As the restaurant industry struggles to remain on its feet, one key consideration is what that means for reviews and annual guides. As revealed to Big 7 Travel today, the esteemed Michelin Guide is to delay printed publication of their 2021 guide “in some regions”. Michelin could not yet confirm which regions. In an interview with an official spokesperson from the company’s headquarters in France, Michelin confirms that while their aim is to “present a relevant and accurate restaurant selection”, they will be “delaying the publication of the printed MICHELIN Guide” in “some regions.” A digital edition of the guide will be released first, sticking to the original “exclusive revelation date”, Michelin says.
The Michelin Guide rates over 30,000 establishments in over 30 territories across three continents. Since it first began awarding restaurants stars in 1926, the guide has become a coveted symbol of the best cooking in the world, although it is not without some fierce controversy.
Throughout its history, the Michelin Guide only stopped printing during WW2. In this current global pandemic situation, it at least has the opportunity to publish online. But what exactly will it be publishing?
We reached out to Michelin for clarity on how it will award its 2021 stars:
Michelin states that the first ‘“essais de table” (which roughly translates from French as ‘a visit of pleasure’, eg. a restaurant visit) for the 2021 Guide will be done in a “special way, as each restaurant will need time to adapt itself and find a new serenity in this chaotic period. “
Critics have been questioning for years both the inspection methods behind the reviews and the relevancy of the guide, with famed chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Alain Senderens ‘giving up their stars’. Although, technically you can’t just give them up. “You can agree with it or you cannot, but you can’t give it back. That’s not an issue … kind of an urban myth,” the Michelin Guide’s International Director Michael Ellis told Vanity Fair in 2015. Yet despite the criticism, the guide continues to shine. What other award has such global importance? Getting awarded a Michelin star can truly change a chef’s career. It’s a beacon of validation for all those long, hard hours and determination.
Now, with the current Covid-19 crisis shutting restaurants worldwide, what does the future of the Michelin Guide 2021 look like?
What’s Going to Happen with the Michelin Guide 2021?
The first Stars are due to be released in Autumn 2020
Keeping in line with their new ‘Digital First’ strategy, there “could be” a “digital event and exclusive stream content” as part of each regional guide’s Michelin star revelations.
What this means for ceremony events such as the Michelin Star Revelation for Great Britain & Ireland 2021, due to take place in London on October 19th, is uncertain. Michelin had previously Tweeted that ‘for the first time, members of the public will be able to celebrate with us!” for the London event. Currently, the UK is stopping gatherings of more than two people in public, with no scheduled end date for the new social distancing measure.
Usually, the release schedule kicks off with the Shanghai Guide in September, followed in October by UK and Ireland, as well as some of the largest and most-visited U.S. cities – New York, D.C., and Chicago. Star reveals for its other regions from Italy to Brazil continue through to April of the following year.
However, with China still in its early reopening stages, a glitzy Shanghai ceremony in four months time seems premature, never mind similar events in the US. Even the ceremony event for the Michelin 2020 Germany Guide on March 3rd of this year was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns.
Despite the mention of digital events for regional star revelations, Michelin would not confirm to Big 7 Travel if they will be cancelling or delaying public events for the remainder of 2020, stating: “We would like to clarify that Michelin is not delaying or cancelling any event at the moment.”
A switch to online streams would be in line with most government’s Covid-19 stance on events.
While the star revelation events themselves may not be top priority for restaurants, they bring in key sponsorship revenue for Michelin through private partners such as Nespresso and Evian. Michelin doesn’t report the guide’s profits or sales.
But the mere existence of the guides does bring in hefty backing from tourism boards in regions where it operates. In 2016, South Korea’s Tourism Board paid Michelin $1.8 million USD to bring the guide to Seoul. In 2019, Visit California paid the Michelin Guide $600,000 to expand its coverage beyond the San Francisco Bay Area to the entire state. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reportedly pledged Michelin $880,000 per year over a 5-year period from 2018 to boost its food tourism.
It’s easy to understand why Michelin would be keen to go ahead with the 2021 Guide in any form it can. No tourism board will support a non-existent product.
With restaurant closures across the world, inspectors can’t visit
The main selling point of the quality of the Michelin guide is their claim to personal, repeat restaurant inspections throughout the year. A Michelin inspector will reportedly visit a restaurant several times, especially if it already has a star.
In the 2010 BBC documentary Michelin Stars: The Madness of Perfection, an interview with the Michelin director at the time, Jean-Luc Naret, reveals the level of commitment to this. A Three-Michelin Star restaurant may be inspected as many as 10 separate times throughout the year. Is this realistic to achieve this year? Is it fair to review in a shorter time period, or have fewer inspections? There have been previous allegations that Michelin does not actually review each restaurant on a yearly basis.
Consistency is stated as part of Michelin’s restaurant rating criteria, but consistency seems impossible in the current climate.
“The MICHELIN Guide’s inspectors will be the first clients and will encourage the attendance (of selected restaurants)”
The Michelin spokesperson tells us that: “the inspectors are based in each country where the MICHELIN Guide has a selection.”
They state that Michelin will “adapt our operations to each country’s measures to limit the virus’ spread. We have to keep in mind that each country’s schedule in this crisis is different.”
Michelin Inspector’s 5 Restaurant Rating Criteria:
1. Quality of products
2. Mastery of flavour and cooking techniques
3. The personality of the chef represented in the dining experience
4. Value for money
5. Consistency between inspectors’ visits
The inspection process is also clouded in secrecy. A rare interview with a Michelin inspector in the New Yorker in 2009 revealed the lengths inspectors go to hide their identities. The last thing they want is to be spotted in a restaurant.
