In France, the Michelin guide is big, bigger than anywhere else in the world. It is the benchmark by which chefs and restaurants are judged. And for the French public its a bit like the bible. So when Sébastien Bras took to Facebook to announce that he wanted Michelin to take back his three Michelin stars and did not want to be listed any longer in the Michelin guide he shocked many.
In France, and in many other places in the world, no one has the audacity to counter the red guide. They have the ability to make or break you. And they also have an impact on the bottom line. Moving from one star to two stars or from two stars to three stars means an increase in turnover for the restaurant. Some restauranteurs calculate this at 20%.
On top of it, three Michelin stars are also scarce. He is one of only 27 chefs and restaurants that have been awarded the coveted three Michelin stars in France. And many more aspire for that accolade.
But away from the fanfare is another reality and one which leads to pressure and tension everytime the guide is published. And that is the reason why most of his followers applauded his decision and even encouraged him to follow the path that he had decided to take.
His decision, taken together with his family, is a brave one. Because while other chefs in countries have refused or ‘handed back’ their stars and French chefs have been downgraded in the past on their own will after closing their restaurant or given their restaurant a new direction, this is the first case of a very high profile French chef who has asked Michelin to remove him from the list and no longer feature his restaurant even if he will continue to follow the same approach.
The shock was such that Michelin did not even know how to react. They said they would respect his decision but did not know how or whether they would implement it because the guide was not an award for chefs but rather a benchmark for readers. You could take that with a pinch of salt given the circus that each publication of the guide creates. But that’s another story.
The French 46-year-old chef does not need any more accolades. While he is the son of the legendary Michel Bras, he has proven himself over the years as a chef of immense talent. For a son whose father was a benchmark for many, that’s no mean feat. Following in your father’s footsteps is always difficult and the pressure on him to perform must have been huge.
While his decision may have come as a surprise to many, the points he raised in a two and a half minute video about the need to focus on what is essential in life have struck a chord.
He says that he wants to be able to continue to cook and serve his clients without the pressures and constraints of having to be judged all the time. He is clearly on to something because in today’s age, it is becoming more and more clear that what worked in the past is no longer a certainty and particularly when it comes to creativity, innovation and risk, being classified as a three Michelin star restaurant puts constraints on you which can be extremely limiting.
The job of a chef today has become considerably more complicated than it was until a few years ago. In many cases, the chef is not just the head of a team of cooks in the kitchen but he is also the restauranteur, the entrepreneur who needs to ensure that the restaurant is profitable. He is the public face of the restaurant, the communicator, the public relations person. He or she needs to be a story teller, to be able to communicate that story not only in the restaurant but also to be able to schmooze with some of the most influential people in the business while travelling around the globe because this will have an impact on where or how you will be positioned in lists or guides.
While pressure in the industry has always been there, today striving for perfection in the kitchen is no longer enough. The pressure is intense and let’s face it, even some of the world’s top CEOs would struggle to master all the skills necessary to get to the top of the game.
Bras decision therefore is not just courageous but also a rallying call to chefs to follow their hearts and if necessary ignore the glory of awards which actually places constraints on you rather than enabling you to push new boundaries.
In his own way, he has decided to leave the rat race that has got us to where we are today. And that should be something that we should all reflect upon because many times we seem to be missing the wood for the trees.
Today, we have reached a stage where a chef needs to be outside his kitchen to be able to get to the very top. But like with a concert, would you go if you find that the lead singer is not going to perform because he is busy promoting his CD? Are chefs who stay in their restaurant because they are not interested in the competition or in getting a place on lists less deserving of awards? Shouldn’t we actually be paying a premium for having the lead singer performing for us?
We have often heard how Michelin and other guides for all intents and purposes ask restaurants to send them their signature dishes so these could be included in the guides. But is this justified when a chef might focus solely on seasonality and on serving local ingredients (and hence have no such thing as a signature dish)?
The issues surrounding the food world today like sustainability, the need to waste less, nose to tail are such that the concept of fine dining is changing radically. Should you expect a fine dining restaurant to serve 40 dishes of a certain cut of meat when it is more sustainable and desirable to use all the animal? And should a restaurant be penalised for such an approach? Have guides adapted to the times?
Then there is the issue of transparency or lack of it. While we could be pointing our fingers at Michelin and its lack of transparency, the same could be said for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list which is criticised on a yearly basis for its obscure methodology. But it has become a circus and a very influential one at that.
As David Chang told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview, while the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list has been great for hm and his business, ‘the world would be better off without it’.
How Michelin will deal with Bras request will be extremely interesting to watch. It might have been presented with a prisoner’s dilemma. Does it accept Bras request, remove him from the list and hope for the best? What happens if Bras has actually created a movement that will enable other chefs to pluck the courage and walk away from this charade? On the other hand, if it does not adhere to the chef’s request, it will be criticised for not respecting the legitimate request of a restaurant and chef.
Can a restaurant and chef expect not to be judged in today’s world of social media, bloggers and restaurant review sites like Tripadvisor or Yelp to mention just two examples?
To date, Michelin and its likes have wielded the power because very few influential players have opted not to play the game. But if others follow, the balance of power can shift very rapidly. If that happens, the relevance of guides could vanish sooner than than many observers would have thought.
What’s certain is that Michelin finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is forced to look elsewhere to grow its brand. It is reported that is has done deals with tourism authorities to review certain countries (we have no transparency there), it has been busy buying stakes in other properties like Robert Parker (there are synergies there) and more recently alternative food guide Le Fooding as well as acquired BookaTable which has the potential to be the mother of all conflicts of interests in the long term.
The implications of this decision by Bras are huge. And as the dust settles, only time will tell what impact it will have. Will we end up with a more transparent Michelin? Will other chefs follow his lead? What will be the long term impacts on the restaurant world? For that we will have to wait and see.