Is the Michelin Guide Crippling French Cooking?

By Matthew Yglesias

I saw Slate had an article subtitled “How the Michelin guide crippled France’s restaurants” and I clicked right away. That sounded like Slate at its best—bold, contrarian, but not “counterintuitive” in a labored and dumb way. Except I clicked over to the article and the case just isn’t made. Author Mike Steinberger argues persuasively that getting a top Michelin rating involves not just food, but also lavish setting. That’s interesting, but it hardly proves that French restaurants are on the decline and it certainly doesn’t prove that French restaurants are on the decline because of the influence of the Michelin guide.

At any rate, what I’ve always found impressive about the food in France is not so much the fine dining as the extremely high level of pedestrian food. Paris is full of random Vietnamese restaurants and falafel shops that would be huge sensations in the United States. French people are just accustomed to eating food that’s good, and you don’t seem to be able to compete in that marketplace unless you can serve something good. If it’s actually true that French food culture is in some Michelin-induced decline I’d be interested in reading about that, but for now all I have is an amusing anecdote about going to lunch with a Michelin Guide editor.

9 responses to “Is the Michelin Guide Crippling French Cooking?

  1. Wow, that article sure seemed unfinished and pointless.

  2. True enough, but isn’t the “article” just an excerpt from a book?

  3. Read the same thing. This is what happens when you sell news for money and understand the power of headlines. And it worked! We all read it!

  4. Even better, we’ll get to re-read it over the coming week as Slate changes the headline to “Dining With the Man Who’ll Kill Cuisine”, “Judging a Restaurant By Its Toilets” and “Michelin Tires”. Thanks, Slate editors! You guys are always a big, big help.

  5. It’s a provocative premise… that an influential rating system homogenizes your cuisine… but, yes, the excerpt did absolutely nothing to establish it.

    At issue may be that Americans have little to no experience with the Michelin system and it’s omnipotence, so we don’t blithely accept his assertions. I can’t really conceive of a rating system with as much power as Michelin is alleged to have in Europe and elsewhere. I mean, who really gives a damn about what Zagat or whomever says?

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  7. You’re right about the article and wrong about eating in France. I live in Portland (OR) now, and lived in France for a few years in the 90’s. First, there are lots of places in France where the food is simply pedistrian and homogenous. The breadth of what is available is nothing like a big city here. And as far as good, inexpensive, food being easily available I find PDX as good as either Paris or Nice and its nearby towns. I’ve heard this same comment from others and it just doesn’t correspond to what I found living there. It reminds me of people who open a bottle of wine and say it tasted oh s much better when they tasted it on their wine tour.

    DN

  8. DN – Maybe not in breadth, but the quality of most of the food in Paris (minus the strips of tourist bistros on places like Rue Mouffetard) way outshines any American city (even NYC). I loved eating in PDX when I visited this spring, but it seemed pretty easy to pick out the good restaurants in just a few outings. However, I will concede that Ken’s bakery is the only place in the US I’ve had a French quality baguette and croissant.

    Matt – this is a really old debate. I don’t know why slate is highlighting it now, except to promote this book, but if you do a few google searches, you’ll see many articles of this kind from the past 20 years. The stories are all the same: Bernard Loiseau killed himself because of a star, other restaurants fail when they can’t keep up their third star, blah blah blah. Anyone who’s been to France recently knows that the market has responded to this more than adequately. Alternative guides like Le Fooding have emerged. Young chefs, trained in Michelin-starred establishments, have opted to open what are now known as gastro-bistros (“la bistronomie”), where the food is cheap but the technique and creativity are spotless. Michelin is what it is. A good way to find a top fine dining meal. It’s not solely what makes French cuisines great, and the French people I know don’t seem too bothered by it.

    Of course, since the guide only came to the US four years ago (NYC, SF, LA, LV), people here are now having their bout with Michelin. But the arguments used are tired. Michelin doesn’t ruin restaurants, and it hasn’t yet here. Chefs hate on it when they are shunned, but proudly display their stars when they do have it. Sometimes it seems like daylight robbery, sometimes it’s our way to refer to a restaurant as excellent. However, what really makes a great food culture is something we are far from having: a discerning public. France has us owned in that respect. And clearly, we have no idea what’s going on there. Last year, the NYT ran a story about “bistronomia”, which was supposedly sweeping the streets of Barcelona and Madrid. At no point did they inform the reader that that trend was started in France in the early nineties.

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