ingredients. Both countries have an almost religious appreciation for produce and the seasons’ ingredients. Both have tremendous technique.”
When a chef loses a star—particularly a French chef—that’s news. To appreciate the devastating experience, Bourdain notes, “It’s worth remembering how hard these chefs work.” In Europe, “most of them started cooking in their teens, at an age that would be completely illegal in the States. These are abused children…. They worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for most of their career. Their entire self-image—creatively, investment of time, every morsel of food—matters. Every harsh word on Yelp matters. So, to lose a star means a lot. It hurts them personally. Their identity and who they are—their very essence—is wrapped up in how people react to their food.”
Bill Buford, a former editor of the British literary magazine Granta and now a contributor to The New Yorker, knows that tradition well. In 2002, inspired by his friendship with New York chef Mario Batali, Buford decided to experience being a kitchen apprentice (“extern”) at Batali’s famed Manhattan restaurant Babbo in order to write about it. He worked his way up from “kitchen slave” to “line cook” to “pasta-maker,” which he later described in his 2006 book, Heat. An imposing man with an affable, open face, he saw firsthand how the kitchen at a fine-dining restaurant works. “In the French system,” Buford recalls, “you get beaten. I was told to hit someone at one point. I almost got hit. You get hit. And working conditions are appalling. There’s a law now supposedly in France that you can’t work more than a 38-hour week, but then the kitchens get a special dispensation if they apply for it. And then they do a 45-hour week. We were doing eight A.M. to midnight every day, five days a week … and bad stuff happened because people got tired and accidents happen—people wrecked their cars going home.”
At the restaurant Daniel, Pierre Siue described a typical day of preparation. First, the prep-kitchen team comes in around 6:30 A.M. to “receive the merchandise. There’s a lot of work in the background, between receiving, cutting vegetables, and cleaning the restaurant,” he explained. The staff starts at three P.M., and from three to four they do the mise en place, making sure everything’s ready for service—polishing glasses, pressing the tablecloths and table skirts. “We pre-iron them for the night because we don’t want to iron during service.” A training session takes place daily from 4 to 4:30, which might include “a wine class from Christine Collado, or coffee training with Mark or Evan, or tableside with one of the older maître d’s.”
At any time of the day, Collado will receive a delivery of wines, ranging from 2 cases to 60. “I’m dressed in usually ripped-up jeans and a T-shirt when I’m receiving those wines—it can be a bit of a dirty job. Caring for the wines, receiving them, entering them is a job that a team of sommeliers do for about two and a half hours,” she says.
Just before the guests arrive, at 5:30, the lights are dimmed and two captains from opposite sides of the room meet at the door, opening it together: it’s showtime. “I like to think we are artists,” says Siue. “As I say to the team all the time, the regular guest is like a girlfriend or a boyfriend. We know the name of the parents sometimes, the name of the dog. And to make a connection you have three hours…. When you succeed, you’re an artist, but you have to start again the next day—or the next table.” And when more information is needed, servers are not above Googling their diners or overhearing their conversations, all in the name of good service.
Buford attributes Boulud’s loss of the star to the New York Times food critic Pete Wells’s “hatchet job” in July of 2013. Though Wells described Boulud’s “exquisite refinements on French peasant food,” he took umbrage that a diner at the next table supposedly did not get the same attention that he—a recognized critic—received. But then, that neighboring diner turned out to be a colleague of Wells’s, there to help sample the service.
“I like Pete, but I thought that was bullshit, unwarranted, and uninformed,” Buford says of Wells’s review. Buford appreciates that Boulud is “working very much in a French tradition. He’s known all his life what it means to be a three-star Michelin chef. It’s a very elite club. There’s no question that he belongs in that club. It was a very big deal for him to be officially recognized—and then, to take it away! It just feels irresponsible…. I don’t get the sense that Michelin is corrupt, but I don’t think it’s as impartial as it pretends to be.” Michelin, he feels, is juggling stars as “a journalistic ploy.”
