Michelin Guide Miami: Who Needs It?

A 1929 Michelin Guide.
A 1929 Michelin Guide.

Lists are a big deal. Hate them or love them, they're successful enough that corporate overlords at media companies of all stripes have handed down firm marching orders calling for lists with haste, creativity, and military-like regularity.

But when the vaunted Michelin Guide for New York City -- one of the food world's ultimate lists -- was released earlier this week, the reminder that Miami has never had any such guide of its own was a happy one.

In the U.S., Michelin only judges New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. The little red book assigns high-end restaurants one, two, or three stars with one meaning "a very good restaurant in its category," two "excellent cooking, worth a detour," and three signifying "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."

Though some Miami restaurants, like 1826, The Forge, and Azul in the Mandarin Oriental, employ chefs who have earned stars, the guide itself has never come here to assign such ratings, and that's just fine. It's not because Miami restaurants aren't worthy or ready for the intense scrutiny. The guide is a vestige of a bygone era in the world of gastronomy that offers little guidance to modern foodists compared to newer sources.

It was created at the turn of the 20th Century as a marketing ploy by car tire company founders André and Édouard Michelin. There were few automobiles in France at the time, and they hoped creating a guide to inspire eaters to travel to worthy restaurants would provide a healthy bump in sales. The newer World's 50 Best Restaurants that has for a handful of years seemingly shoved its way into Michelin's domain also has suspicious backing. In this case it's San Pellegrino, the chichi bubbly water that's owned and produced by Swiss food and beverage giant Nestlé.

Since the Michelin Guide was initially created for French motorists, and has still seemingly held to that judgmental structure, it's hard to judge whether a three star is worth a special trip in itself, or a day trip while on vacation in the region.

Moreover the guide has been criticized for its undecipherable standards, an alleged bias toward French cuisine, and a perceived leniency toward restaurants in some Asian countries.

Still, one can't say the Michelin folks are second-class or that the new and existing restaurants on their list aren't worth the time or money. There's little doubt those who seek the adulation do so with a degree of dedication hardly matched around the globe. Yet the coveted stars reveal little about the cuisine, the chef overseeing it all, or the restaurant's history and context.

No Michelin Guide ever told Anthony Bourdain's tale of Justo Thomas, the heroic fish butcher at Eric Ripert's consistently three-starred Le Bernardin in New York City. Thomas in one day can cut so much fish that a small troupe is needed to cover for him while he's on vacation. The guide calls Michel Bras' gargouillou, the dish that could be considered the forefather of natural plate presentation, "an ode to the land." Such a description pales in comparison to documentary footage of Bras' otherworldly jaunts through the Aubrac plateau where he seems more a child at play, plucking and cooing at the greens to be served, rather than a chef at market.

The great French chef Paul Bocuse has been famously quoted as saying "Michelin is the only guide that counts." Perhaps this was true in the 1960s, when he helped redefine nouvelle cuisine. Today it's unclear how much the guide offers diners beyond an opportunity to practice counting.

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