The Michelin Guide is Tired Out

I remember the first time I went to a Michelin restaurant. It was Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s two Michelin-starred French restaurant in New York City, and the first time I experienced a real tasting menu. Did we want four courses or seven? We splurged for seven. Did we want a wine pairing? Bring it on! I was a twenty-one-year-old college student at the time, celebrating a special occasion with my best friend and her mother, and I was in heaven. It was absolutely mesmerizing to watch the waiters move in perfect unison, dropping our plates simultaneously. Three different people filled our wine glasses from three separate bottles in order to serve our drinks at the exact same time. I’d never experienced service like this - I felt so welcomed and important. I’d never experienced food like this - luxurious and delicious, with wine pairings that perfectly matched each bite. I actually started crying at the table, so overcome with emotion and respect for the craft. I fell head over heels in love with fine dining, and I was hungry for more.

The little red book used to be my food bible - I eagerly collected stars as I celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I could afford to take myself to a three Michelin-starred restaurant (Saison) for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I was on that day:

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While it’s tough to look to just one source for restaurant recommendations in today’s expansive food landscape, Michelin is perhaps still the most well-known international guide. This year, Anders and I were invited to Aarhus, Denmark for the Nordic Michelin launch ceremony. It was an especially momentous occasion for me, since I had just completed an in-depth study of the Scandinavian region. I made first time visits to Frantzén***, Maaemo***, AOC, Daniel Berlin, Gastrologik**, Oaxen Krog**, Ekstedt*, Frederikshøj*, Gastromé*, PM & Vänner*, and Relæ*, and returned to Geranium***, one of my all-time favorite restaurants.

I also made my first trip to Noma, the four-time winner of the “World’s Best Restaurant” title and perhaps the most famous restaurant in the world. I was nervous to go to Noma for the first time, wondering if my experience would match my expectations. Could this icon, with such a dramatic influence on our culinary landscape, live up to the hype?

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I can only speak from personal experience, but, for me, Noma lived up to its title and more. The meal was one of, if not the best, meals of my life. The service was unparalleled - professional and precise (not a detail went unnoticed), yet warm and welcoming (unlike some of the stiff service I’ve experienced at other fine dining establishments). Every bite was delicious (how can reindeer brain possibly taste so good?), with knowledge and passion evident in each dish. Noma continues to push boundaries in the food world, and it seems to be at the top of its game.

The Michelin ranking system is as follows:

1 star = "A very good restaurant in its category"

2 stars = "Excellent cooking, worth a detour"

3 stars = "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey"

At the 2019 Nordic Michelin ceremony Noma was awarded two stars. This left many wondering. If Noma isn’t a three-star restaurant, what is? There are few restaurants as worthy of a pilgrimage, or in Michelin’s own words, “a special journey.” In his opening speech at the 2019 awards, the new Michelin director Gwendal Poullennec himself said that Noma put Copenhagen and Denmark on the map, with diners flocking from around the world to eat there.

Michelin gave Noma two stars in 2008. And yet, more than ten years later, after being crowned the “world’s best restaurant” four times, after running successful and creative pop-ups in Tokyo, Australia, and Mexico, after closing for a year and reopening in a brand new, beautiful location, and after pushing hard to reinvent themselves every few months with a new seasonal menu, Noma is still not good enough to receive Michelin’s highest honor?

I’m not here to argue that Noma should have received three stars - everyone knows they should have. And that’s just the point. Is Michelin unfamiliar with its own ranking system? Was the organization unable to recognize a three star restaurant, or was this an intentional slight?

In addition to Noma’s third star, there were a few other omissions in this year’s Nordic Michelin Guide. Scandinavia is the most exciting food destination I have visited to date; however, I don’t feel like Michelin’s guide accurately reflects the high level of cuisine in this region. Don’t get me wrong - Michelin’s top ranked establishments (Geranium, Maaemo, Frantzén) are some of my favorite restaurants in the world, and I’m delighted that Michelin recognizes the magic of these places. But a number of deserving Nordic chefs continue to go unrecognized by the Guide. There have been few changes to the lists of “recommended restaurants” in many Scandinavian cities, which means that the Guide does not fully represent the best food available now.

I was truly excited to attend the 2019 Michelin ceremony and witness this revered organization recognizing culinary excellence. But I left the event feeling confused and disheartened. And now with the news that Michelin is returning to Los Angeles this summer, I’m less than optimistic about how the Guide will portray our great food city. I want it to showcase the best of the best; I want the amazing restaurants in my hometown to receive the accolades they deserve.

The Michelin Guide holds so much power in the world of fine dining. I hope that Michelin can take that responsibility seriously and strive to accurately reflect the best restaurants in each city they review.

Anders wrote some words on the same topic. Read his post here.