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10 March 2010

Michelin stars: The madness of perfection

Original 1898 poster featuring Bibendum.Image via Wikipedia

I have a lot of sympathy for journalists or media companies who try to make the topic of food, especially expensive food, accessible.  They're on a hiding to nothing.

Take a look at the comments to pretty much any post by Jay Rayner on the Guardian's Word of Mouth blog and you'll see how many whackjobs there are out there.  These are people who could quite easily access any of the other delights of the internet that pander to their bizarre self-righteousness.  Instead, they go to a website dedicated to food, and they froth and dribble in horror when a restaurant critic discusses the finer points of his job.

One of the many pleasures I get from writing this blog is that my readers who contact me, either in the comments or by email, largely care about food, are knowledgeable and have a point of view.  In other words they're not loons.  They've come here either through Google, or I'd guess most likely from reading other sites where I've commented or that link to me.  In other words, it's a relatively select group.

Which brings me back to mass media and food.  In the same way those Guardian commenters have issues simply walking away from that which riles them, I imagine the problem is only magnified for TV programmes.  People seem incapable of simply turning over or off.  Instead, they watch a programme and go bonkers.

So I was impressed at BBC 2's bravery in airing a programme about the 2010 Michelin UK guide.  This is a topic ripe for the banshees to scream that we're in a recession, it's vulgar that those rich pigs are eating food and worrying about asterisks on a page in a red book when people all over the world are starving.  The arguments are hackneyed, dull navel gazing. 

But as a state-funded broadcaster, the Beeb needs to take account of these issues so William Sitwell's programme needs to tread a fine line between arching his eyebrow at the futility and frippery of it all and actually scrutinising Michelin in a fair way.

Overall, I found it a pretty interesting.  There were moments that it got a bit silly, for example where he talks about PR girls and their love of champagne, or his naif attitude when in the kitchen of Marcus Wareing.  For the editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated it didn't quite wash.  He's a man who clearly should know his way around a restaurant kitchen.  Equally, his view that this is only food and won't change the world is true, but it's true for many many things in life, such as the Oscars, the Man Booker prize and even blogs.  It doesn't mean they don't make life that much more enjoyable and therefore have value.

His interview of Dominique Loiseau, widow of Bernard Loiseau was touching.  Sitwell did a good job of balancing sensitivity to what was a tragic turn of events and questioning whether it was just the pressure of possibly losing a Michelin star that resulted in Loiseau taking his life.  It's a complex topic and one that resulted in a very good book.  For something that covered about 3 minutes of the programme, Sitwell was as comprehensive as could be expected.

I'm not sure whether the programme ever reaches a conclusion as to the value of Michelin.  It is clear from the range of chefs interviewed that they view it as important both commercially and also as validation of their skill.  Many go way beyond such rationalising.  Michelin becomes the monster in their headIt is also clear that some chefs lose sight that Michelin is a commercial organisation, it is there to sell books.  So if it does the odd PR stunt, such as say leak the results early two years in a row, then so be it.

The relationship between restaurants and Michelin is I think analogous to that of companies and rating agencies.  Companies need the ratings agencies to analyse their balance sheets so that they can raise debt.  Companies often rail against the agencies, especially that they have to pay for the analysis, but in the end they live with it and encourage the system. 

So chefs at the top of their game rail against the tyranny of Michelin.  Marco Pierre White makes a lot of noise about handing back his stars.  If he really doesn't care, why make such a song and dance? Marcus Wareing takes a dig at Alain Ducasse's 3 star at the Dorchester, but in the end, he makes clear that he's desperate for the same accolade.  Even Mark Sargent's claim that he no longer wants to cook that food is a undermined somewhat when he suggests that maybe his food deserves one star. 

The most recent example of Michelin mania is Ten in Eight, a restaurant company setup with the express aim of winning ten Michelin stars over the next eight years.  I find this a bizarre target for a restaurant group, but it's a group with some pedigree, amongst its stable is La Becasse and L'Ortolan.  In other words, they might achieve their aim and if they do the owners, the chefs, will be happy people, they'll have the recognition they crave.

In the programme, Christopher Corbin's statement that Michelin are great at rating food but not so great at choosing restaurants you'd want to eat in, sounds good but is too dismissive of some great, enjoyable restaurants. Then again, the Wolseley is always packed and on my recent visits the best that can be said about the food is that it is mediocre.

The programme is a pretty interesting insight into what is perceived as a closed world.  If you really can't stand all that posh food, don't bother watching it.  If you're a food nerd, you'll enjoy it.  You may not learn a whole lot, but it's a pretty good way to spend an hour.  If you're neither of the above and just the type of person who enjoys having their mind engaged on interesting although not world changing issues, I'd also commend the programme to you. 

However much we try to theorise, it seems that Michelin is important because it's important.  There isn't much logic to it, it's just the way the world turns.

Michelin stars: The madness of perfection, BBC 2, Thursday 11 March, 9pm


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Did you mean the BBC2 programme?

Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection, Thursday 11 March, 9:00pm - 10:00pm, BBC2

Judy, You're absolutely right and I've now amended the piece accordingly.  Thanks

I really enjoyed the show but I think Blanc had it right. Strive to make a viable business first and if the stars follow you are doing something right! It did make me want to try a load more restuarants though so this is probably be very bad for my wallet!

@Paul, thanks for your comment and in the end, trying restaurants is the point of Michelin, so it seems they're doing something right.

sounds like it was a good show- will have a look for it on iplayer. Not sure what i think about the whole Michelin star debate- yes there are starving people in the world, but if the restaurants disappeared would the rich eating in them really give their money to charity or would they just go elsewhere to spend their money?

I went to La Becasse a few months ago, partly because Alan Murchison (guiding chef behind the chain) taught me on a cookery course at Le Manoir a decade ago. Never again. La Becasse (in Ludlow) has the sort of inventive cooking, none of it properly executed, which puts one of restaurant food altogether.
How it got one michelin star is a total mystery; I can't think it would have succeeded had it been in London, let alone France. Worse, the staff had a faintly supercilious air. Possibly there simply aren't enough discerning customers in the Shires, where the best eating is done at home.

Kate, thanks for the comment and interesting points. I can't comment on the food, I've never been. However, Simon M at Dos Hermanos has been and he loves it and I've always thought he was a good arbiter. I guess that means I now have to go and be the judge for myself.

Very much enjoy your writing style! Pure entertainment... have subscribed so I can enjoy more!

Many thanks Penelope.

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