Do Michelin Stars Matter?
When Rafael Cagali found out that his restaurant had been awarded a Michelin star, he cried. Having started his career at the age of 21, Rafael chopped, diced, and sautéed his way through the kitchens at a handful of the world’s best restaurants. He worked under Quique Dacosta in Spain, joined the brigade at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray-on-Thames, and worked under Simon Rogan at London’s fêted Aulis. The skills that Rafael picked up at those star-studded restaurants, sometimes via direct guidance other times via kitchen osmosis, helped to make him the cook he is today.
Growing up, Rafael idolised chefs like Martín Berasategui – the legendary Basque chef who has an astonishing twelve stars to his name, the most out of any Spanish chef. “Since I started working in hospitality, Michelin was the ultimate goal for a chef,” Rafael tells Mob, “working for so many years in Michelin starred restaurants built that dream for me from the beginning of my career. I have definitely had an internal drive since I was young, I have always wanted to show my culture through food, and for that to be recognised is an achievement for me.”
Rafael is of Italian descent but was born in São Paulo, Brazil. His food is a showcase of modern European cuisine that takes snatches of inspiration from the countries of his upbringing. I doubt there’s another menu in Britain (perhaps the world) where plates of wild halibut moqueca and duck whey raviolo sit as happily together as they do at Da Terra.
As the executive chef and co-owner of his restaurant, Rafael was vital in helping earn Da Terra a Michelin star in the first year it opened. But did Rafael, even with all his years of experience, expect to achieve his dream so quickly? In short: no. “I was hoping for it but I definitely was not expecting it,” he admits, “I was simply trying to stay focused and work as hard as possible to do the best we could do.” The year after it was given its first, Da Terra was awarded a second star.
What do those stars actually mean though? According to the official Michelin guidelines: one star is awarded to a restaurant that serves “high-quality cooking” and is “worth a stop”; two stars are given to restaurants that have “excellent cooking” and are “worth a detour”; and the coveted three stars are awarded to a restaurant that exhibits “exceptional cuisine” and is “worth a special journey”.
That focus on stops, detours, and journeys might sound a little jilted but it actually stems from the guide’s vehicular past. The Michelin Guide was created back in 1904 by brothers (and car manufacturers) Édouard and André Michelin in a bid to increase the demand in France for cars and, consequently, car tyres. The aim of the guide was to encourage French motorists to travel around the country in their automobiles, seeking out its many gustatory pleasures. Today, that’s evolved to star chasers travelling all over the globe according to whatever gospels the good book is proselytizing.
It’s still an obvious seal of approval for chefs like Rafael and a token for all the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve spent but do customers actually care about stars? “I believe so,” says Sophie Orbaum. Sophie is the Director of Communications and Marketing at the Harts Group – the London-based restaurant group behind the hugely popular Barrafina, Quo Vadis, El Pastor, and The Drop. “At Barrafina in Soho, we’ve had a star since 2014, and each year we’ve retained it, our regular customers have been so delighted and congratulatory,” she adds, “they feel good to be part of the success. It’s also handy for tourists who don’t know the London dining scene so well to use as an easy marker of quality.”
If you’re a food lover that’s ever travelled abroad, it’s likely that you’d have considered consulting the Michelin guide at some point. You’d probably close it after realising you haven’t got €320 to spend on a 12-course tasting menu at Osteria Francescana. But still. It’s a good gauge of what the upper echelons of a country or city’s food scene are like. Bethnal Green, for instance, won’t be an area at the top of most tourists’ hit lists when visiting London but the presence of a restaurant like Da Terra has definitely made it a more popular destination for wannabe gourmands. And it’s not just the east end of London that Michelin has made a hotspot either.
In February of this year, L’Enclume became Britain’s first restaurant outside London or Berkshire to win a third star. That success has quickly turned the village of Cartmel into something of a Disneyland for fine dining dead heads. As it stands, there are only eight restaurants in the country that hold three Michelin stars. It’s that rarity that makes them so sought after by chefs and restaurateurs.
Getting a star could change the fate of a restaurant practically overnight. Once you’ve got it, though, the squeeze is on to keep it. “The pressure is definitely there,” says Rafael, “when you have stars, guests come in and – of course – they expect the very best. But there’s a natural pressure anyway. My team and I are always looking for ways to improve the experience for our guests. Michelin for chefs is like Oscars for actors. It’s the most important accolade as a team but also as a business.” Michelin stars still move the needle in terms of getting punters in but not every chef is mad about them. Some have even gone as far as to hand their stars back – the culinary equivalent of returning an Oscar or Pulitzer prize.
