Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The Michelin Guide to Chicago Restaurants: It's A Simple Yes or No Question: "Was it good?
When word got out on November 16 that Michelin (yes, the tire company) was about to launch the first ever Michelin Guide to Chicago Restaurants, there was a feeding frenzy of speculation in Chicago’s culinary circles as to which restaurants would be included and with how many stars. During the next 24 hours the media, bloggers, as well as the social media mavens were abuzz, nonstop, with commentary about who was included, who was left out and who deserved its designated number of stars.
Michelin is considered by many to be the most influential and credible restaurant rating source in the world. The fact that there is now a Michelin Guide Chicago is proof that the Windy City has taken its place among the preeminent culinary centers of the world.
Throughout all of the buzz, there were two overarching questions: How do the restaurants get rated and were Chicago restaurants rated according to the same standard as European restaurants? We were invited to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Jean-Luc Naret, the director of the Michelin Guides, which we eagerly accepted. Our meeting with Mr. Naret and other Michelin representatives was very cordial and informative. One lasting impression stood out: people simply don’t understand how Michelin goes about rating restaurants and this is one reason there tends to be so much controversy surrounding them. But as the Michelin folks admitted, controversy goes with the territory.
Rather than discussing the why’s and wherefores of who was included in the Michelin Guide Chicago, we’ve decided to do our best to explain how the Michelin ratings work.
The individuals who have the enviable task of eating their way through Chicago’s culinary spots are called “inspectors.” They are not journalists or food critics. They are, in fact, full-time employees of Michelin who anonymously travel from restaurant to restaurant and hotel to hotel. Their job is to determine the quality of the food and dining experience offered to the ordinary diner. Inspectors pay their own bills and make no mention of who they are or why they are there. According to Naret, they have been in the hotel or restaurant business for at least ten years or have formal training in the hotel or culinary field. “They have to be passionate about food, have an eye for talent, and know what they’re talking about.”
There are ten American inspectors—there were 3,500 applicants for the job. Inspectors go through a rigorous training period before they are allowed to visit restaurants on their own. They spend months in Europe and Japan and must accompany existing inspectors on many restaurant visits before they are set loose to do their own thing.
Some of the American inspectors come from Chicago. Three of the ten American inspectors live in Chicago, where they are responsible for staying informed about new restaurants and, in general, monitoring the local culinary scene. They were involved in rating restaurants for the first American Michelin Guide (New York) and also spent time in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, rating restaurants in those cities.
Naret commented on the inspectors: “We invest a lot in these people. They are passionate about revealing the talent of the chef. We call them ‘revealers of talents.’ We’re not looking at the reputation of the chef. We’re looking at the personality of the chef on the plate. They [the inspectors] go to restaurants for lunch and dinner every day and they have to fill out a report.”
Michelin makes this point clearly: Restaurants do not pay to be included in the Guide. If they are in the Michelin Guide Chicago, they were chosen independently by the inspectors. The restaurants are visited by both the American-based inspectors and inspectors from Europe, to insure consistency in ratings on a global level. For the most important selections, specific inspectors from around the globe are brought in to dine at the restaurant and provide their opinion. The starred restaurants may have, in fact, been visited ten times. The choices represent, in the opinion of the Michelin staff, the best restaurants in their respective categories.
To answer one key question: Chicago restaurants are rated according to the same criteria and by the same standards as restaurants anywhere in the world. Three stars in the U.S. is equivalent to three stars in Europe, Japan or elsewhere.
Comfort Classifications Are Separate from Food Ratings
Michelin distinguishes comfort (service, décor, ambiance, style) from the quality of the food. Restaurants that are notable for their charming décor or ambiance are noted with a red-colored comfort rating rather than a black-colored rating.
A restaurant can have a high comfort rating without having a high food rating and vice versa. This is arguably why Michelin ratings are so often misunderstood by both culinary professionals and the public. Theoretically, a restaurant can have a high star-rating for food and yet be only moderate in comfort and service. Restaurants with a high food rating but a more moderate comfort rating are often casual restaurants which offer excellent food, yet they tone down the service or comfort a bit to stay within a certain restaurant genre, style or price point.
Rating the Food
When someone talks about “how many stars” a restaurant has received from Michelin, he or she is talking strictly about how the inspectors have rated the food, period. “We believe when you go to a restaurant, it’s really to eat food,” says Naret. Inspectors must answer two simple questions: “is it good or not good?” and “will I recommend this restaurant to a friend of mine?” He points out that the inspectors are, most importantly, rating restaurants for their readers, not for the benefit of the chef or the industry.
