Every year, the prestigious Michelin Guide announces its ratings of restaurants around the world, and Texas feels a twinge of envy. Our state has a glittering dining scene of culinary stars, but Michelin inspectors don’t pass through Texas. Currently the guide covers most of Europe, major cities across East Asia, and a small handful of American markets: New York, Chicago, California, three cities in Florida, and Washington, D.C. A Toronto guide debuts this fall. It’s natural for diners in other markets to wonder when Michelin might arrive.
The Dallas Morning News’ Claire Ballor recently did a terrific job talking to both Michelin representatives and Texas culinary leaders. She asked a lot of questions: do we think it’s going to happen? When? How would Dallas change if it did? (Morning News writers followed up on that question in a podcast episode. You should listen to the whole thing, but Ballor says stars could “separate the playing field” among top restaurateurs, and inspire chefs to do better work.)
How does Michelin decide to expand into a market? (Florida essentially bought the arrival of its own Michelin guide; four tourism agencies in the state teamed up to pay Michelin a sum the Miami Herald estimates at an astonishing $1.5 million over three years.)
Left unasked was another question: should Texas want a Michelin guide?
I’m not going to answer that outright. There are obvious advantages: prestige, motivation for chefs and diners to get more adventurous, and the endless fun of arguing about which ratings are wrong and who got snubbed.
There are also two reasons for Texans to be cautious in our pursuit of Michelin stars. The state would probably receive fewer Michelin stars than most people would like. The other side of the coin is that this isn’t because Texas is a bad place to eat; Texas just has different culinary priorities from the guide’s. We would, in effect, ask another culture to judge us by their standards, not by ours.
This is not to say who is right or wrong. You can make a good argument that many Texas chefs need the wake-up call of a harsh reception by the Michelin Guide. However you feel about it, the Guide does not judge restaurants the same way that most Texan diners do.
Texas probably would not receive many Michelin stars
Conversations with friends, colleagues, and diners with extensive Michelin experience suggest that Texas, as an entire state, might or might not match the 23 starred restaurants in Chicago alone. If we created a betting market around Michelin stars, 23.5 would be a great over/under.
It’s nearly impossible to tell which individual restaurants will be awarded, because the Michelin Guide revels in double standards. The East Asian guides famously award stars to casual noodle and dumpling shops (like the $2 meal in Singapore which was starred for four years). But that’s not so for the American guides, which favor old-school luxury and daring culinary high-wire acts.
Racial disparity is a concern as well. The current Michelin Guide for California lists just two Mexican restaurants as starworthy, out of 87 total starred restaurants, even though California is more than 40 percent Hispanic or Latino. Florida’s guide is similarly skewed (four sushi spots, but only one each for Mexican and South American cultures). This is worrisome for Texas, since many of our best restaurants serve Latin American food.
Michelin’s criteria for star ratings are not easy to understand. They seem transparent on paper (and I am quoting):
- Quality of the products
- Mastery of flavour and cooking techniques
- The personality of the chef in his cuisine [yes, the guide says “his”]
- Value for money
- Consistency between visits
But there’s clearly more to it than that, especially when you look at restaurants that receive more than one star.
When you get to two or three stars, Michelin rewards restaurants of a specific type. The food must be highly technical, not home-style. It should be served in a chef’s-choice tasting. It should combine the chef’s personal heritage or favorite cuisine with the traditional markers of a high-end European experience. There should be very good wine. The atmosphere should be formal and escapist, but not stuffy or musty. The bill should be north of $200 per person, not counting alcohol or service, an atypical definition of “value for money.” The meal should be an unforgettable occasion, not a random Tuesday night.
Looking around Texas, what do you see that fits those two-star criteria?
The only Florida restaurant to receive two Michelin stars is a high-end chain location from deceased chef Joël Robuchon. Washington, D.C.’s three two-star restaurants start at $295 per person (minibar by José Andrés) and get more expensive from there. Chicago’s two-star spots all feature tasting menus in the $250-$300 range. Few restaurants in Texas even attempt this format, let alone succeed at it.
Ultimately, my guess is that Texas would be very lucky to get a single two-star restaurant. We’d probably have around 20 restaurants with one star. That’s enough for foodies to travel the state completing the Michelin bucket list, but it’s also an underwhelming total for such a huge market. We would face soul-searching about whether we’re really “worse” than Florida.
Now here’s the good news.
Texas’ strengths just aren’t interesting to Michelin
This is about more than our love for burgers, barbecue, and tacos. The Michelin Guide has clear prejudices, and Texas does not fit its preconceived notions.
The guide prizes technique, precision, creativity, luxury, and formalized training. Those are all good things, of course, but not all good food meets all those descriptions. It clearly favors European and Japanese foods, which are wonderful and require great skill, but it does so at the expense of other cultures.
In addition to having a demographic mix the Guide fails to understand, Texas simply prefers more relaxed fine dining experiences than Michelin does. Even our very best restaurants, like Xochi in Houston, favor a la carte menus over chef’s tastings. Wine is not our default drink. We like to eat fancy food in jeans and boots. We like beer pairings and soft serve for dessert.
And many of our boldest, most innovative chefs prefer to cook in small, casual settings, rather than serving avant garde tasting menus for $300 each. Misti Norris’ tastings at Petra and the Beast are more memorable and inventive than some Michelin-starred meals I’ve had, but they’re delivered so casually—BYOB!—that the guide might turn up its nose.
As the Morning News writers suggest on their podcast, Texas chefs could change their attitudes and styles in response to Michelin. But at least at first, if the Michelin Guide comes to Texas, we will probably find ourselves holding fewer stars than we hoped for. That just means that our culture isn’t theirs.
The true moral will be that we, as Texans, need to find our own ways to achieve and recognize greatness, instead of relying on validation from outsiders. We could save some time by learning that lesson now.