The release of the California edition by the Michelin Guide on Tuesday drew many thanks and congratulations on social media this week. But for a few top San Francisco restaurants, it’s a year of undeserved sour grapes, and major questions remain about why inspectors did what they did in San Francisco.
Octavia and Francoise chef-owner Melissa Perello, who once had to deal with an undeserved loss of a Michelin star (Frances, who earned a star after opening in 2009, lost in the 2013 guide and never got it back), remained graceful in a post on Instagram.
“Even being open after what we’ve all been through over the past year and a half is a blessing that really puts things in perspective,” Perello writes. “Although losing your star is never pleasant, I am so proud of our entire team at Octavia and Chef [Nico Pena]… The work that is being done at all levels at @sf_octavia – stars or no stars – is something I’m proud of every day. “
Octavia held a Michelin star from 2015 to this year, and the restaurant has reopened “incandescent” according to Becky Duffett of Eater and many other fans after its pandemic shutdown in late June, partly under the guidance of new chef Nico Pena. It is possible that the inspectors decided that the closure and the change of chef meant that the restaurant needed a year to get back on its feet. . But it also seems possible that this was a subjective decision based on little evidence of a decline in quality, and because the inspectors are anonymous and offer no explanation, we’ll likely never know.
The same can be said of Rich table, which has been a mainstay of best-of lists since it opened a decade ago, under the co-chef talents of Evan and Sarah Rich. But while Michelin stars are great for business, the Riches have already expressed their unease with Michelin, and Evan Rich was one of the chefs cited in The Chronicle in a September 2020 coin how insignificant such ratings have felt during the pandemic, when so many restaurants across the country have remained grim.
In that article, Rich said that by reopening for takeout and ultimately al fresco dining, he and his team no longer strive for perfection, in the Michelin vein. “I won’t say our food has regressed, but I will say we are just cooking now to soothe the soul,” said Rich, pointing to a pork cutlet dish that remains on the menu in different preparations (and is extremely delicious). In many ways, however, the joys of the Rich Table menu, from donuts to porcini mushrooms to uni carbonara pasta, have remained quite consistent, so why would Michelin inspectors be so strict as to strip the place of a star? ?
And this year after the year that every restaurant has gone through?!?
Chef-owner Pim Techamuanvivit, whose still-closed Union Square restaurant Kin Khao retained its star – but whose higher-end Nari strangely failed to earn one – told The Chronicle. last year: “Imagine you had a star and that star was taken from you, at this time of all time. I would lock myself in the bathroom for a year if that happened to me. I couldn’t take it. “
As Techamuanvivit tells Eater this week, there are no Michelin questions.
“We are happy with any recognition,” says Techamuanvivit. “Michelin is like any other critic or critic. We don’t have a say. We’re just grateful.”
It has to be assumed that inspectors are fallible – all criticism is, and perhaps the high reverence many foodies give to the Michelin Guide is worth questioning. The inclusion of two closed restaurants, Kin Khao and Bar Crenn, put aside from the star-stripping of Octavia and Rich Table, is just plain absurd. And what about their sudden discovery of 3rd Cousin in Bernal Heights after five years of opening and calling it a ‘new find’? Or the fact that they left In Situ on the star list until Tuesday morning, despite its permanent closure?
An anonymous inspector told Forbes in 2019, “Inspectors take every decision about a star, whether it’s award or removal, very seriously because we respect the time and energy that this chef is dedicated to mastering the trade. “
Have these particular star removals been so well controlled and justified? How serious and careful were they when they missed the In Situ shutdown? And shouldn’t a year of pandemic upheaval in the industry count as some kind of forgiveness in all but the most blatant cases?
In particular, the 2021 update for the New York Michelin Guide did not contain stars for any restaurant that had not closed. Not one. Blue Hill at Stone Barns retained two stars despite moving on to a rotating cast of guest conductors! Maybe inspectors were in a better mood in May when this guide came out? Or maybe the SF inspectors are just bad at their jobs!
Chef and restaurateur George Chen, who opened Chinatown China Live and Eight Tables by George Chen restaurants the year before the pandemic, says bluntly he thinks inspectors are biased against Chinese food. And with only two Chinese restaurants across the United States, including Mister Jiu’s of San Francisco, holding Michelin stars, it certainly can be. (The techniques and ingredients that inspectors claim to favor above all else may not include Chinese techniques and ingredients.)
Chen tells Eater he was hoping for two stars for Eight Tables, and “Not even recognizing us with one star is a joke.”
“They think about [all] Chinese food with the same perception, ”Chen says. “You can’t charge this for Chinese. Maybe a Japanese or Korean tasting menu, but Chinese is relegated to a big pile of cheap Chinese food in big portions. “
While the release of the Michelin Guide each year elicits nods and raised fists, if Michelin really wanted to criticize itself for not being relevant, it may have taken an important step towards that goal with the California Guide.