“Michelin has gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain the anonymity of its inspectors. Many of the company’s top executives have never met an inspector; inspectors themselves are advised not to disclose their line of work, even to their parents (who might be tempted to boast about it); and, in all the years that it has been putting out the guide, Michelin has refused to allow its inspectors to speak to journalists.”
That secrecy no longer matters. In the vast majority of cities across the globe, inspections cannot take place. Michelin’s spokesperson insists that their inspection teams “can’t wait to go back on the road again”, although are waiting for for more information “regarding the openings of restaurants and the conditions required to do so.”
Michelin say they will have a ‘Digital First’ strategy for the 2021 Guide
Michelin are yet to publicly clarify what the plan is for the 2021 Guide. Two separate statements, however, hint at an online focus. Gwendal Poullennec, international director of Michelin Guides, said on March 18th that Michelin “will adapt to the circumstances to evaluate your restaurants in a fair and equitable manner once things have returned to normal.”
On April 28th, a second statement from Poullennec reveals a ‘Digital First’ strategy. He goes on to say that in order to “achieve consistent and fair 2021 selections, we will make the most of our websites and digital facilities.”
This is where the Digital First strategy comes into play…
Michelin’s spokesperson says that their new strategy for a “dynamic digital edition allows us more flexibility to react and adapt ourselves, according to this COVID crisis.”
When asked further about the Digital First strategy, the Michelin spokesperson said: “we’re delaying the publication of the printed MICHELIN Guide, but we’ll keep our exclusive revelation date, by publishing a digital edition of the MICHELIN Guide first (that could be accompanied by a digital event and exclusive stream contents for instance).” Michelin later stated that the strategy is a work-in-progress effort.
Confused? “Don’t worry,” Poullennec says, “a Michelin Star, and all our award distinctions, will mean the same in 2021 as they always have.” Seemingly setting the scene for the decrease in inspections this year, the statement emphasises that “The heart of the MICHELIN Guide is to recommend restaurants, we are not critics.”
But while the guide recommends restaurants, it does so critically. Are Michelin inspectors really not critics? They convey the guide’s restaurant reviews through two to three-line short summaries and an extensive system of symbols. Surely such a strict inspection process and evaluation goes beyond the level of merely ‘recommending’ restaurants. The world’s best chefs – those chefs who have won their restaurant the star – don’t strive to achieve a simple recommendation. It is the expertly critical eye that Michelin casts over its selection process that makes the award so sweet.
Michelin Starred restaurants are already pivoting during Covid-19
Just like other restaurants, Michelin-starred venues are forced to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ It could be in the form of a limited takeout menu or fresh food boxes for delivery; some have simply turned their restaurant into a little shop to help their suppliers along with their local customers.
But how does this impact their future ratings? If a restaurant does so much as changes its name during a renovation for which they briefly close, they lose the star.
What if a restaurant’s entire business model changes? This isn’t an issue, according to Michelin.
“Our criteria were never linked with restaurants’ business models. The current crisis doesn’t change the MICHELIN Guide’s functioning, neither its values. Chefs are in direct contact with our teams, nearly daily, so we know that some of them have to re-think their activity and re-build some models. Our inspectors will welcome these experiments, these new projects, even if it implies new or reduced menus, with caring and goodwill.”
Liath, a One-Michelin star restaurant in Dublin, Ireland is a prime example of a change in business model. Originally winning a star under its previous name of Heron & Grey in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the restaurant closed and then reinvented itself as ‘Liath’ in 2019. Its chase for a new star was successful. Now, Liath is offering its gourmet fare to-go.
Three-Michelin star Alinea in Chicago has also switched from its world-famous creative tasting menus to comfort food. Instead of a 16-18 course tasting menu experience, guests can order a three-course menu for takeout. Yes, it sounds delicious: slow braised veal shanks, crostini and a tiramisu whoopsie pie. But is that enough to keep its three stars for 2021? Restaurants in Chicago could open in late June. This is a relatively short time period before the city’s usual star reveal in October.
What could the Michelin Guide 2021 look like?
As their spokesperson states, one of their main aims is “to enlighten wonderful culinary experiences and to share and highlight interesting places managed by enthusiastic teams. This ambition is still our beating heart.”
Maybe – just maybe – the above examples of Michelin cuisine during a crisis truly showcase the adaptable skill of the starred restaurants. One aspect worth noting is that Michelin-level food is now more accessible than ever, with Alinea’s $34.50 take-home menu much more affordable than its usual $365 restaurant menu. While there are budget restaurants (including street food hawkers) awarded stars, the majority have blow-out prices. Between global layoffs and economic crises, ‘blow-out prices’ are not going to be an option for many.
Maybe this is where the Michelin Guide will pivot. It’s exciting to see such innovation, and the guide is highlighting Michelin recipes at home and takeout options in their current online content. But its relevancy – and future survival – is more in question than ever.
Update 08/05/20: Michelin contacted Big 7 Travel with an update that the printed guide will be delayed in “some regions”. They could not confirm which regions would be affected.
Update 07/05/20: A previous version of this article stated that Michelin ceremony events for 2020 would be cancelled and replaced with a digital stream, as understood from their ‘Digital First’ plans’. A further statement from Michelin said: “We would like to clarify that Michelin is not delaying or cancelling any event at the moment.”