By a former Michelin Guide Inspector
I’ve had my share of fine dining meals. That was the job. Eat and report back, meal after meal, restaurant after restaurant. In almost all cases, these meals were in so-called fine dining restaurants, but I notificed the change, a shift in the kitchen, chef philosphy and culinary output, and Michelin had to react.
The Michelin Guide was first launched in the early 1900s as an aid to drivers in France, listing mechanics and locations where meals could be found. The star rating system was first introduced in 1926 for one-star restaurants, and the two and three-star ratings were added a few years later.
Commonly referred to as the “red book”, the Guide is acknowledged across the globe as the bible of gastronomy, discreet, professional and respected by chefs; despite many guides competing for space. It remains a reserved organisation, the culture best indicated in its hugely understated descriptions of what constitutes a star-rated restaurant. Unchanged in almost 90 years, one star signifies ‘a very good restaurant’, two stars are ‘excellent cooking that is worth a detour’ and three stars mean ‘exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey’.
Up until the dawn of the new Millennium, the Michelin Guide sought out and awarded stars almost exclusively to fine dining restaurants, but even towards the end of my tenure as an inspecator, I could see the change coming.
These starred temples of gastronomy oozed opulence from within an almost reverential ambience, staffed with a hierarchical structure of battalions of immaculately uniformed chefs and servers and demanded an equally huge price tag. There was even a strict dinner dress code. The menu was classic Escoffier offering extensive listings of dishes with book-length descriptions. Prestige ingredients such as caviar, foie gras, lobster and prime cuts of meat featured in every section. Sauces necessitated generous dollops of both butter and cream. Dishes were conceived to deliver maximum cholesterol in every mouthful. Wine lists were tomes which required not only physical assistance to browse through and several hours to read but also a Swiss bank account to afford to indulge. The kitchens were helmed by chefs who over time became culinary godfathers, and from their ranks, two greats emerged, Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon. We recently lost both; sadly, the end of an era as age snatched them from us, all too soon.
France was the bastion of this ilk—and was, along with the UK, where I conducted much of my dining responsibilities—and as stylish restaurants opened beyond Europe, the Guide extended its reach to Asia and beyond. However, this Rolls Royce-level fine dining never caught on; perhaps due to a shortage of the historic architecture which housed these palaces or just more simply, the realm of ultra-deluxe fine dining was already in decline.
Chefs began to explore the established culinary boundaries, firstly with nouvelle cuisine, then molecular gastronomy and the self-titled ‘deconstructivist’ Ferran Adria, and then René Redzepi arrived with Nordic cuisine. It was a new global food, moving at pace.
Even three-starred restaurants recognised that the culinary landscape was shifting more towards opening
simple bistros to support their signature establishments. The emergence of the Millennial generation’s demand for experiences necessitated a move away from these hushed, hallowed environments to a more casual and fun atmosphere.
The most significant step change has however been in the cooking itself. The younger generation is known for their social conscience, and we are all keenly aware of the benefits of healthy eating. Foie gras and sharks fin are no longer served in many restaurants. This was best evidenced by the rise in vegetarianism. One Paris restaurant achieved three stars with a repertoire of only vegetables. This has evolved even further, where diners now inquire as to the provenance of the products they are consuming. They desire sustainable fish and organic vegetables. Restaurants strive for zero waste in consideration of their carbon footprint. Farm to table is now an accepted tenet.
Thailand is at the forefront of this with a multitude of pioneering restaurants encompassing many leading-edge philosophies; urban farm, nose to tail, organic food and wine, and even one restaurant that has its own farm. The Guide has adapted to these changes by no longer insisting on chandeliers and candelabra as the gatekeepers to awarding accolades.
Today, there is a quaint English pub in the Cotswold countryside, serving up smoked haddock omelette and steak and chips which has recently been awarded two Michelin stars. The cooking is described as ‘brilliant ingredients, cooked simply to let the flavours shine.’ Is this the new fine dining?
In essence, fine dining has changed. Restaurants have become less stuffy, more accessible, dishes have become more straightforward, but interestingly, our expectations of what we receive on the plate have risen exponentially. But what has become of the old traditions? Well, just as in music, there will always be an occasion when we want to listen to The Eagles. Currently, in France alone, there are nearly 30 three star havens many of which are still proudly serving up Hotel California. That’s timeless fine dining!