What to expect from Michelin’s new California guide
The definitive foodie guide to the Golden State has met with a mixed reception
Michelin, the tyre company turned arbiters of taste, have just released the 2019 Michelin Guide California. While they’ve covered Californian cities in the past – including Los Angeles in 2008 and 2009 – in recent years, the inspectors have restricted themselves to San Francisco and the Bay Area, celebrating the likes of The French Laundry, The Farmhouse Inn, Quince and Commis in the process.
However, as Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guides, tells me, because of the “quality of food, the quality of the produce they’re offering here”, casting the net across the entire state felt almost inevitable.
“California’s culinary landscape has been blooming for the last five, ten years,” he explains, and this guide has been in the pipeline for at least two years. “We have to ensure consistency, we have to visit again and again and again – so to publish a consistent selection for us takes around two years. But we’ve been considering some places – LA for example –for a long time.
“Now you have more and more homegrown talents across California, locally trained chefs, opening their own restaurants, more quality, more creativity, more and more care for the products, they’re getting better and better. Customers are more and more demanding, they know what good food is.”
In recent years, Michelin have famously diverted from their more rigid standards, rewarding stalls in Singapore hawker centres, for example, with a star. Many assumed that this would mean the awarding of a star to, say, a taco truck in LA, as a bid to stay relevant. There are no such winners – well, not this year – which, inevitably, has seen the same cynics dismiss the awards as irrelevant because they haven’t given a star to a single taco truck.
Gwendel laughs and shrugs his shoulders at this Catch 22. “For us, if it’s good food, we don’t care if it’s a hawker centre or somewhere with white tablecloths. It can be really, really informal as it is in Asia or a classic setting. We look at the quality of the food – taste, balance, harmony – and the quality of the produce. At its simplest, one star is a very good place in its style, a talented chef, good value. Two stars is somewhere worth the detour, you’d drive one or two hours, but three stars, you’d fly.
“One star will get you local awareness, regional awareness with two, international awareness with three.”
The reaction to the Guide has not been entirely positive. “I think it smacks of two parties coming together to help each other: Visit California who are funding it for Michelin; and Michelin, who are desperate to remain relevant in a world where dining has changed almost beyond recognition from what they were set up to acclaim,” Food Network star Simon Majumdar tells me.
Majumdar, British-born but now based in LA, agrees with Poullennec that the LA-dining scene has improved dramatically in the last decade but believes the best food is to be found “in places that neither need Michelin nor will really benefit from its attention”.
“Personally, I think Michelin needs it more than LA or California, but perhaps with the ageing of ‘classic’ destination restaurants like French Laundry, Manresa and Chez Panisse, California is keen to create new destination places.”
It’s perhaps telling that so much of the focus since the announcement has been on LA and, particularly, what Michelin have missed, or why the Guide is irrelevant to LA, rather than the other cities – such as San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Monterey – that, frankly, seem rather delighted at the recognition.
The truth of the matter is that the Guide is useful for a certain type of traveller, a fine starting point for a particular type of diner. If you want something edgier, quirkier or just plain newer, well, there are plenty of online sources to point you in the right direction.
The Michelin Guide California 2019 is available now from Amazon and all the usual outlets.
The full list of winners is available here.