Content warning: this article contains a brief mention of suicide.
In 1999, renowned Chef Marco Pierre White, known for being the youngest chef to ever receive three stars from the famed Michelin guide, made waves when he decided to “give back” his Michelin stars and renounce the status. White eventually explained, “The people who gave me Michelin stars had less knowledge than me. You have to place value on something that is given to you: that’s why it was so easy for me to walk away. They had no value for me.”
White’s move against the big red book has sparked many to follow suit in the last few decades. In 2005, Chef Alain Senderens of three-star restaurant Lucas Carton gave back his stars. In 2017, high-profile Chef Sébastian Bras also gave back his stars for his restaurant Le Suquet à Laguiole.
The fact that chefs around the world have decided to separate themselves from the Michelin stars, which are so typically coveted, should come as a surprise to many. After all, why renounce such a highly acclaimed title? But the chefs all seem to give back their stars for one singular reason: the star takes away the meaning of cooking. That is, the experience of providing an experience.
When Chef Frederick Dhooge of ‘t Huis van Lede in Belgium gave back his one star in 2014, he justified his decision as one of “freedom” and honouring the true meaning of his restaurant. According to Dhooge, “the essence of the kitchen lies with the product, prepared according to the classical way and with respect for our own gourmet traditions and values. We noticed that this is not always understood by a group of customers that expect a spectacle of stars and points kitchen.”
But the concept of Michelin stars isn’t just binding, it’s pressuring, too. Bras noted when explaining his own decision to give back his stars that, “we want to proceed with a free spirit and without stress.” Senderens concurs in his interview — “I feel like having fun.” But having fun and letting go of stress only scratches the surface of reasons why chefs are giving back their stars.
The truth is that Michelin has a deep and twisted history with the standards it sets, and the weight it places on chefs who are lucky — and unfortunate — to fall under them.
In 2003, Bernard Loiseau, celebrated chef of the three-starred French restaurant La Côte d’Or, died by suicide just before the release of that year’s Michelin guide. It had been speculated that Loiseau had been personally “warned” about the possibility of losing his third star over supposed quality concerns. In 2016, these rumours were proven true through a set of meeting minutes that documented an exchange between Loiseau and Michelin officials. The minutes described Loiseau as “visibly shocked” — news that undoubtedly carried a horrifying amount of pressure.
The whole concept of Michelin stars is outrageous. The fact that a handful, a conglomeration of third party reviewers carry so much weight over the world’s food scene is absurd. I also raise the question: why, how, and since when did these people achieve such credibility?
Food is so incredibly subjective and diverse. Cuisines span hundreds of years, cultures, and histories, each with their own methods, standards, and ideas. It’s impossible for a chef to ever master every dish, every cuisine, because of this sheer diversity — so who is a food critic to act as if they can, as if they know, as if they have the ability to judge? Taste will forever be unique to the individual, immeasurable, and impossible to universalize; putting a standard to it doesn’t seem practical. The concept of Michelin stars is flawed, pretentious even.
Reiterating White’s sentiments from an interview with The Taste Magazine: “The people giving out those stars have less knowledge than the individual behind the stove. What is a star worth, or two stars or three stars? They are worthless. Because you are being given them by people who have less knowledge than yourself.”
This isn’t to say that the work of a food critic is completely baseless, or to dismantle the system entirely. Discourse is necessary in any field to keep players in check and to keep ideas constantly flowing. But when the weight of a restaurant’s entire reputation falls into the hands of one singular review or award or status; when literal lives are being lost over the maintenance of these critiques that come from third parties who will never know your work as well as you do — that’s when it’s time to start questioning things.
To quote Chef Julian Slowik in The Menu, one of 2022’s most popular films, “There is no way to avoid the mess. The mess you make of your life, of your body, of your sanity, by giving everything you have to pleasing people you will never know.”
In a world of Lillian Blooms, putting objectivity onto food ruins the art, reduces it to a standardized, soulless plate of absolute bullshit. It isn’t that serious — it shouldn’t be that serious. Just eat, goddamn.
Isabella Liu is a second-year student at Victoria College studying public policy and international relations. She is an associate comment editor at The Varsity.