Michelin Stars – The Madness of Perfection; on reflection

Having just watched ‘Michelin Stars – The Madness of Perfection’ from the BBC, I decided to surf some of the food forums & kept a keen eye on twitter for a reaction.

As you may have thought when it comes to the topic of the little red book, those with are reluctant to comment & those without lambaste. William Sitwell (Editor of Food Illustrated) interviewed some big names in the world of Michelin around the time of the launch of the 2010 edition, from Jean Luc Naret (Director General fo Michelin), Marco Pierre White (the youngest british chef to hold 3 stars), Derek Bulmer (Top Michelin man in the UK, poorly veiled in the shadows) & Marcus Wareing. But more importantly I think was who was missing, no Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal or any of the Roux clan, how can you make a programme on Michelin & not include these people?

First on Sitwell’s travels is a stage at Marcus Wareing’s eponymous restaurant at the Berkley Hotel in Knightsbridge. He’s allowed to prepare mise-en-place for a Dorset crab starter, slicing fresh chestnuts & picking baby coriander, all the time talking about striving for perfection. There is no hiding the fact that Wareing desires his 3rd star, probably to exercise the scars of working for Ramsey, yet he’s realistic about it  even expressing the view that;

Chefs chasing Michelin stars and accolades is a good thing cos it’s competition, what I wish is that they’d take them away more.

This train of thought crops up every now & then in the hour long programme and after the Derek Bulmer interview (yes that was him in the shadows to protect his identity, yet any chef in this sphere of cooking would know the name) , he justifies the decision to give Ducasse 3 stars at the Dorchester by saying;

We’ve had 2 years to look at this restaurant.

Yet it was panned by most critics (including Sitwell), does this re-enforce the argument leveled at Michelin that they favour more French orientated restaurants. Yes, it is a good restaurant, is it a 3 star – No & is certainly not a patch on it’s older siblings in Paris & Monaco. Yet 2 years to decide whether it was a 3 star or not, does this not defeat the object of a guide being published annually?

Another recurring theme about the programme, was the use of the word ‘criteria’, both by the chefs in search of the stars & by Naret & Bulmer. Yet nobody actually knows what it is. Is it a gut feeling? Are there restaurants which are the benchmarks for each rating? In fact when Jean Luc Naret was interviewed it was so loose to be ridiculous.

Sitwell then goes on to interview a culinary legend, Marco Pierre White. An audience with MPW as he puts it, can be terrifying. With Sitwell asking the questions about winning stars, you just get the feeling that MPW is staring into Sitwell’s soul and taking it apart a piece at a time. Despite this Sitwell asks about the pressure that Michelin put on chefs, to which MPW retorts

Michelin don’t put pressure on chefs, they do it to themselves. What chefs should accept is that the people judging them have less knowledge than they have, less technical ability. So they shouldn’t get so stressed by Michelin.

Of course he’s right, the little red book is a guide and only that a guide. But Sitwell uses the case of Bernard Loiseau who couldn’t take the pressure any more. There were rumors circulating that he was going to be demoted by Michelin and he had already had his rating reduced by the Gault Millau guide. Such was the intensity of the pressure he sadly took his own life. Sitwell goes to France & interviews his widow, who explains the pressure he put himself under, the lack of a family life, at the restaurant 7 days a week and the sad thing about it, the restaurant has retained it’s 3 star status to this day.

Next on the Sitwell hit list, Raymond Blanc. Le Manoir Quat Saisons has been at 2 stars now for seems an eternity yet he is up beat about this. He talks about the business side of LMQS & looking after his staff. He tells a little ancedote about the pressure that chefs put themselves under but he says that there is more to life.

In the interviews with both RB & MPW, there seems to be hints at the unhappiness that Gordon Ramsey has retained his 3 stars, despite some real mixed reports about the standard of the food at Hospital Rd. MPW thought it to be wrong to charge high prices if he wasn’t at the stove & RB talks about the mental and physical violence which has been prevalent in kitchens in the past 20years.

Eventually Sitwell is granted an audience with Jean Luc Naret, the head of Michelin guides. Instead of doing the interview in his office, they move to what appears to be a bank vault in the basement of the building. Sitwell seizes on this along with the secrecy that surrounds Michelin. Naret explains that they have a lot of inspectors in the building today and that they would prefer that they weren’t photographed to keep the anonymity (this is only re-enforced with the interview with Derek Bulmer). He then goes on to explain about inspection rates for restaurants, citing that inspectors do somewhere in the region of 260 – 300 meals a year and the higher end restaurants can expect upto 10 visits a year. Quite a lot of work for the 10 UK based inspectors. During this interview Naret actually sheds some light to what the criteria actually is, but it’s so loose McDonalds could get a star

The choice of the product, how it’s actually been cooked, hows it’s actually preserved, the style of the chef on the plate – it can be classical or modern but it must be the personality of the chef.

So there you have it, the recipe for Michelin recognition from the man himself. So how the likes of Ramsey & co of the 2 and 3 star brigade get away with using strawberries & raspberries well out of season & not at their best is beyond me!

Whilst William Sitwell’s programme was well made, balanced & and at times touching, concerning the chefs struggle with what he called the struggle for perfection. After a lunch shift with Marcus Wareing he concluded

What were we doing in there, cooking lunch. Is it ever going to change the world?  For these guys it probably does.

Ultimately having served my time under ‘Michelin Starred’ chefs, I can honestly say, it isn’t a strive for perfection or excellence. But more of an ego trip to be recognised by your peers, look I’m doing something different and unfortunately Michelin is the only real benchmark.

Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay.

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Comments
2 Responses to “Michelin Stars – The Madness of Perfection; on reflection”
  1. kit says:

    Just quick question how do i get the mitchelin inspectors to evaluate my restaurant?
    what do they inspect? how do u go about it?
    what bout ppl from different country without bias can one participate?
    regards
    kit

    • chefhermes says:

      Hi Kit,
      Unfortunately the Michelin inspectors are a law unto themselves. They regular infuriate the food community with their decisions.
      I have be told by a senior inspector that at 1* level it is solely about food, believe that if you will.
      How do you get them to inspect, just write them a letter & hope for the best really. They generally like to see some information on your chef (possible CV) & some samples of menus.
      The Guide has just announced something I tweeted a while a go, that the red book will be released in October this year some 4month earlier than normal.

      Keep me posted on what happens.
      All the best

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