One of the earliest cases of a chef handing back their stars happened in 1978 when a restaurant called Maxim’s asked for its listing in the Paris guide to be removed. At the time, Maxim’s was one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Located on the iconic rue Royale – and blessed with an Art Nouveau interior that was Instagram-friendly before Instagram’s founder Kevin Systrom was a twinkle in his father’s eye – Maxim’s had three stars to its name and was regularly busy with gastronauts and celebrities alike. So why did they want to refuse the accolade they had worked so excruciatingly hard to achieve?
According to the New York Times, Maxim's owner, Louis Vaudable, said he had asked for the elimination of the listing after Michelin repeatedly refused his request for a special category that would do his restaurant justice. He felt the restaurant was no longer being judged on the right metrics and had grown tired of the organisation’s bureaucracy. At least, that’s the line Vaudable went with. Rumour has it that Maxim’s was set to be demoted from three stars to two or one and, instead of risk that embarrassment, Vaudable preferred to reject the establishment altogether.
Marco Pierre White, who famously returned his three Michelin stars when he retired in 1999, has been open about how freeing he found the whole experience. Marco Pierre White is, however, not a man who ever needed Michelin stars to get customers through the door. He’d been a household name ever since the release of White Heat – his partially autobiographical cookbook that was published in 1990, a whole four years before he became the youngest chef at the time to be awarded three stars – and feasibly had enough press and television coverage to ensure his restaurants were booked up for the foreseeable future.
I think it’s notable that, like Maxim’s only rejected the stars once they were already established as one of the most famous restaurants on the planet, Marco only gave back his stars after he’d already reached the top of the mountain. It’s purely conjectured on my behalf but I doubt he’d have done the same if he only had one or two at the time. Marco Pierre White had already “completed” fine dining like Jay Cartwright completed Championship Manager and had nothing to lose by giving them back. If anything, it only helped further cultivate his “bad boy” image as a chef who didn’t give a shit about what others thought.
He’s still at it, too. Just four years ago, White banned Michelin inspectors from visiting his new restaurant in Singapore. White isn’t one to mince his words and emphasised his apathy towards stars and the guide, saying: “They sell tyres and I sell food.” It’s clear that Marco Pierre White doesn’t need Michelin, and that Michelin doesn’t need him. For slightly more unknown chefs peddling food that your regular diner might not be well-versed in, however, having a listing on the guide can be a real foothold in the industry. Losing it can spell disaster.
Four restaurants in the UK lost a star in the 2022 guide to Great Britain and Ireland. Only time will tell how that will impact their trade but I’d bet good money it won’t have had a positive effect on business. Do you get more bookings if you have a star? Yes. Can you still have a fully booked restaurant without a star? Yes. But it depends on what kind of restaurant you’re running.
Fine dining in a luxurious setting will always have its place among society’s upper crust but we are seeing a real increase in more casual restaurants opening up in the post-pandemic dining scene. A number of Michelin starred restaurants today have no strict dress codes and are getting increasingly laidback in their service, too. No one, after all, wants to feel like they have to wear a button-up shirt when they’re going out for a meal that’s intent on bursting those buttons.
Whenever it comes to finding new restaurants in foreign cities, I tend to ask people I know for their personal recommendations and consult the Bib Gourmand selection of the Michelin Guide. Since 1997, “good quality, good value restaurants” have been singled out by Michelin using that Bib Gourmand award. The price limit for what constitutes “good value” varies from country to country but I’ve generally found that the most interesting restaurants cooking the most interesting food tend to appear on those lists. To me, a Michelin Bib is a surer sign than a Michelin Star that I’m going to enjoy the restaurant experience. But that’s just me. There are millions out there who would disagree with me. Just like there are millions of restaurants desperately trying to earn themselves a star. Which is part of the problem.
Being too focussed on winning a star, and creating a restaurant that attempts to tick every box that the Michelin inspectors look for, can be a genuine detriment to a business’s success. And the truth is that sometimes you can get awarded one when you least expect it. That was certainly the case when Barrafina was awarded its star in 2014. As an informal restaurant that specialised in bar dining, sans table cloths or kowtowing waiters, it wasn’t your typical Michelin-pandering spot. It was a glimpse at what the future of fine dining was going to look like. Which is sort of what made it an obvious choice.
“It was never the aim to get a star,” Sophie tells Mob, “so it was an amazing surprise for the team [at Barrafina] to be awarded it for staying true to what was a bit of an unorthodox vision at the time.” Like most things in life, if you commit to your game plan and what you want to achieve – ignoring any awards or 30 Under 30 lists – that’s when the good stuff happens. If the main reason you’re trying to cook food is to win a shiny star, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.