I have an idea.
It’s going to be presented in four parts: what it is, where it came from, what it entails, and its purpose/ pledge.
WHAT IT IS
The idea is to propose a more relevant and holistic restaurant rating system than that of the current industry leader, Michelin. It’s to have this system improve the current status quo for eaters and professionals alike. It is to transform the related business mentality from one of ‘excellence with a cost’ to one of ‘benefit for all.’
The Michelin Guide for starred restaurants, now including its Bib Gourmand and Plate series, has stood as the international cornerstone of quality eating for over a century. However, its central tenets and traditions have not changed since that date, and I would argue that they no longer reflect the wants and needs of today’s educated eater or industry professional. That, and in the organization’s attempt to decentralize and focus increasingly on branding via its Business Solutions and Lifestyle subsidiary, even its original values have been diluted and in many cases, morphed into less humble, lower quality outputs than the ones of decades past— not only upholding stale concepts of why people should choose the eateries that they do, but also seemingly acting more out of repetition than out of virtue. The result has largely been a digression from positive eating experiences as well as an increase in competition and turmoil among chefs and restaurant workers.
With the discourse below, I’ll attempt to identify current needs and propose solutions through a restructured system. The final point is to include a way in which to use this issue to also tackle greater global problems in food and nutrition.
WHERE IT CAME FROM
A brief bit of background for context: My first time at a three Michelin-starred restaurant came nearly twenty years ago, and I can remember it in detail still today. Everything from entering the elegant yet modern dining room at what is now Le Suquet, to the slow unfolding of the unconventional meal, to taking a tour of its kitchen late at night, was exciting and new and tended to with great care. Looking back, the experience was as much a turning point for me in early adolescence as later encountering a first love. Without surprise, my personal life since then has in large part centered around scouting out great restaurants and the establishments where they sit, often with the assistance of trusty Michelin.
However, in recent years, I’ve repeatedly found experiences at starred restaurants to be disappointing in one way or another. A few times, the creativity was out of sync with the style of the restaurant, others it tried too hard and didn’t make sense. Or the place was fine but definitely not deserving of its stars and adjoining price tags. In almost all instances, these less than stellar experiences were also due to poor service from inattention, attitude, or a general lack of ease. And, after several mediocre meals in close timing to one another, I began to really question why I was still looking to Michelin when making a decision on where to eat, or more fundamentally, what had happened to the Michelin institution.
In trying to understand the latter, I pulled together research from several different webpages, the most useful of which were articles on Michelin’s inspection and classifications processes. Tellingly, its tenets are not held in one place, nor are they presented in a coherent visual format. For those of us who benefit from this, I’ve combined findings here below, so that the structure of Michelin’s rating system looks something like this:
In essence, it is prescriptive. Judging various key points, Michelin forms a singular opinion on each eatery, the best of which are, “Worth a special trip.” However, through this consolidation, the weaknesses of the organization are also made clear. For starters, there are far too many factors at play in the above. As with any business model or with life, having of an excess of core and scattered beliefs won’t work. Priorities become jumbled, and focus lost. Also, and most importantly, the apex of Michelin is to inform the consumer on where to eat using the meal itself as the reason for going. Elite Traveler corroborates: “Emphasis is on the food. Inspectors give little consideration to décor or quality of service.” While beverage options are considered, any service referenced is defined by place settings and physical comfort, removing the human side of the component altogether. In its description of the guidelines, the Washingtonian agrees that, “Service…isn’t a factor.”
This, after months of deliberation, is precisely where I believe the problem lies.
Eating out is not about food. Or, it is rarely ever JUST about food, or about food only for creativity’s sake. In the strictest of occasions, when one is on the road by oneself or simply hungry and needs a meal, then eating might be more about nourishment than about company. But even then, as someone who does this often enough, I always also pick an establishment with a nice ambience, where I might be able to be productive, get organized, or enjoy observing those around me without feeling out of place. Thus even when alone, the experience behind going to a restaurant is paramount.
