I’ve always wondered how a company famous as a tire manufacturer got into the culinary business and had the power to make or break the reputation of a famous chef. According to writer Sam Kashner, the business began in 1900 when two brothers, competitive auto racers, invented detachable tires. To promote their product, they printed a free travel guide for European motorists. It included information not only about tires but about decent places to stay and where to eat while on the road. The publication became so popular, especially the recommendations about where to eat, that in 1937 the guide became in independent venture and copies were sold to the public. The rest is history. (“The Fault is in Their Stars,” by Sam Kashner, Vanity Fair, November, 2015 pgs. 168-73,200-201)
The Michelin guide drew little attention in the United States until much later in its history, though there are 24 guides covering 24 countries. It’s influence is felt largely in New York and Paris, (Ibid, pg. 171) cultural centers where the greatest number of elites can be found. In any case, for those who follow food fashion, a Michelin star is highly prized and three stars, the highest rating, can catapult a chef into a six figure salary.
Other guides have followed, of course. James Beard comes to mind. But the Michelin stars dazzle for foodies the way the Oscar dazzles for actors. To lose a star is a humiliation, and one chef is whispered to have killed himself when he lost his. (Ibid, pg. 170)
Lofty artistry has its price and a customer dinning at a Michelin starred restaurant can expect a dinner tab as high as $1500 per person at one sitting. What many people may not know is that the star isn’t given for innovation but for consistency — turning out the same meal again and again in robotic fashion so that one experience becomes indistinguishable from another. Little wonder that some chefs, who see themselves as artists, have rebelled against the standard and have refused the Michelin star in protest. Michelin doesn’t care who wants or doesn’t want the star. They give it anyway. Naturally, arrogance of that kind rankles. One chef complained the guide and its imitators are predators, living off the talent of others by selling their opinions on that talent. (Ibid, pg. 170.)
The symbiotic relationship of artists and critics are similar in all fields of artistic endeavor. Where there are beaches, there are sand fleas. Critics have little to with a work’s creation. They don’t struggle with the Muse, and have no vested interest in the outcome except to put and “inspected by” tag on the end product so they can collect their salaries. Unfortunately, like the thrip that feeds on the flower, a critic’s opinion can be catastrophic precisely because a critic judges on what he or she understands with little tolerance for innovations that fly over their heads. Consistency and repetition are an anathema to art. And so it must follow that, like the thrip, where critics gather, the art under scrutiny risks being destroyed.