Should restaurants stop caring about stars and rankings? | F&B Report

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Culinary icon Paul Bocuse was known as the “pope” of French cuisine and the creator of nouvelle cuisine (“new cuisine” in French characterized by the simplicity and delicateness of dishes). His flagship restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges or simply Restaurant Paul Bocuse holds the world record of being the oldest three-Michelin-star restaurant—until this year.

From tire to rankings

The Michelin Guide was initially formed out of a French tire company in 1889. Brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin saw potential in the automobile industry that was then composed of less than 3,000 cars. They wanted to help motorists make the most of their travels—and thus purchase more tires and boost their car sales—so they decided to make a free guide that includes maps, information on how to change petrol and a list of places to eat and rest.

It wasn’t until Andre saw how their guides were used to prop up a workbench that they decided to sell them for seven francs. As the principle goes, “Man only truly respects what he pays for.” They then started to include lists of hotels and category-specific restaurants. As soon as the influence of the guide’s restaurant section grew, the Michelin brothers started to recruit mystery diners or the anonymous inspectors as they are known today.

In the guide, the establishment was described as “excellent but no longer at the level of three stars.” According to Gwendall Poullenec, Michelin stars are earned, not inherited. 

From awarding one star to fine dining establishments, the brothers began to create a hierarchy of zero to three stars. In the 20th century, the Michelin Guide became one of the world’s bestsellers, ranking over 30,000 establishments and selling over 30 million copies. Roughly 100 restaurants each year are awarded three stars, describing them as worthy of a “special journey.”

The weight of the stars

It is for this kind of prestige and influence the Michelin Guide has over the world’s restaurant scene that a chef of Bocuse’s pedigree considered it as “the only guide that matters.” And because Bocuse had revered the guide, his family and culinary peers were disappointed, even upset, at Michelin’s decision to revoke one star.

A week prior to the official release of the new Michelin Guide, director Gwendall Poullenec went to the restaurant to deliver the news himself. Poullenec described the level of cuisine as having undergone a certain variation, though it remained exceptional. In the guide, the establishment was described as “excellent but no longer at the level of three stars.” According to Poullenec, Michelin stars are earned, not inherited. 

The Michelin Guide has long been stirring issues in the industry. For many years it was criticized for overvaluing formal dining and having an obvious partiality for French cuisine.

French chef Marc Veyrat called this move of Michelin towards Restaurant Paul Bocuse “pathetic.” Veyrat once sued the Guide when it didn’t provide an explanation as to why he lost his rating after only a year. According to him, the inspector who stripped him off his star said he lacked the knowledge and sophisticated palate to distinguish cheddar cheese from his traditional French soufflé

Veyrat asked for one euro for each symbolic damage, saying that the guide’s profoundly offensive decision made him suffer months of depression. Veyrat requested to have his restaurant La Maison des Bois removed from the entire list rather than retain its two-star rating. Michelin declined and labeled him as a “narcissistic diva.” 

Veyrat says the new generation of Michelin editors are targeting the big names of French cuisine in order to create a name for themselves, adding that he has completely lost faith in them. Similarly, food critic Périco Légasse called Michelin’s decision to remove a star from Restaurant Paul Bocuse “absurd and unfair” and that “its discredit is total, the institution dead.” For him, the guide has made an irreparable error in its pursuit of courting media hype.

It’s also said that the suicides of Bernard Loiseau in 2003 and Benoît Violier in 2016 were rooted in the fear of losing Michelin stars. There are also two other Lyon restaurants (same location of Restaurant Paul Bocuse’s) that each lost a star in 2019. Is the world’s highly-acclaimed restaurant ranking system still worthy of trust? Does it still even matter now?

Bocuse died in January 2018 at the age of 91 due to Parkinson’s disease. Currently, the longest standing three-Michelin-star restaurant is Le Bois sans Feuilles Troisgros, which has held the accolade since 1968.

An integrity-based system

Similarly, other ranking systems like World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants (both under William Reed Business Media) maintain a certain reputation when it comes to the culinary industry. Different from Michelin Guide’s evaluation procedures, Asia’s and World’s 50 Best Restaurants do not work with anonymous evaluators. They’ve instead established an academy of over 1,000 and 300 restaurant industry experts for World’s (composed of 26 regions) and Asia’s (composed of six regions) respectively. Each member would rank a total of 10 restaurants—six from their home country and four from other countries.

Interestingly, there’s no specific criteria handed out to these “judges.” The list maintains its full trust to them, saying that “it is an honorable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat across the world/in Asia.” However, there are still questions on its reliability. The members of the academy may be confidential and they are most discouraged to reveal their identities. They are not restricted from welcoming restaurant invitations and complimentary meals. 

There are, of course, rules on how the voting system works. They only vote for restaurants they’ve dined at in the last 18 months and they can’t vote for restaurants they have financial assets in. Restaurants categorized as “pop-up” or are bound to close in three months are not allowed to be nominated as well as those that have conducted a dining experience in a different location.

Is there a definitive assurance that the personal biases of the evaluators, may it be leaning towards the pinnacle of international cuisine or that of their own home country’s, will not cloud their judgments and thus tamper the results?

The thing about World’s and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is that a reviewer is not compelled to go to a specific establishment. It’s solely up to them where they want to travel to eat. A country with a good travel reputation has better chances of being visited by a member of the academy; thus, increasing the chances of getting on the list. With the current status of the Philippines in the rankings and, perhaps more importantly, its state of tourism, what would attract the evaluators to come here in the first place?

This means it’s not just social media presence or a restaurant’s great line of chefs that attracts reviewers. It’s the country itself; the experience that comes with just visiting it on its own. Simply looking at the 2018 list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, 36 out of 50 slots were taken by Thailand, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong. The Philippines was nowhere to be found.

If this is already the case in the Asian rankings, how else can the Philippines reach the world stage? Can it battle the giants of European cuisine? Will evaluators see the Philippines as having the potential and the character to be listed side by side with the pioneers of gastronomy?

But more importantly, there’s the question of whether integrity is the right basis for a ranking system as big as World’s and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Is there a definitive assurance that the personal biases of the evaluators, may it be leaning towards the pinnacle of international cuisine or that of their own home country’s, will not cloud their judgments and thus tamper the results? Fortunately, Toyo Eatery made it to last year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, signaling hope that the country can be considered among the continent’s leading culinary figures. 

So, more than the grand interiors and delicate dishes, there has to be enough reason for an evaluator to come all the way from another country to visit a restaurant—and they’re not in the business of wasting effort for something they don’t find worthy of their time.

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