Michelin’s Coveted Stars Can Come With Some Costs

When the chef Caroline Glover heard in June that Michelin would be publishing a restaurant guide to Colorado, she was thrilled at first.

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“I’ve seen Michelin move across the country, but never thought Colorado would be next,” said Ms. Glover, who co-owns the restaurant Annette, in Aurora.

One of the state’s culinary leaders, she was named best chef in the Mountain region last year by the James Beard Foundation. Her restaurant is a fixture on best-of-Denver lists.

Colorado’s stars will be revealed on Tuesday at a gala event in Denver, and speculation has been frenzied. But one thing is certain: No one from Michelin has inspected Ms. Glover’s restaurant, and she will not be getting any stars. That’s because Annette is about 500 feet past the city limit that divides Denver and Aurora. And while the Denver tourism board paid Michelin to be included, its counterpart in Aurora did not.

The chef Caroline Glover’s restaurant, Annette, in Aurora, Colo., will be excluded from the state’s new Michelin Guide because her local tourism board didn’t pay to help fund the guide. Credit…Theo Stroomer for The New York Times

The Michelin Guide, owned by the French tire manufacturer, is the world’s most widely recognized authority on fine dining. Its stars have fueled the dreams of generations of chefs, and are always the first thing mentioned about restaurants that have them. In recent years, with competition from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and other awards, the company has been aggressively seeking new ways to generate revenue, expand its geographic reach and modernize the idea of what makes a Michelin restaurant.

In interviews, dozens of restaurateurs, chefs and officials across the country said the status the stars confer is priceless, and comes with vast earning potential. But they also voiced reservations about Michelin’s priorities and influence.

Curiosity has always swirled around how the company does its work: Who are the inspectors? How often do they visit? What does it take to rise from two stars to three? (The chefs Gordon Ramsay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse all began their empires by winning three stars, the highest rating.)

Now, more sweeping questions are arising about what the guides mean in today’s culinary world. Does the quest for stars generate excellence, or sameness? Do deals with the tourism industry and food brands suggest that Michelin’s attention and the prestige it confers are at least partly for sale? And can the stars keep their luster as Michelin selectively expands its universe?

The Price of Admission

Gwendal Poullenec, the director of the guides, said in an interview that although the company accepts “partnership” money to offset the expenses of the review process, the decision about whether a region merits its own Michelin guide is determined solely by the company’s inspectors, who “assess the maturity” of the culinary scene as a preliminary step.

Since publishing its first American guide, to New York City, in 2005, Michelin has moved into California, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Florida.

Mr. Poullenec said that “vibrancy” and “dynamic potential” are also taken into consideration, as an explanation of why rapidly growing Florida and Colorado — and Atlanta, coming next year — have guides, while New Orleans and New England do not.

Three Michelin stars, the highest rating, is a coveted prize for chefs that also brings vast earning opportunities. Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

A Michelin announcement about its Colorado guide last month declared, “Our anonymous Inspectors combed the Centennial State for the most delicious spots,” But in fact, only restaurants in Denver, Boulder, Aspen, Vail, Snowmass and Beaver Creek were being considered.

Michelin’s inspection process, and the firewall it long maintained between the guides and the restaurant industry — no free meals, no sponsors, no advertising — have given it a special status. It is a costly undertaking (which used to be financed by the sales of hundreds of thousands of hardcover guides per year), but it has convinced consumers and chefs that Michelin makes all its decisions impartially.

For Michelin’s first century, that was largely true, including for the first New York City guide, in 2005, and the San Francisco Bay and Napa Valley guides in 2007. But only since 2019, when Visit California paid Michelin $600,000, have top restaurants in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state earned stars.

So while it is still true that individual restaurants can’t buy stars, tourism boards and hotel owners can buy the possibility.

In 2010, after the guides had been losing money for years, the parent company hired the consulting giant Accenture to assess their future. Soon, the Michelin Guide began to transform itself from an elite, arms-length critic of the restaurant industry to a financial partner.

Michelin began accepting money from sponsors like food brands, liquor distributors, hotel chains and tourism agencies. Michelin guides in Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore were all published with financial backing from local tourism authorities. Companies like Nestlé and Lavazza now sponsor Michelin awards like Rising Star Chef, Sommelier of the Year and Pastry Chef of the Year.

The director of the Colorado Tourism Office, Tim Wolfe, led the effort to bring Michelin to his state. Among Colorado’s tourism boards and even its state restaurant association, the notion of restaurants — rather than ski slopes or rock faces — as travel destinations is rather new. But, he said, he knew that international visitors to Colorado spend five times more than domestic ones, so it was an easy call.

To get the guide, his agency agreed to contribute $100,000 a year for three years. Following suit were four tourism boards (Denver, Boulder, Aspen, Vail) and two resort companies (Snowmass and Beaver Creek); they told The New York Times that they each paid Michelin $70,000 to $100,000. Aurora and Colorado Springs, among others, declined to participate.

“I love all my children equally,” Mr. Wolfe said. “But if Colorado Springs wanted to get involved, they have to get involved.” Visit Aurora and Visit Colorado Springs declined to comment on their decisions.

Many chefs, like Brother Luck of Colorado Springs, have deep reservations about the pressure inherent in earning, and retaining, Michelin stars. Credit…Theo Stroomer for The New York Times

The chef Brother Luck, the owner of three restaurants in Colorado Springs and a former “Top Chef” contestant, was appalled to see his city passed over.

“How do you leave out the second-largest city in the state?’ he said. “It feels like a slap in the face.”

Mr. Poullenec, the Michelin director, said Colorado Springs and other places left out of the guide have the option of joining next year.

