Star Wars

Did Michelin lower the bar for New York?

Book cover

When word got out earlier this year that Michelin would be publishing its first-ever guide to New York City restaurants, it was generally thought that one, maybe two, establishments would be awarded three stars, the highest honor. That’s because Michelin has traditionally erred on the side of caution in doling out stars and because it didn’t appear that New York had more than one or two legitimate contenders. Thus, there were more than a few dropped forks when Michelin announced last week that it was bestowing three stars on not one but four New York restaurants—Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, and Per Se. Is New York better than everyone thought? Or has Michelin just lowered its standards?

In launching a New York guide, Michelin had a choice to make: It could tell New Yorkers what they presumably wanted to hear—that, as upscale restaurants go, New York is now equal to Paris—or it could tell them the truth—that, fine as they are, New York’s finest tables haven’t yet reached those heights. Sure, taste is personal, and no doubt there are some people who think Per Se and Jean Georges are every bit as good as, say, Troisgros, the venerated family-run three-star in Roanne, or L’Arpège, the Parisian three-star run by the brilliant, enigmatic Alain Passard. But at the risk of injecting a degree of snobbery into the discussion, I don’t think you’ll find too many people with extensive three-star experience making that case.

Commenting on, restaurant writer Steve Shaw suggested that Jean Georges, while excellent by New York standards, would not merit even two stars were it in Paris, ditto Le Bernardin. In my experience, not one of the four New York restaurants awarded three stars has ever come close to matching most of the three-star meals I’ve had in France. Having eaten in all three of Ducasse’s three-stars, for instance, I can say without hesitation that the New York branch is a weak imitation of his Paris and Monte Carlo restaurants—the service is just as attentive, but the food is a clear step down, and I suspect that if Ducasse were plied with enough Krug, he might admit as much.

But putting aside subjective judgments, there are some reasonably objective indicators that suggest Michelin lowered the bar for New York. For one thing, Michelin broke its own rules in awarding three stars to any New York restaurants. It has long been Michelin policy that restaurants being reviewed for the first time are not eligible for three stars, no matter how good the food and service; the guide wants to see evidence of staying power before it catapults a chef and restaurant to, well, stardom. At the very least, a big exception was made for Per Se, which has been in business for only a year and a half (and which was presumably visited by Michelin’s inspectors months ago). When Le Cinq, the signature restaurant at Paris’ Hotel George V, opened five years ago, it immediately established itself as one of the top restaurants in France. No surprise there: Its chef was Philippe Legendre, who had come over from the legendary Parisian three-star Taillevent, and its sommelier was Eric Beaumard, widely regarded as the best at his trade. Nevertheless, Michelin waited three years to award Le Cinq a third star. When I asked a Michelin spokeswoman why Per Se had been treated differently, she told me that the situation was “a bit special for New York.”

Moreover, in the cases of Ducasse and Jean Georges, the guide overlooked factors that surely would have counted against both restaurants had they been in France. At Ducasse, the kitchen has had a revolving door of late, and the new new chef has been on the job for just seven months. Confronted with similar uncertainty in France, Michelin would undoubtedly have held back on awarding a third star. As for Jean Georges, it is the flagship of Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s sprawling empire, which presently consists of 15 restaurants in seven cities on three continents. Vongerichten may have cracked an egg or two in the last few years, but it is probably safe to say that he spends more time nowadays sitting in business-class lounges poring over blueprints than expediting orders. Which is fine, except four years ago Michelin demoted Louis XV, Ducasse’s Monte Carlo restaurant, to two stars (the third star was returned in 2003), apparently to signal its displeasure at Ducasse’s empire building (he had recently opened in New York). Vongerichten is fast becoming the Ray Kroc of luxury dining, but the same guide has now awarded him three stars. Go figure.

Actually, though, it’s not that hard to figure. Michelin is in the business of selling books (well, books and tires), and it has plainly invested an enormous amount of effort and money in its New York guide. You don’t need a marketing degree to see that it’s better to flatter your audience than to alienate it. Had Michelin given no New York restaurant more than two stars, many New Yorkers, defiantly waving their Zagats, would have dismissed the guide as irredeemably Eurocentric and incapable of appreciating the city’s freewheeling dining scene. Michelin judges restaurants, but it also has to turn a profit, and in this instance something had to give—and evidently did.

Michelin’s need to succeed was also fueled by its sagging reputation in Europe. The guide was widely (and wrongly) fingered as the culprit in the suicide two years ago of Bernard Loiseau, a three-star chef who allegedly crumbled under the pressure of having to please Michelin’s unforgiving inspectors. Last year, one of those inspectors, Pascal Rémy, wrote a tell-all book in which he revealed that, contrary to Michelin’s claims, its inspectors do not visit every restaurant every year. In January of this year, Michelin had to pulp the 2005 edition of its Benelux guide (in addition to the guide to France, it publishes restaurant and hotel guides to 20 other European countries) because it included a restaurant that hadn’t yet opened. The coup de grâce came this past May, when one of France’s most celebrated chefs, Alain Senderens, announced that he was handing back his three stars and converting his Paris restaurant, Lucas Carton, into an upscale bistro.

Its integrity and competence under assault as never before in France, Michelin clearly needed to generate some positive headlines in New York, so it did the craven thing and judged New York on an inflated scale. To the extent Michelin’s arrival stateside was cause for excitement, it was the expectation that the guide’s supposedly universal standards would at last be applied to New York, ending years of dinner-table speculation about how the city’s top restaurants stack up. Clearly, though, Michelin had another agenda, and in pursuing it I suspect it may have alienated that small subset of food-obsessed people with enough experience on both sides of the Atlantic to form their own comparative judgments. These gastronomes—the very people who once regarded Michelin’s imprimatur as something of a royal seal—are not suddenly looking at Per Se and Le Bernardin in a new, more flattering light; they are looking at Michelin in a new and distinctly unflattering one. In showering undeserved accolades on New York, Michelin has succeeded only in devaluing its most precious asset: the prestige of those coveted three stars.