Sure, the November issue of Vanity Fair does a number on Michael Jackson’s family.
But what caught this critic’s eye was A. A. Gill’s evisceration of the Michelin Guide. What began just over a century ago as a practical handbook for where to get a reliable meal ultimately cultivated a star-rating-obsession which made “kitchens as competitive as football teams”—and thus killed, Gill writes, the very culinary artistry it had set out to encourage.
“Craving the love and approbation of a stern parent, chefs yearned for the Michelin stars,” Gill writes. “They stopped cooking for dumb, annoying customers and began making food for invisible, mercurial, undercover inspectors.” Michelin-starred restaurants took on a sameness: “the service would be 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.”
Chefs drove themselves to drink, breakdown, even suicide. As for diners? They sold their souls.
The Michelin created a new type of diner—“the foodie trainspotter,” Gill calls them—who aren’t out to savor an experience so much as check a starred spot off their list, then brag about it. And it created the classic snob-critic, whom Gill pegs as suspicious in his secrecy and purple in his prose. Gill highlights a particularly egregious snippet from one review in this month’s release of New York’s 2013 Michelin: “Devout foodies are quieting their delirium of joy at having scored a reservation—everyone and everything here is living up to the honor of adoring this extraordinary restaurant…”
“That’s not a review,” growls Gill. “It’s a handjob.”
In addition to France and the great gastronomic cities of the world, three U.S. cities have Michelin Guides: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In an interview with Eater National earlier this month Michelin brass said they were considering other U.S. cities; Seattle was the sixth of eight mentioned.
It is admittedly amusing to imagine the haute and haughty Michelin finding much in its wheelhouse to praise in our town; Seattle boasts notoriously few exemplars of the super-high-end Francophilia that Michelin loves to love. Maybe its consideration of Seattle hints at a new attempt on Michelin’s part to broaden into the sorts of places its critics say the guidebook could use: Places of varying ethnicity, price point, and pretension—the kinds of restaurants where, to quote Gill, “people actually eat.”
Would now be a good time to mention that our November 2012 Best Restaurants issue, fresh on the newsstands this week, features my picks for the 25 Restaurants that Capture Seattle’s Soul?Call it the anti–Michelin Guide.