If Wells is often recognized, one important guest the staff will almost never recognize is the Michelin inspector. On a phone call with an inspector, arranged by Michael Ellis—we were not allowed to know her name—she explained that for the job the inspectors, on average, eat two restaurant meals a day almost every day of the week except weekends, at least 200 meals a year. They are on the road constantly. “It’s not that we’re trying to be secretive for its own sake,” she said, “but … we want to maintain the quality and integrity of the process.”
Like Ellis, the inspector insisted that they much prefer to award stars than to take them away. “We’re almost giddy when we find a new star,” she says, “or when we go back to a one-star that is maybe headed towards two or three. That’s something we still get very excited about. And in the case of a decision like Daniel, we go to a restaurant over and over and over again.”
When asked to define what the stars actually mean, she explained, “A three-star experience should be almost perfect…. There should be something memorable about it—something that sparks. At the three-star level, it’s a meal you’re not going to forget.”
When you start as a Michelin inspector, your first weeks of training are abroad, she says. “You go to the mother ship in France. Depending on your language skills, maybe you go to another European country and train with an inspector there.” There’s no prescribed path to becoming a food inspector, “though inspectors are all lifers in one way or another,” she explained, and they usually come from families devoted to food and the table. “One inspector was a chef at a very well-known, three-star restaurant, another came from a hotel…. I think you’re either built for this or you’re not,” she added. “You have to really be an independent personality. You have to be somewhat solitary but also work as part of a team. You have to be comfortable dining alone. Most of the time, I think, inspectors all live in a perpetual state of paranoia. That’s the job: the C.I.A. but with better food.”
COOKING UP A STORM
Of the six three-star restaurants in New York, five of them are in Manhattan: Masa, Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin, Per Se, and Jean Georges. Masa, in the Time Warner building, at 10 Columbus Circle, on the same floor as Thomas Keller’s Per Se, is the only sushi restaurant in New York to have earned three stars. Masayoshi Takayama is the owner, creator, and chef. The room is small, with only 26 seats, and I entered through a massive door opened by a welcoming Japanese woman.
Chef Takayama, 61, a tall, youthful-looking man with a shaved head, sat at a table while an assistant poured green tea into tiny cups. The restaurant was designed by the chef—including a small pond, and an impressive sushi bar that cost $60,000. “It’s hinoki wood,” Takayama explained, “which is the wood used in a Japanese shrine. It’s very special, especially the smell—it’s beautiful. Very dense, very hard wood, white, clean. That’s the spiritual wood.”
Such spirituality doesn’t come cheap. Dinner at Masa can run around $500 a person and might feature kue flown in from Kyushu Island—“a very, very rare fish available only eight weeks out of the year, only in the wintertime. It costs $2,000 for 12 pounds of fish. It has a really extraordinary taste—it’s an amazing fish,” explains Takayama.
The chef also has the restaurant Kappo Masa, on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, and two restaurants in Las Vegas. Before he opens a new restaurant, he plans the food to fit the neighborhood. “I spent many days standing in the street,” he explains. “I see all the people walking—I see what they eat, where they’re going, what they wear. Then I create the kind of menu that works for this location.” He notes that on New York’s Madison Avenue “the people are fashionable, very thin, they move quickly. So I designed a fish pasta—100 percent fish, no gluten, no wheat—only for Madison people. They love it.”