What do the inspectors pay attention to when it comes to the food? According to Naret, inspectors note “how the restaurants choose produce [ingredients] and how are the flavors kept? Is there personality on the plate? Is there consistency across the menu and across visits?” He noted that generally the difference between a two-star and three-star rating is consistency.
Most of the restaurants in the Michelin Guide Chicago do not have a star rating. This doesn’t mean they have mediocre food. It simply means that the food doesn’t meet the global standard needed to earn a star. Each of the 342 restaurants listed in the Guide has proven it has good food. As Naret explained, “We recommend a restaurant because we know the food is good. If you have a beautiful restaurant and the food is not good, it isn’t in the Guide.”
Ratings for Less Expensive Restaurants: Bib Gourmand
In today’s economic times, in which diners are more frugal, it has been fairly common for upscale restaurants to have re-thought their menu, opting for less expensive ingredients (but not necessarily lowering the quality) in order to lower the price of the food. For example, we know of one restaurant that developed a simply delicious appetizer using pork belly instead of foie gras. There are also many restaurants which have always been lower priced but offer great food in a casual environment. To ensure that these restaurants are given proper recognition, Michelin has given the special “Bib Gourmand” designation to restaurants the inspectors feel are a particularly good value—and less than $40. “Bib Gourmand restaurants are the inspectors’ favorites,” says Naret. “They are the ‘little secret black list.’”
Naret explained that people recognize Bib Gourmand as equivalent to a Michelin star. He also noted that during the past two years, American chefs were much more receptive than their European counterparts to the fact that the recession was coming and they were more creative in putting menus together at a price point that would attract more customers.
Drilling Down to the Details
Although some people reading the Michelin Guide Chicago may focus their attention on the star ratings almost exclusively, Michelin understands that, when it comes to choosing a restaurant, the deciding factor may be a specific characteristic that makes it preferable. For example, a wine aficionado would most likely prefer a restaurant with an excellent wine program over one that has a limited wine program, even if the food quality and the comfort classification were approximately the same. Similarly, a diner may need valet parking or wheelchair accessibility and won’t visit a restaurant without these features.
Michelin makes note of important details using a variety of special designations (i.e. symbols): price category, notable wine list, notable cocktail list, notable sake list, valet parking, wheelchair accessibility, outdoor dining, cash only, late night dining offered, small plates offered, brunch offered.
Where Does Chicago Stand as a Culinary Center?
According to Naret, what makes Chicago unique as a food center is that “it has some very avant garde and creative chefs…and on the other side of the scale you have very good restaurants where you eat incredible [food]. You will never find a pizza place in a French Guide or any other Guide. You will find them in the Michelin Guide Chicago because there is great pizza. You will find great hot dogs and great breakfasts. This is the only place in the world where you actually have a list of breakfast places. People go for big breakfasts here [Chicago]. We don’t do that in any other place.”
Where Does the Michelin Guide Chicago Go From Here?
Nothing in the Michelin Guide Chicago is cast in stone. “Every restaurant in the Guide will be revisited by the inspectors, perhaps even tomorrow,” says Naret. “Any restaurant that was close but didn’t make it into the Guide, will be revisited. Any new restaurant that has the potential to be in the Guide will be visited next year.”
This is the first edition of the Michelin Guide Chicago and, as Naret predicts, “It’s definitely going to grow. As we expand to the other suburbs and the more we go deeper into the selection, I’m sure the numbers will grow. No doubt, in three to five years we’ll have more than 500 restaurants in the Guide.”
As Chicagoans, we wondered about the steakhouses. It’s a Chicago staple and the list keeps growing. There are many steakhouses in the Chicago Guide, but none with stars. Naret was quick to point out that there is only one starred steakhouse in the U.S.: Peter Luger in New York. “It’s something to shoot for in Chicago,” we all agreed.
Michelin Guide Chicago. We’re impressed with the level of detail and objectivity that goes into it and we also know that, to keep any publication alive, one must support it. It’s worth the investment. You’ll love the way it is organized by neighborhoods and you’ll like the special section on breakfast specialists. We love breakfast, and Chicago is our kind of town. Bon appetit—or we should say, “Thanks for the grub, Bub!”