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My two-cents on D.C. getting a Michelin Guide

PHOTO: Courtesy of Michelin

The Michelin Guide. Three basic words which, conjunctively, sends tremors throughout the hospitality industry. What began as a simple commercial venture, in 1900, to facilitate the desire amongst French people to travel more in their vehicles – thereby wearing down their tires so they would buy more Michelin tires – has morphed, in the ensuing century, into the most important award given to any restauranteur or chef.

The French brothers Andre and Edouard never aimed to revolutionize how chefs are judged. For 20 years after starting The Michelin Guide, the restaurant section was merely a log. There were no stars, no stresses, no grand ceremony. In fact, the guides were free. But when Andre Michelin discovered a guide being used to prop up a bench in a garage, as well as the overwhelming degree of interest in the restaurant section, he began to charge for the guide as well as, in 1926, creating a single star system to rate the quality of restaurants. Five years later, in 1931, the star system expanded with the inclusion of a second and third star, with each progressive star making a restaurant more noteworthy, and the guide was changed from a blue cover to the now famous or, dare we say, infamous red cover.

But the Michelin Guide was never intended to be a comprehensive look at every country and every major city within said country. Outside of the originating (1) France, today, there is (2) Singapore, (3) Japan, (4) Germany, (5) Italy, (6) Spain, (7) Portugal, (8) United States, (9) Ireland, (10) United States, (11) Ireland, (12) United Kingdom, (13) Hong Kong and Macao, and (14) Belgium (which was first non-French country with a guide). You can find the full interactive list here:

Then, within these countries, there are even fewer cities which have guides -- the most comprehensive guide is in its founding country of France -- and here in the United States only a mere handful of cities, four to be precise, even have one. So when the Michelin Guide announced this spring the anointing of Washington, D.C. to accompany New York City, San Francisco and Chicago in having its own guide, this symbolized a powerful testament to the swift advancement of the D.C. restaurant scene.

So why the fuss? Why the glitter? Why the strenuous attention paid to The Michelin Guide? And who was deemed worthy in D.C. to receive the coveted stars?

Much like awarding of the Oscars in film achievement or the Grammys in musical achievement or the Tonys for theatrical achievement, the Michelin Guide is simply accepted as the near-final arbiter of what the so-called influential foodie universe (owners, diners, editors, reviewers, paying customers) believes to be the best of the best. An inclusion in The Michelin Guide, for many chefs, is a life’s work: one to be celebrated and one, particularly in France where the culture of food is as porous as the oxygen in the air, to strive for with your very life.

Consider the prodigiousness of France’s 27 three-Michelin starred restaurants’ chefs. To account for many of the culinary advancements in the 21st century, one naturally has to turn to France. The nouvelle cuisine by the Troisgros brothers Pierre and Jean at Maison Troisgros, carried on in three-Michelin starred tradition today by Pierre’s son Michael, the legends like Paul Bocuse, Pierre Ganaire, Guy Savoy, one of the most famous names in the world today Alain Ducasse, as well as the crushing agony of losing one of the culinary world’s brightest stars Bernard Loiseau who ultimately committed suicide when newspapers merely whispered he might lose his third star. What drove these men beyond their personal ambition could, theoretically be attributed to the desire to be anointed as one of the best … which is what three Michelin stars gives them.

Such is the weight of three Michelin stars and its guide, as well as the reason behind the controversy woven throughout Michelin bringing to Washington, D.C. the guide and the awards of stars to 12 restaurants.

Part of the fascination of how the guide is created is how little the general public knows about the reviewers. Unlike Anthony Bourdain coming to visit, the creation of The Michelin Guide is done solely by anonymous inspectors who visit the establishment multiple times before making a judgment. Therefore, no one can truly say if a guest who dines is a Michelin inspector. This sole factor of complete anonymity in an age of social media and undisclosed partnerships with reviewers (free food in exchange for a favorable review) is a fascinating template for analysis.

Furthermore, instead of having a reviewer who maybe eats at “average” establishments and then scales to Michelin-star worthy restaurants every-so-often, a Michelin inspector has eaten at numerous Michelin-worthy restaurants so the palate, presumably, can compare apples-to-apples (or three Michelin stars to another three Michelin stars).

However, in Washington, D.C., Michelin immediately created controversy even beyond the culinary analysis in adding the following restaurants to the Michelin family.

PHOTO: The famous Michelin star


Back this spring when it was announced D.C. would receive its only Michelin guide, Michelin very clearly stated that ONLY those restaurants who were housed FULLY WITHIN the D.C. zip codes would be reviewed. So the shock of having Inn at Little Washington win two stars set the issuance of the Guide far back, a restaurant who is more than 70 miles from D.C.

In response to the furor, Michelin stated that by simply training a lot of great chefs, The Inn at Little Washington deserved recognition even though it was 70 miles outside the D.C. boundary lines. Because of the grant of the two stars to Inn at Little Washington when other U.S. cities have restaurants who are clearly deserving of these same kind of flexible standards demeans the issuance of the guide. For instance, the seminal Blue Hill Barn is a mere 30 miles from NYC or half the distance the Inn at Little Washington is to D.C., and basically invented the farm-to-table movement in the United States, is a much bemoaned travesty.

PHOTO: Blue Hill Barn courtesy of Blue Hill Barn

Furthermore, this kind of political maneuvering lessens the issuance of the guide in Washington, D.C. particularly when it is notable how many ethnic restaurants (both within and beyond) the D.C. zip code were left out: Rasika, noteably, a winner and star in the James Beard Foundation (think of it like the Golden Globes of food), the omission of Bad Saint (deemed by Bon Appetit as the second best restaurant in the country) and Komi/Little Serow (a perennial D.C. institution), as well the slew of comfortably delicious restaurants in Annandale, Columbia Pike and the totality of Maryland.

In fact, Michelin only included only one non-American restaurant Sushi Taro for one star.

But for on the list, Kinship speaks of the dreamy mandate to have superb cuisine in a crisply elegant setting. Chef Eric Ziebold, who helped open the kitchens of the famous French Laundry and Per Se, has long set the culinary pace in Washington, D.C. Since his much heralded opening of Kinship and Métier, Chef Ziebold is much deserving of his star.

PHOTO: The famous Kinship Roasted Chicken (c) Sery Kim

PHOTO: My favorite dessert in D.C. is Kinship's Salted Caramel Peanut Bar (c) Sery Kim

The same could be said for the interest in Blue Duck Tavern who has made every great list in the country for their consistent delivery of familiar cuisine with a singular twist. And, naturally, the culinary star of America for the moment Aaron Silverman who has breathlessly engendered acclaim for Rose’s Luxury (now taking reservations) and Pineapple and Pearls, his new set-menu, set-price ($200) establishment.

The others are debatable but that is also the point of the Michelin Guide. The guide changes and shapes the culinary conversation as to not only what food is worthy but what kind of food. This element of drama to the standard non-subjectivity the guide professes to have moves the dial – and since it is human beings tasting and human beings bringing their own personal basis perhaps the truest test of the Michelin Guide’s effectiveness is that we even talk about it at all.

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