Thursday, June 25, 2009

An Anti-Michelin Rant

Slate has excerpted part of columnist Mike Steinberger's new book, Au Revoir to All That. It's tough to judge an entire book on only a single excerpt. However, based on what I read, Steinberger is struggling to make his case that Michelin's star-rating system has uniquely undermined France's culinary scene.

Michelin ratings aren't a big deal in the U.S., but let's not pretend that there isn't a strong, follow-the-leader mentality among chefs and cooking shows in America.

Is there a high-end restaurant chef anywhere in America who hasn't decided to place a dish on their menu containing pomegranate? Some food writers label that as "innovative cuisine." But, in reality, it was only innovative for the first dozen chefs who tried it.

It's a good thing for chefs to periodically explore new directions in cooking, but many of the chefs who are most prone to do so tend to be better at creativity than they are at precision. And in my view, precision has always been what sets French cuisine slightly above all others.

Yes, the French restaurant scene has always been more conservative than our scene in the U.S., but the restaurant menus in Italy are hardly characterized by cutting-edge cuisine. From one restaurant to the next in Rome, the menus look quite similar too. It just seems like a stretch to blame Michelin for that characteristic.

The vast majority of restaurants in Paris and the rest of France don't have a Michelin star and don't seriously expect to earn one -- ever. Their chefs prepare the foods they do (duck confit, cassoulet, etc.) because they love these dishes, and they know these dishes have a following in their towns and neighborhoods.

Steinberger's article refers to how Michelin stars "became a 'millstone' around the necks of the nation's chefs." Is that so? Well, I am willing to bet that there are hundreds of chefs in France and other countries who would gladly wear that "millstone."

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