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The Michelin Guide Needs L.A. More Than the City Needs the Guide

The most prestigious food bible is making its return to the City of Angels. But Los Angeles dining is deeper than an arbitrary ratings system.

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Fifteen years ago, Pascal Rémy, a former Michelin restaurant inspector, published L’inspecteur se met à table, a tell-all diary about his time as an employee that tore through Michelin’s mystical veil of secrecy and intrigue. Rémy originally pitched the diary to Michelin, the famous automotive-tire-manufacturer-cum-global-food-authority, who then flipped his proposal into a counteroffer: a promotion and 30 percent raise in an effort to keep his silence. When Rémy declined, Michelin fired him for breaching confidentiality agreements; Rémy claims the confidentiality clause in his contract only applied to the company’s tire technology. In an interview with The New York Times a few months before the book was published, Rémy suggested the values he’d originally agreed to uphold had slipped in the 16 years he spent as an inspector. “It is no longer a priority to search for the good small places in the heart of France,” he said. “The goal is to bring in money. We have to go to the important places, the big-name restaurants, the big groups, that’s what they say at Michelin now.’’

On Tuesday, Michelin announced that its influential travel guides will resume inspecting the Los Angeles dining scene after a decade-long hiatus. That hiatus felt more like an embargo due to the short-lived Michelin Guide to Los Angeles, which had low sales and garnered vociferous disapproval from some of the city’s most renowned critics from 2007 to 2009. In a delightfully petty 2010 Esquire interview, when asked about the guide’s failings in L.A., the former Michelin Guide director Jean-Luc Naret infamously noted, “The people in Los Angeles are not real foodies. They are not too interested in eating well but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they sit.” Which is exactly what a visitor, as the late critic Jonathan Gold noted two years prior, “too timid to venture further than a few minutes from their Beverly Hills hotel” would say. Naret is now a CEO and general manager of a hotel and spa in Paris.

The Michelin Guide was created at the turn of the 20th century by brothers André and Édouard Michelin as a promotional vehicle for their uniquely designed automotive tires. The first edition, published in 1900, listed options for lodging, hospitality, and fuel centers in all the countryside towns of France and the distance between them, a way of making the novel idea of everyday car travel a little more convenient and a little less daunting. It wasn’t until 1936 that the guide established its influential star-rating method, from one star (“a very good restaurant in its class”) to three (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”). Over the decades, the Michelin Guide has become a mysterious bastion of the grandeurs of fine dining in France, and later around the world—it first established roots in the United States in 2005, with a New York City edition, and has since expanded to Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Its mere reference has become shorthand for excellence to gourmands targeting their next culinary conquest; its star rating has validated and exacerbated the overwhelming neuroses of generations upon generations of chefs. The pressures of upholding a certain status in the eyes of Michelin has led to apparent suicides in the French culinary community, one as recently as 2016.

Tuesday’s announcement, made in partnership with the California tourism board at the Golden 1 Center in the state capitol of Sacramento, established a new statewide guide to be released in the coming months. Michelin’s expanded coverage means that the San Francisco–specific guide, which has been published since 2007, is no more. The holistic approach echoes a decision made by The New York Times—another nonlocal publication historically ill-equipped to accurately portray California’s many faces—who relocated Tejal Rao, one of the best food writers in the country, to L.A. in order to cover the entire state as a bureau restaurant critic. “Michelin recognizes California as a booming culinary destination which is setting the dining trends for the future,” Michelin Guide international director Gwendal Poullennec said, noting that the format of the California-specific guide “will enable Michelin to extend its reach to new areas, and in doing so engage with a broader audience of foodies who love the high-quality, laid-back dining scene.” One can almost feel the word “laid-back” forcing its way out of Mr. Poullennec’s mouth, like a life-form out of Alien.

The statewide guide will indeed offer Michelin’s small legion of inspectors the latitude to explore destinations outside of California’s major metropolises, but L.A. has dominated most news headlines, and rightfully so. There is a prevailing sense that the Michelin Guide needs L.A. more than it needs the guide; for an enterprise that fancies itself a worldly authority on food to exclude L.A. would be to ignore ground zero for some of the biggest food trends anywhere. Perhaps the biggest change in the city in the decade since the last Los Angeles guide is how it’s become an oasis for the same chefs the tire company has always celebrated elsewhere. Renowned chefs from New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, mainland China, Mexico City, and elsewhere have all descended upon L.A. to reap its bounty of space, sunshine, and some of the best produce in the country. The city was once the antithesis to the Michelin sensibility but now offers the types of restaurants the guide has long lionized. New temples of prix fixe dining, both classic and heretically postmodern, have been cropping up all across La La Land—Oscar bait and Michelin catnip are now officially one and the same. But given that the guide’s coverage will be spread across the entire state of California and all the newfangled reasons for Michelin to do an about-face in Los Angeles specifically, I can’t help but wonder what will get lost. The cynic in me fears a potential Carpetbagger’s Guide to L.A., where the only wonders highlighted by the guide are shiny new toys placed atop the city’s endless cultural bricolage. We have enough of those here already.

Ten years ago, just as the Michelin Guide had vacated L.A., The New Yorker was granted an exclusive interview with one of the inspectors as a way for Michelin to establish a level of accessibility in the States. The inspector’s name was changed, as were many other details about her. When it came time to order, M, as she would be referred to, explained how inspectors tend to work around a menu. “You’re looking for something that really tests a number of quality ingredients and then something that’s a little complex, because you want to see what the kitchen can do,” she said. “We would never order something like a salad. We rarely order soup.”

She then explained her role as a taster: “It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’” she said. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products. At this level, they have to be top quality. … It’s just technical. I mean, cooking is a science, and either it’s right or it’s wrong. And that’s something that’s very objective. Either a sauce is prepared accurately—or it’s not. A fish is cooked accurately—or it’s not.”

Michelin conjures an absolutism that feels incompatible with the realm in which it purports to be the authority. The mystery behind the entire enterprise leaves no real place for divergent perspectives—can there ever be a monolithic arbiter of objective taste? Techniques and methodology vary from city to city, let alone country to country or continent to continent. As I read more about the inspectors and pulled back the Michelin curtain, I felt a twinge of sadness. Inspectors spend their days like scouts in professional sports, taking products of passion and sweat equity and transforming them into a largely dour exercise, operating on strictly technical standards, and establishing something close to a pass-fail binary with little wiggle room for splendors of a true emotional connection. I’d been on the other end of the spectrum, in the realm of competitive eating; I knew what it was like to transform yourself from a pleasure-seeker to a joyless, empty vessel. It’s not the way I was raised to appreciate food. It’s hard to imagine anyone being that way, until they’re paid enough money to do so.

The benefits of the Michelin Guide’s return are clear: Restaurants deserve patronage, and the best chefs in any locale deserve recognition on the world’s stage. But Los Angeles—and the rest of the state—established itself as a premier food destination long before Michelin crash-landed in 2007, and it’ll stand firm even if (or when) Michelin crumbles in obsolescence. All I can hope for is that they’ve learned their lesson from their last time here and respect L.A. for what it is. The city doesn’t need another guide trying to define it from the outside. It needs more curiosity from those of us within.