Then consider the instances when one eats out with a colleague, or catches up with a group of friends, or celebrates a special occasion. When are these moments ever just about the food? Sure, the person picking the place might select an eatery with an appetizing menu, but the point is more often to choose a restaurant with the right vibe and level of service, where those business discussions might be carried out effectively, where friends can feel jovial, or where that celebratory night will be remembered fondly.
When Michelin the tire company produced its first guidebook at the turn of the twentieth century to help drivers know where to eat, it was doing a good thing. When today’s Michelin Guide tells me to eat at an undoubtedly expensive restaurant where the food is often trying too hard and the service is friendly if I’m lucky, I no longer believe that it’s to my or anyone else’s benefit. Moreover, it appears to be doing us as a whole a DISservice, for Michelin as an industry leader has allowed and encouraged chefs around the world to strive for a pinnacle of status and acclaim that is unsustainable, and that has lost sight of why people would take that special trip to a restaurant to begin with.
It’s not a coincidence that there has been so much media coverage on the stress of attaining and maintaining high ratings and the subsequent ill health of outwardly successful chefs around the world. That first restaurant that made such an impact on my life as a teen? It’s given its stars back to Michelin. The Hollywood hit film, Chef? An account of a famed cook who bursts at the pressure and lack of flexibility in keeping to a certain level of prestige. And let’s not forget about the tragedy of Anthony Bourdain. The system has gone sour. True success should not be about one man’s perfection (and let’s face it, Michelin in particular structurally reinforces having male superchefs at its core); it should be about a collective uplifting. Only then can the industry move in the right direction for those who drive it and for those who consume.
In late September of 2017, I jot down a quote by Fuschia Dunlop in her Financial Times article, ‘We were being fed a story.’ She wrote, “Food culture is always reflective of politics, economic and social change.” That line has stuck with me. What if, in the place of a gender dominated, elitist, and cutthroat system we had an alternative by which the elements that serve society today and in the future are at the heart of what chefs and eateries are trying to achieve? Not the most creative dish, but the best overall experience. The most desirable possible scenario for people to come to work, to relax, or to be inspired.
Yes, I’m talking about getting more than one female chef in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. (Unsurprisingly, the list’s icons, once highlighting the faces of 49 men and one male-female pair behind each restaurant have since been replaced with the less embarrassing photos of just a dish from each.) Yes, I’m talking about intensely supporting the use of sustainable ingredients. Yes, I’m talking about receiving a smile and decent attention from the wait staff who, instead of being terrified about messing up, act naturally or offer an extra sip of wine on the house.
In an era of strengthened financial systems, justice in the media, and many shaken boardrooms, why not a similarly reconstructed set of guidelines for restaurants? With a global foodservice market of about $3 trillion and growing and, from Toast, 61% of American adults (who make up about one third of the figure by revenue) saying that, “…they would rather spend money on an experience, such as a restaurant or other activity, compared to purchasing an item from a store,” it’s about time that we pick up on the magnitude of the industry and the changing preferences within it and use them as a force for good.
WHAT IT ENTAILS
Thus, the proposal is this: to establish a revised way of guiding the restaurant industry, with Experience at the structure’s core and other important considerations of Sustainability, Cuisine, Story and Diversity. Evaluation will be based on one central principle, Discernment. The image below, the ‘Obsidian Rise,’ will serve as an icon for the system and also as a tool for visualizing an establishment’s current state in addition to its growth potential.
With a bottom-up structure, here is a closer look at what the guiding tenets of the Obsidian System will be:
The evaluator should have sound judgment. She should be able to have an overall understanding of her experience at a given eatery as well as a perception of the experience of others present. She should intuitively know whether the plates that she has been served are authentic, and prepared with expertise. She should be able to read about a restaurant’s concept, design and dishes and decide whether they come from a core mission, or from forced branding. She should be able to notice or read more about how the management is structured, and how the employees are treated and treat each other. In the end, I believe that it boils down to this. If one has had a longstanding interest in scouting out great ingredients, cooking at home, and dining out, or if one is generally self and outwardly aware, it is not that difficult to discern good from bad or right from wrong. I don’t think that, as Michelin enforces, one needs to have worked for a restaurant or in hotel management for a multitude of years to know these things. In fact, having such a narrow view of who should be evaluating eateries for the greater public once again perpetuates that the same kind of person is the judging the same kinds of places, bringing the food world to a very skewed and closed-minded state.
