Making Sense of Michelin

Every year, we wait with bated breath for Michelin to grace us with their rankings–yet how often do those restaurants really "measure up"?

I used to be a star-chaser like you. That is, drawn to stellar bodies of the bibendous kind–gleaming asterisks, eagerly awaited, printed in each year’s Red Guide.

It is quite exceptional, I must admit, to have come of age in the era in which Michelin has deemed America’s restaurants (well, some of them in some cities) befitting inspection. One may even be tempted to term 2005’s New York City guide a watershed moment, a “coming of age” for our national gastronomy. (Of course, it must be mentioned that Tokyo did not receive its first guide until 2007, when it immediately began its continuing reign as the most-starred city in the world).

Yet the United States is not Japan, its cookery does not demand the same respect as that of France, Spain, Germany, or even Britain (for whom Michelin has published guides for over a century). This “old world” possesses a multitude of distinct dining traditions–ever-changing, but whose lineages can be tracked for centuries. Not that the cultures always possessed what can be called a high cuisine (or, if they did, one that could be sampled outside of the aristocracy). However, a bedrock of recipes and ceremonies, of artisanal products like wine, charcuterie, cheese, and pastry, provided fertile soil for the establishment and refinement of restaurants into the sort of cultural products the Red Guide looks to showcase and rate.

American cuisine is comparably rootless, driven by necessity and stunted by a puritanical prerogative that viewed food as altogether unfit as a vehicle for pleasure. Sure, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin enjoyed their share of first-growth Bordeaux. Yet a Francophilic upper crust does not a national cuisine make. In the simplest of terms, early America’s middling, meat-and-potatoes tavern fare became a blank canvas for a cornucopia of immigrant influences. From one era to the next, these groups, even if they opened their own restaurants, hardly brought much of any grand dining tradition with them. However, they had techniques and family recipes ready to reckon with the continent’s awesome natural bounty.

The development of a dining culture in the proper sense can be dated to around the turn of the twentieth century, when enterprising American businessmen consciously replicated the grand hotels of Europe. This meant importing their iconography, their style of service and organization, and, most often, one of their chefs. The French were recognized as the best, but Germans and Austrians could do quite well, provided they had received the same rigorous training from one of their country’s top hotelier schools. Their menus, stateside, predictably proffered European fare for the upper classes who could not only fine dine, but who traveled enough to crave the Continent’s delights.

Nonetheless, these chefs still had to source their ingredients locally and, if only by necessity, found inspiration from regional game, seafood, and produce. In such a way, the American bounty became slowly filtered through a sieve of imported European savoir-faire. A slow trickle of “reputable” establishments brought our wild frontier up to the standards of the international jet-set. Meanwhile, the most popular restaurants serving the American middle class fit the “oyster house” or “steakhouse” mold. In many respects, these establishments were even nicer then than they are now. Yet, there was little pretense or delusion that what the cooks were doing could qualify as art.

Paris’s Lost Generation of American expatriate writers–in the 1930s–and Julia Child estimable influence on national cookery­–starting in the 1960s–both, in turn, expanded the influence of French fine dining in popular culture. A widening swath of society became willing to pay for culinary delights, yet the case had only been made for the same Francophilic fare the Founding Fathers fetishized. Alas, gastronomy grew to thrive. The Grand Hotel style restaurants opened their doors beyond the most well-heeled, imported European chefs became celebrities and instructors capable of inspiring a higher caliber of cooking in the home.

Through imitating Europe in its tastes, the United States learned to “dine” like the rest of the “civilized world.” The ethnic cuisines which now provide far more color to the national diet were relegated to the bargain bin: foods of convenience and comfort, not art. For prior generations saw no point in fine dining divorced from its cultural capital, its capacity to enable the purchaser to keep up with the Joneses. Such a prize seemed like ample justification for dress codes, table manners, and all the frills of ceremony which perplex the first time fine diner to this day (of course, where and when those frills remain).

The earlier generations of American fine diners entwined the art so closely with conspicuous consumption, with its ability to distinguish one’s refinement and taste from the barbaric masses, so as to almost ruin it altogether. Rules were enforced both in conduct and in cooking that stifled the creation of any truly distinct national style of dining. Only in the past decade (maybe two) has this hoity-toity hangover finally lifted. A style (many styles) of fine dining divorced–in varying amounts–from European tradition has risen. The ground has been cleared for the multitude of ethnic cuisines that make up the tapestry of American cuisine to, at last, flourish with the full range of artistic expression that comes with the embrace of a fine dining structure. At the same time, the “New American” genre has opened the door for chefs to pick and choose their influences as broadly as possible. Other than an attention to local sourcing, this style of cuisine can only be defined by its manner of resisting any easy definition.

This is all to say, these American Michelin Guides are very much a throwback to an era of inferiority. Whatever “coming of age” they represent on a global scale is not worth shackling our culinary identity to the opinions of a foreign corporation that shirks any form of transparency.

Let them be used by tourists too overwhelmed to deeply research this country’s most distinct and charming dining establishments. For the French have their more rigorous Gault et Millau guide, the Italians their Gambero Rosso, the Japanese masterfully use Tabelog, and even the United Kingdom has taken control of their dining destiny with The Good Food Guide.

So, I ask, when will we stop outsourcing American “taste” to those who have never proven themselves worthy of wielding it? Star-chasing reduces dining to its most bastardized, conspicuous consumptive form: a checklist, an Instagram post, a picture with the chef. Michelin teaches amateur gastronauts to outsource their critical thinking to someone they do not know and will never meet. They shift the public’s eyes towards the clouds, obscuring the great cooking in their own neighborhoods that is worthy of support.

The arrival of Michelin Stars is the starting point, not the end point, for American gastronomy. It’s a signal to the world that we have arrived (in some form). But we must resist the temptation to bow to these interloping asterisks, to wait with tongue wagging each year to be told where we should be eating.

The real challenge, the real gastronomic milestone is to move beyond any alien appraisal of our culture and define it ourselves. To embrace and reconcile the countless pieces that, if they are ever put together, could finally give definition to the term “American cuisine.”

There is no question that the United States has the best food in the world.