He was 12 when he began cooking in his home in Japan, helping his father and mother’s catering business deliver sashimi to neighbors, for weddings, wakes, and funerals. He remembers a dish called kai, which is sea bream: “It’s a kind of happiness. Twelve inches of sea bream, grilled. If there are a hundred people at the wake, we’d grill a hundred pieces.” He worked in Tokyo’s renowned Sushi-Ko before moving to Los Angeles, where he eventually opened Ginza Sushi-Ko, one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, which he owned for nearly 20 years. “Then [California restaurateur] Thomas Keller called me. He said, ‘We have a new project in the Time Warner building.’ ”
Attempting to explain why Japan has more Michelin restaurants than any other country, Takayama says, “We are always looking for beauty, simplicity, and detail…. The Japanese have a philosophy in all of their best things—looking to make them better, better, better…. Early morning when I wake up, I’m cooking in my head. I can smell the cooking, even in bed. I can taste it, I can feel the texture. The Michelin people realize how beautifully done, how perfectly done—all the details. But the real critics,” he adds, “are the people…. They judge. Every single day I have to hit the home run.”
For quite a while, Eleven Madison Park had only one star, chef Daniel Humm explains, “and people thought we were underrated, but I never cared. I almost appreciated being the restaurant that was underrated—it’s kind of a beautiful place to be. It’s a lot easier to exceed expectations. Then Michelin moved us from one to three, right away. You can’t deny it—it’s an unbelievable feeling to get three Michelin stars…. It was a goal so big that I was afraid of even the thought.” Humm’s restaurant career began when, as a 14-year-old Swiss boy, he dropped out of school to earn money for a $2,000 racing bicycle. The only place he could find a job was in a restaurant kitchen, chopping vegetables. While there, he learned how to make hollandaise and how to debone a pig. As a young man he graduated to what was then a three-star restaurant, Le Pont de Brent, near Lake Geneva, where he was mentored by chef Gérard Rabaey. The rest is history: Eleven Madison Park is ranked No. 5 in the latest World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the only New York restaurant listed in the Top 10. (Le Bernardin comes in next, at No. 18, then Per Se, at No. 40.)
Will Guidara, who is Humm’s business partner, grew up in the restaurant trade. His father, Frank Guidara, was for 10 years the president of the restaurant division of Restaurant Associates, the fabled company from the Mad Men era that once owned Tavern on the Green, the Four Seasons, Forum of the Twelve Caesars, La Fonda del Sol, and Brasserie. They were the inventors of the theme restaurant in New York. “In my era,” Frank recalls, “Michelin stars were unobtainable outside of Europe, and pretty much outside of France.”
Back then the restaurants in New York were run by the maître d’s, such as Henri Soulé, at Le Pavillon, or Sirio Maccioni, at Le Cirque. The chef was little more than an employee, and the food was often beside the point. “There was no incentive to become a cook—all the incentive existed in becoming a restaurateur,” recalls Will. But that all changed in the decades that followed. Today chefs at two-star restaurants generally make six-figure salaries, and celebrity chefs make tens of millions a year.
When Will started working service in fine dining the chefs terrified him. “I tried not to get yelled at by the chef. I found that in fine dining, the higher up the food chain you got, and the more maniacal and tyrannical the chef was becoming.” He subsequently worked for the famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer (who owns Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and Shake Shack, among others), helping him open restaurants at the Museum of Modern Art. Two and a half years later, Meyer had his vision for Eleven Madison Park, housed on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Life North Building. “Danny came to me,” Will recalls, “and said, ‘What about Eleven Madison Park?’ So, I was like, ‘Dude, I told you I didn’t want anything to do with fine dining!’ ”
But meeting Daniel Humm changed his mind. “I believe he’s one of the best chefs in the world. He became my closest friend,” says Will. It helped that the two men decided early on that “the kitchen and the dining room needed to play nice together. That’s not often the case in restaurants like this…. It’s mostly like an arranged marriage, but for us it’s true love.”
Dinner at Eleven Madison Park might include slow-cooked halibut with clams and sorrel or slow-baked venison with beets and onions. The tasting menu, at $225 per person, features such delicacies as seared foie gras with Brussels sprouts and eel.
‘On June 11, 1991, I walked into the kitchen at Le Bernardin, and I never left,” says chef Eric Ripert, perhaps the most famous of famous chefs due in part to his presence on television on the popular show Top Chef and appearances on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and The Layover, and in cameos on HBO’s New Orleans-themed series, Treme.