Changing Tastes

In Florida, which received its first round of Michelin stars in 2022, a similar situation played out. That state’s guide was funded with more than $1.5 million from state and city tourism budgets, according to an investigation by The Miami Herald. As a result, only restaurants in the Miami, Tampa and Orlando areas were eligible for stars.

“I’m beyond disappointed — after the years I’ve put in carrying the torch for South Florida,” said Timon Balloo, a chef who cooked in and around Miami for 35 years, creating the successful national chain Sugarcane Bar & Grill and Downtown Miami’s popular Balloo before the pandemic forced him to move to Fort Lauderdale. He said that if he had known the move would make him ineligible for Michelin consideration, he would have fought harder to keep his footing in Miami.

Even some Miami chefs were disappointed at the inaugural ceremony, though. Michelin gave no restaurant three stars, and named only one with two stars: L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, in Miami’s Design District, an outpost of a global restaurant chain founded by French chef who had been dead for four years.

“You could hear the air go out of the room,” said the chef Niven Patel. “It was utter shock.”

Amid decades of expansion, Michelin has maintained that its stars transcend geography, taste and trends; that a one-star restaurant in Hangzhou can (and must) have the same value as a one-star restaurant in Hamburg or Honfleur or Hialeah.

The star system — one, worth a stop; two, worth a detour; three, worth a journey — was devised more than a century ago to guide businessmen as they motored around France on the company’s tires. Today, “when someone is flying from Germany to San Diego to eat at your restaurant, the stakes are much higher,” said William Bradley, the chef-owner of Addison, Southern California’s only three-star Michelin restaurant.

So are the costs. Michelin inspectors are full-time employees, and are sent around the world to perform evaluations, ensuring that no inspectors can privilege relationships or preferences in their own regions.

The challenge for Michelin seems to be balancing the high standards that give the brand its power with the imperative to expand into markets that may not have many restaurants that meet those standards. Mr. Poullenec said that Michelin’s culinary and editorial judgments far outweigh financial considerations. “We need to grow, not compromise,” he said.

Under pressure to broaden its reach and update its image in recent years, Michelin has introduced several new honors and awards.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

One way Michelin is trying to meet that challenge is adding new awards. Restaurants noted for their environmental sustainability can now get a green star. Those that offer good value can earn the Bib Gourmand. In 2017, Michelin introduced a new category for restaurants deemed good, but not good enough for a star: briefly called Michelin Plate, but now simply Recommended.

Already the terms “Michelin-recommended and “Michelin-recognized” have become a common plaudit for the more than 16,600 restaurants that appear in the guide at every level. Of those, only 3,400 have stars, and just 142 have three.

In some ways, this expanding of the honors is a win-win. Unlike a James Beard award or a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Michelin stars are something any number of restaurants can win, and keep on winning. More restaurants in more places get to flash the Michelin credentials, and Michelin gets to expand its reach and become a more widely recognized arbiter of quality.

But when thousands of vaguely recommended restaurants can call themselves “Michelin” destinations, Michelin may risk diluting its brand.

‘Chasing the Validation’

Chefs began to publicly push back against Michelin around the turn of the 21st century, rejecting what they saw as its focus on luxurious trappings like foie gras and caviar, crystal glassware and linen hand towels.

In 1999, the celebrated British chef Marco Pierre White renounced his three stars, citing the pressure and monotony of maintaining them, and questioning the authority of inspectors. Next came the 2003 suicide of the French chef Bernard Loiseau, who believed that his restaurant was being demoted from three stars to two.

Recent objections have focused on the elaborate, multicourse menus that draw Michelin stars. They have historically relied on long hours of low-paid (sometimes unpaid) labor, raising questions about the human cost of fine dining. René Redzepi, the chef of Noma, in Copenhagen, decided to close the restaurant soon after it finally won its third star, citing the unsustainability of the business model.

Mr. Luck, the Colorado Springs chef, said the mental health costs of the restaurant business are already too high, without worrying about Michelin stars. “We have to protect the next generations,” he said, adding. “I worry that chasing the validation of these standards and these stars can be dangerous.”

Niki Nakayama of n/naka in Los Angeles said that while she longs to rise from two stars to three, she can’t afford the upgrades she believes it would take: more courses, matching uniforms, more carefully arranged plates.

“Plating is a trajector of how money has influenced the business,” she said. “The more labor you can afford for the tweezer work, the matching uniforms, the spotless glasses, the more Michelin stars you can hope for.”

The chef Niki Nakayama, right, and Carole Iida-Nakayama have earned two stars for their restaurant n/naka in Los Angeles, but say the costs of reaching for three seem prohibitive.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

Many chefs and diners see a creeping sameness among Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, and not only in the consistently excellent ingredients and techniques that the guide says it rewards. Long menus of pre-composed mouthfuls, tiny proteins and the ostentatiously arranged small plates satirized in “The Menu” have become the rule.

“At this point, we can all serve Japanese fish, we can all do knife work, we can all make a gelée,” said Charlie Mitchell, the chef and co-owner of Clover Hill, in Brooklyn Heights. He said that since winning a star last year, he has had to fight the urge to make his food ever more Michelin-friendly rather than following his own instincts.

“I catch myself adding a purée, a tuile, an herb, a flower” to new plates, he said, “just to make it look more fine dining.”

But most chefs said the opportunity Michelin offers for a steady supply of well-heeled diners, eager sous-chefs and endless publicity trumps any other concerns. And many say that having Michelin stars to strive for simply makes restaurants better.

“Not a lot of chefs here really deserve it yet,” said Bo Porytko, the chef at Misfit Snackbar and Molotov in Denver, citing repetitious farm-to-table menus and timid seasoning. “But I hope it will push everyone to get better and be more adventurous.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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