This is related to another key difference between the evaluation values of Obsidian and Michelin, which is that of transparency versus anonymity. I understand that Michelin keeps its critics anonymous to ensure that they receive standard treatment in exchange for unbiased reviews. However, it is common knowledge that Michelin’s inspectors tend to be older men who dine out alone or in pairs. And, beyond this, what would it really matter if staff were trained to recognize and give preferential treatment to the evaluator upon arrival? It again comes down to sound judgment. One should know whether or not she is being unusually charmed by wait staff. She should be able to see whether other tables are receiving different service, and judge accordingly. I like the idea that the people behind a system are clear to all who buy into it. You won’t find a traded company that doesn’t publish an annual report or show online who its board or executives are comprised of. Why do we have a strong international standing of consumers and professionals who trust the opinion of Michelin, whose critics are people whose faces we’ve never seen, and whose backgrounds we don’t know? As the Obsidian System grows and more evaluators become a part of it, their profiles will be published.
As discussed, this will be the crux of the system. Experience should be the result of an eatery’s ambience and its service. When one walks into a restaurant, and loves the way it looks—not necessarily because it has a star designer behind it but because the interior reflects the vision of the place in a palpable way—an immediate, sensory effect is produced. When one is greeted by a smiling and helpful person who is the first of several during the meal to make one feel welcome and served well, another positive response is received. When one is able to stay for as long as one likes and have meaningful conversation with guests, engage with the wait staff, or perhaps even meet someone new at the restaurant, one often acquires the overall feeling having had a great meal, and a pleasant time out. This should be the true objective.
Sustainability can mean many things relating to that which is environmental, long lasting and beneficial. In the spectrum of eateries, sustainability usually has to do with ones that grow and source their food organically, locally and humanely. Restaurants housed in sustainable structures may be ones that have been intentionally designed or refurbished with the natural site in mind, or for energetic efficiencies. Their interiors could have been conceived of by a regional artist, or made up of local and recycled materials. The human element is also critical. Sustainable businesses pay their employees a fair wage, allow for decent working hours, and promote positive atmospheres. While this latter element might be difficult to judge from a short visit, it’s surprising how much asking an honest question or two to a server can reveal. A brief verbal answer and body language in answer can sometimes tell one all that one needs to know.
What constitutes an excellent dish? This should in large part be determined by the vision of the eatery itself. Is it an agritourism, in the countryside? Then a great plate consists of ingredients from the property that are full of flavor. Perhaps the preparation is simple, perhaps it’s creative. Maybe the elements have been pickled and smoked and cured, or maybe only fresh items are served. If they’re satisfying and in line with the restaurant’s ideals, then it really shouldn’t matter. In contrast, at a modern restaurant in a big city, one could expect to find a concept-based menu with smaller portions featuring new ways of cooking. The educated eater should know whether the cuisine is aligned with the establishment and whether it’s been chosen and prepared with quality and care. The National Restaurant Association cites that, “Future food trends (predicted for the year 2020) will include local sourcing, fresh produce, healthy eating, and an emphasis on authentic items.” Does it taste good? Do you feel good afterwards? Then one has reached the height of what’s necessary out of the meal at hand.
Stories are powerful. They can transform ordinary objects into precious ones, nice places into prime destinations, and interesting people into acclaimed stars. Such is the same with food, restaurants and chefs. That butter on your table? Made from the herd of a reclusive mountain man, whose cows only consume grass from alpine meadows. That dive bar around the corner? One of the city’s oldest, originally a speak easy, still owned by the family. That person in the kitchen? Learned how to cook by taking care of neighborhood kids, then started a restaurant when realizing that being able to feed people is a gift. We’ve all had the instance of being more tuned in after connecting with what we’re eating, where we are, and who’s around us. Such should be the same with a great restaurant. A new establishment with all of the financial backing in the world cannot replace the quality of a cozy tavern with a great history behind it. But, is that well funded restaurant meant to be a known chef’s last attempt at breaking boundaries, with a workshop for students next door? Then it’s likely worth a try. The essence of a good story is in its authenticity. The fortunate thing about them is that they’re always present when understood, interpreted and told in the right way.
