Losing a Michelin star can be a painful process.
Just ask Gordon Ramsay, who claims he was reduced to tears after his New York restaurant, The London, lost both of its two stars. “I started crying when I lost my stars. It’s a very emotional thing for any chef… It’s like losing a girlfriend. You want her back.”
The whole Michelin process is a closely guarded secret. But while little is known about how the stars come to be awarded, even less is known of how they are lost. We’ve managed, however, to piece together a few clues as to how the process works.
How Much do the Stars Matter?
Rather a lot – to chefs, at least. We’ve already touched on Ramsay’s reaction, but Marco Pierre White dedicated the early part of his career to gaining three Michelin stars.
Similarly, Alain Ducasse, when he became Head Chef at Monaco’s Hôtel de Paris, insisted on a seemingly impossible clause. He would earn three stars within the first three years – an unprecedented culinary feat – or be fired.
Aldea’s George Mendes, meanwhile, told me their Michelin star is “an accolade [that they] cherish.” He called the guide “one of the closest, most meaningful and validated” measures of success.
How Often do Inspectors Inspect?
Usually, Michelin’s anonymous inspectors will visit a restaurant once every 18 months or so. If the restaurant is flagged as potentially gaining or losing a star, however, there will be further visits. Four inspections are required for a one star restaurant gaining its second, while a restaurant looking for the ultimate honour of three stars will be visited at least ten times.
It’s thought that less visits are needed for a restaurant that loses a star. Once the first inspector indicates the restaurant ought to gain or lose a star, there will be further visits to verify.
After the meal, the inspector will file a report. The five criteria judged are:
- Quality of ingredients
- Skill in preparation and the combination of flavours
- Level of creativity
- Value for money
- Consistency of culinary standards
In other words, it’s all about the food. While it’s been rumoured that décor and service form part of the judging process, this actually isn’t the case. You can see these criteria indicated in the Michelin guide by fork and spoon symbols, but it is exclusive of the main star awarding process.
Cuisine from the double Michelin starred Hibiscus
How Do Restaurants Lose Michelin Stars?
The obvious answer is that restaurants lose Michelin stars when culinary standards slip. But, this being the Michelin guide, the answer is a little more complicated than that.
In the case of Ramsay’s London, it seems the consistency of culinary standards was the main detracting feature. The Michelin Guide director, Michael Ellis, told Bloomberg that they “had issues with consistency, and consistency is a huge thing for us.”
Ellis himself even visited the restaurant. “I personally went there; we’ve had some very erratic meals.” Ellis explained he didn’t “really know what’s going on in the kitchen” and that there was “quite a bit of instability at the restaurant.” The latter part of Ellis’s explanation was probably in reference to how the restaurant lost its head chef in the summer of 2013, not replacing him until after the guide was published.
One inspector told The Telegraph, “If we award a star or take one away we know the difference it will make to somebody’s business. So we’ve got to be absolutely sure and go as many times as we have to in order to ensure consistency.”
The impact of losing a star can, indeed, be quite damaging for some chefs. “It can destroy a lot of young people’s lives – those who make the guide the only purpose of their quest for excellence,” says Raymond Blanc, chef-patron of the two Michelin star Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, in Oxfordshire. “That is dangerous. To lose a star is as dangerous as it is rewarding to gain a star.”
In fact, some chefs regret even gaining one in the first place. Skye Gingell, formerly head chef at the Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond, gained her first star in 2011, seven years after opening. Located in a nursery, the location won acclaim for its rustic feel and simple, seasonal food.
A year after gaining the star, though, Gingell quit. “It’s been a curse. That probably sounds very ungrateful. Since we got the star we’ve been rammed every day, which is really hard for such a tiny restaurant. And we’ve had lots more complaints.
“People have certain expectations of a Michelin restaurant but we don’t have cloths on the tables and the service isn’t very formal. You know, if you’re used to eating at Marcus Wareing then they feel let down when they come here.”
One thing’s for certain – the whole process is most definitely a stressful one for those in the kitchen.