Walking at any fine-dining kitchen and the chances are its chefs would say there’s only one holy grail of achievement in their profession: to be awarded a Michelin star.
Since 1926 in France, and more recently around the world, these accolades have come to represent the pinnacle of cuisine and also helped raise the profile of French tire giant Michelin.
Although not every chef seeks to earn them for their restaurant — some have famously refused and returned them — it’s undeniable that there’s no more influential mark of success.
But these are times of seismic upheaval for the global hospitality industry. Tens of thousands of restaurants are closing, hundreds of thousands of people have been put out of work. Livelihoods have been destroyed and dream shattered.
And yet, this year, as ever, Michelin is continuing to award or remove stars and publish its exacting reviews of fine dining establishments.
For some in the industry, that’s a step too far for Michelin that will do little to enhance the dining guide in an age when many restaurant workers are becoming more vocal about what they say are the damaging pressures of trying to live up to such rigorous standards.
As the pandemic continues, Michelin’s determination to carry on publishing could see the guide face its own reckoning with the coronavirus.
As always, it’s a polarizing debate, with passionate views on both sides. Other prestigious awards have already made calls to suspend activity, given this year’s extraordinary circumstances.
Covid-19 was one of a number of factors behind this year’s cancellation of The James Beard Awards, the prestigious American benchmark of culinary success, in their Restaurant and Chefs categories.
Clare Reichenbach, the foundation’s CEO, cited the “grave negative effects of Covid-19” and said that doling out prizes would “do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.”
Beyond the virus, that battle, say some, extends to other major issues currently challenging global society.
Among them, David Kinch, chef-owner at California’s Manresa, who had earlier announced on Instagram he was withdrawing himself for consideration as a James Beard Outstanding Chef nominee.
“The hospitality industry is rife with rampant gender and racial inequality and numerous obstacles impede restaurateurs’ ability to pay living wages to their teams, focus on sustainability and foster positive work environments,” he wrote.
So, given the current parlous state of the restaurant business, why is Michelin still visiting restaurants, inspecting and awarding its stars? And in this time of uncertainty and anguish, do the stars it awards continue to carry the prestige they once did?
The guide’s international director, Gwendal Poullennec, insists that now more than ever Michelin’s inspectors have a role to play. He says their critical gaze is a force for good that can help support the beleaguered industry.
The selections they make for next year’s guide, he says, will “put a spotlight on the industry and restaurants which in some parts of the world are still facing the effects of the crisis.”
“It is also a way to invite foodies to go back to restaurants.”