Let’s start with the least obvious interpretation of diversity in our current context. The other day, a girlfriend told me about her strange and disappointing visit to a supposedly great, Michelin-starred restaurant. The poor verbal review came down to something very simple: sauce. This eatery apparently had a signature one (whether intentional on its end or not) and used it profusely. In fact, it appeared on several dishes of the obligatory tasting menu. It also appeared in some of the palate cleansers between plates. My friend disliked the sauce the first time, and then proceeded to like it even less throughout the course of the meal, turning the entire experience into a confused, laughable matter. Lesson learned: spice it up; use different ingredients. Have more than one vegetarian option. But of course, diversity as we know it also applies to humans. Using an army of identical men to serve can also provide a surreal and flawed experience for consumers. Even in the most monocultural of settings, there are still at least local men and women to hire. There are still men and women of different ages. And, many times, there are locals of different ethnicities and different races that might be able to add some extra flavor to your meal. Extra points when this applies to the ownership of an establishment too. The key is to elevate an experience with authentic variety, to keep things interesting, and to keep things real. It’s also good business.
The Obsidian Rise has been designed to reflect the above core evaluation tenet and key elements. It’s also been sectored to allow for the evaluator to select on a three-part scale where a restaurant sits for each those five points. For example, let’s say that the result of a visit to a new eatery is decently good. The ambience is thoughtful, the service is enough, but there is still something missing (resulting in a two out of three sector rating for Experience, essentially for completion with room for enhancement). The establishment is lacking in its Sustainability effort but does communicate the use of local ingredients (one out of three), and has undeniably high quality local Cuisine, with nothing left to want (three out of three). At that same restaurant, there are a variety of dishes and some mixed staff members, but mostly male managers and women in the kitchen (two out of three for Diversity) and an interesting Story behind the eatery when pressing servers for more information, although with nothing formalized for greater transparency (one out of three).
The sectored approach allows for the evaluator to tell the reader and the restaurant where it has shown mastery, and where it can know to improve. It also allows the potential eater to decide that, while three elements may be important to that individual, another two are less so, and then choose an establishment based off of the factors that appeal most, and are done best. Everything is held in one visual for maximum simplicity, ease of communication, and impact. Total ‘scores’ can be devised by dividing the number of highlighted sectors by the 15 available ones, ending up with a percentage that shows the holistic rating of any given restaurant. In this instance, the example eatery would have received a 60% score.
ITS PURPOSE/ PLEDGE
In summary, the purpose of this proposal is to realign the current restaurant rating paradigm with values that are more modern-day accurate, uplifting, and beneficial to society as a whole. The eateries under review need not be currently starred or ‘star-type’ establishments, but rather any that is doing something good and that is on its way to greatness— a place that gets it right, and that would be a pleasure to go back to. I’ll begin evaluating restaurants along these lines using the Obsidian Rise as a tool, creating a database along the way, and garnering external input over time.
And finally, while thinking through the above, it was not lost on me that there are more pressing problems in the world of food than the ones discussed above. Internationally, we’re battling extremes like food deserts and food waste, and epidemics like famine and obesity. For this reason, I’m pledging that should the Obsidian System gain monetary traction, proceeds will be used to support the efforts of the Community Food Security Coalition, UNICEF, private start-ups and other reputable agencies that are doing their best to give aid or to tackle larger issues of nutrition worldwide. If you’d like to join me in this endeavor, your support via feedback and engagement is very welcome.
All in all, there is no doubt that Michelin has served us well as it pioneered providing restaurant recommendations and getting chefs and eaters alike to push the boundaries of food as we once knew it. It is even commendable that the institution has attempted to go online, to decentralize, and to branch out beyond Europe and major developed cities. However, as individuals spend an increasing amount of time and money in restaurants across the world, it is also overdue that we remove the pedestal placed beneath this institution, and begin to both reconsider and also work on what is important to us in the spectrum of eating out.