Le Bernardin began life in Paris in 1972, founded by Gilbert Le Coze and his sister, Maguy. It was named after a lullaby their father used to sing to them. A second Le Bernardin opened in New York in 1986. When Gilbert died suddenly of a heart attack at age 49 in 1994, Ripert succeeded him as head chef. Now 50, he and his eight sous-chefs devote an hour each day to experimenting. It’s the only time they don’t have to worry about “consistency”—the great buzzword in Michelin. “We start with the mentality of saying, ‘No idea is ridiculous.’ So whatever we do, even if it’s disgusting, we don’t feel bad about it.”
“I think it’s a mistake to be obsessed with ratings,” Ripert says. “It’s like an actor who becomes obsessed with winning the Oscar and he forgets about acting…. When I wake up in the morning and I come to work, I don’t think about stars and ratings—Michelin or The New York Times. I’m busy running the restaurant, mentoring, and living my passion.” Nonetheless, he believes that Michelin still has power. “Even The New York Times very often in its reviews refers to the stars that a restaurant has in Michelin.”
The tasting menu at Le Bernardin runs $170 per person, or $260 with wine pairing, and can include barely cooked scallop, warm peekytoe Maryland lump crab with shaved heirloom cauliflower, wild striped bass, and coconut yuzu sorbet.
‘Brooklyn is booming!” Michael Ellis says enthusiastically, but right now there’s only one three-star Michelin restaurant there: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, where “it’s not the décor, it’s the food,” says 44-year-old chef César Ramirez, from the small Mexican town of Zimapán, about five hours north of Mexico City, known for its barbacoa: lamb or goat cooked overnight in an earthen pit. Zimapán is where “the matadors used to come from Spain,” recalls Ramirez.
“I remember as a kid I wanted to be a bullfighter, because they used to come all the time to eat at my grandmother’s house. She was a very, very good cook.” The family moved to Chicago, where Ramirez grew up. Instead of going to cooking school, he apprenticed at several Chicago restaurants, working his way up to sous-chef at the Ritz Carlton. In 1998, Ramirez moved to New York, and it was love at first sight. “When I landed, I knew I was meant to be here. I just knew—the energy and everything!”
His first restaurant in New York, Bar Blanc, which opened in 2007 in the West Village, didn’t survive the economic downturn. He went to Brooklyn somewhat reluctantly, feeling that Manhattan was “where it was at,” but then he met and clicked with Moe Issa, now his business partner. They opened their industrial-style restaurant, and in 2014 it became the first in Brooklyn to receive three stars. Given its small size and lack of attention to “the front of the house” (i.e., the dining room), you might say that Chef’s Table helped bring Michelin into the 21st century. Its 18 seats are situated sushi-bar-style around the kitchen, where chef Ramirez and his staff prepare their meals. Gone are the linen tablecloths, the table settings that look as if they are waiting for dinner to be served at Versailles.
Ellis insists that Michelin has adapted to changing times, putting less emphasis on décor and more emphasis on the quality of the food and recognizing the vibrancy of restaurant venues other than the traditional ones, Manhattan and Paris. The inspector we spoke with concurred: “The stars are awarded for what’s on the plate. It doesn’t have to be in an overly opulent setting,” she said.
Specializing in French-Japanese cuisine, Chef’s Table has a prix fixe dinner of $306 per person including service charge, and might feature Hokkaido sea urchin with black truffle and toasted brioche, or Ossetra caviar with crispy potato and dashi sabayon.
Though chef Boulud admits that it hurt him and his team to lose a star, he still trusts Michelin. “I hope they will continue to watch me closely and see the changes I’ve continued to make…. I have seen two presidents at Michelin, I have seen eight food critics at The New York Times, and I’m still standing, taking pleasure every day at what I do…. I accept the loss, but I will not accept for my team to think we are now disqualified as the best restaurant in New York, and in America. Vas-y!”