Un, deux, trois étoiles. The (in)famous Michelin Guide with its opaque network of inspectors can give its starry blessings, and it can just as easily take them away.
Lutz Hachmeister’s documentary Three Stars underscores this message nicely through an assemblage of interviews with nine very different chefs who achieved the honor–and some would say the curse–of a three star rating. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has been screening the documentary, along with El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, for the last two weeks. This evening is the last screening for both films.
But first a few words from our sponsor (joking) before getting to the heart of the film :
- The Michelin Guide was originally introduced by the tire company in 1926 as a motorist’s guide of where to eat.
- Chefs can’t seem to figure out these days what constitutes the dividing line between a two-star establishment (which earns the restaurant national recognition and makes it “worth a journey”) and a three-star one (which is “truly exceptional,” and as Michael Steinberger states, signifies “a culinary colossus”). In the olden days, it appeared that the Guide’s inspectors were heavily influenced by decor and ambience, including something as silly and seemingly inconsequential as grand commodes.
- Japan currently has more three star Michelin restaurants (29 restaurants) than France (26 restaurants). Although the majority of these serve Japanese cuisine, a number are known for Western or fusion cuisine.
The most intriguing of the documentary’s chef portraits were what I deem the “rebel chefs”–those who don’t seem to let the stars phase them.
Dal Pescatore’s Nadia Santini is a virtual earth mother (I could picture flowers springing up under her feet as she walked through impossibly green fields to tend to her garden and her animals). At the time of the documentary’s filming, she is one of only six women awarded three Michelin stars. How amazing to see three generations of a family working together so seamlessly! Her kitchen is not organized based on a bridgade system (the former political science student rejected this traditional hierarchy as too oppressive). Her aged mother works side-by-side with her at both the stove and in the garden. Her proud son Giovanni, also in the kitchen, proclaims, “It’s not a work place, it’s the way we live.” Santini refers to it as a generational “bridge.” You can see all three coexisting harmoniously in this clip from the dal Pescatore kitchen:
You can’t get more night and day when comparing this to San Sebastian’s Arzak, another family affair three star (the restaurant has been in existence since 1892), where avant-garde innovators father Juan Mari and daughter Elena proudly reveal their “idea” or “flavor bank.” The so-called bank is a storehouse of 1500 different ingredients organized in wall-to-wall cells. Many of them get dehydrated and turned into powders to enhance the flavor of their dishes’ components. It is Basque cuisine meets molecular gastronomy.
The reflective but guarded Hideki Ishikawa immediately achieved three stars for his tiny Tokyo restaurant serving traditional Japanese food . The film could have given him a little more of the spotlight, but I suspect he wouldn’t have relished excess camera time. He takes the stars in stride, making clear that he “doesn’t work for stars,” and that it would be a “disgrace” for customers to come to his establishment “just because of the stars.”
And finally, there is Brittany’s Olivier Roellinger,who ultimately opted out of the Michelin star system when he realized that it was more a burden than a blessing. Roellinger was a chemical engineering student when his life was turned upside by a violent encounter with a gang. After a long convalescence, he drastically switched gears and began his career in restaurants. He earned his first Michelin star in 1984, and his second in 1994. Although it was expected that he would easily achieve his third star, he became the Susan Lucci of the Michelin–it took him 12 years before the last one was awarded. Twelve years of what he described as a kid waiting for his present from Santa to come.
In 2008, he followed the lead of only a handful of other chef demigods and traded in his three star establishment for a better life in the kitchen. Now liberated from the tyrannical whims of the Guide and attendant business pressures, he cooks his cuisine marine, potagère, et épicée (of the sea, the kitchen garden, and the spice shelf), runs a cooking school and owns spice shops in Cancale. Other chefs have not been so lucky to find this peace of mind. The documentary makes reference to the tragedy of Bernard Loiseau, who was driven to commit suicide by a combination of his depression, financial woes, and his fear (Michelin of course claims it was unfounded) that he would be stripped of his third star.
In addition to discussing both the politics of the Guide, and the difficulties of the restaurant business (lifestyle, management and finances), the documentary provides a glimpse into the kitchens of its profiled chefs: how they treat their staffs, for instance. Rene Redzepi, perhaps the most famous face in the film as he has now inherited the mantle of running the World’s Best Restaurant, is as cool as a cucumber when he discusses the non-profit Knowledge Bank initiative. What a nice guy, right? Well, he is not one with which to trifle when it comes to his food. The film shows a very confrontational moment with one of his noma underlings: some uncomfortable close talking/shouting is taking place in the midst of service. Cut to Chef Ishikawa who says, “I would never tell my people off or hit them.” Hit? Wow.
Then there is the Alsatian Jean-Georges Vongerichten, master of an Asian-French fusion empire headed by the eponymous three star establishment in NYC. He is a personable kind of guy with a winsome smile who you can’t help but immediately warm to . . . that is, until you learn that he settled a lawsuit for $1.75 million with waiters who sued him for withheld tips. And although his computer records of guests’ personal preferences and peeves is impressive (he laughingly refers to it as “the FBI”), it is just a little bit too Big Brother.
Speaking of Michelin stars, here is a trailer for the forthcoming documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, on the first sushi chef to be awarded three Michelin Stars.
In this neck of the woods, Kendall Square Cinema will be screening the documentary on April 6, 2012. For more info on the film, click here. In the mean time, Happy New Year until I post again in 2012!