Jen Agg is a Toronto restaurant owner and the author of I Hear She’s A Real Bitch.
Despite the Toronto Raptors winning it all in 2019 – finally, we are a world-class city! – we still love, maybe even prefer, our praise from outside sources.
So when the food world’s version of the NBA Finals finally arrived in Toronto this month – Michelin (yes, the tire company) – the thirst was real.
The original idea for the Michelin stars in the French company’s regional motorist guides, back in 1926, was to point drivers to restaurants that deserved a detour – small, special places that were worth the extra drive out of the way, with one to three stars to measure how much a restaurant merited its own “special journey.”
Chefs are pretty into Michelin, even the cool ones. It must have at least a little to do with the lack of recognition that cooks got before they became rock stars around the turn of the millennium, spearheaded by the swaggering Anthony Bourdain and his monumental hit book Kitchen Confidential. But it’s also about how hyperfocused and monomaniacal cooking is: Most chefs who have risen to any level of acclaim have been thinking about food, plating, cooking and nothing else for years, and would appreciate it if you noticed their immense talent once in a while!
There is a deep camaraderie in restaurants that makes them addicting workplaces. But if you were to work in one that tries to win “best of” lists like Michelin, too often you’d find a toxic culture – places where they focus on hospitality and being a “house of yes” to the diners, yet say no to reasonable requests from employees, such as asking that they not be sexually harassed on the job, or wanting to, y’know, be paid for all their hours worked. Of course, Michelin doesn’t pay attention to all that – if they did, a lot of places would be disqualified. Winning and retaining those Michelin stars comes with huge pressure, too; two chefs died by suicide just before the annual Michelin announcements in France, and it is widely believed that the deaths were at least in part because their restaurants were at risk of losing a star.
So Michelin stars are somehow still a thing, even though food trends have changed so dramatically that the guides’ narrow vision of luxury fine dining standards seems like it belongs to a bygone age. (It used to be that we’d have to wait for Thomas Keller to drop another overpriced tome of recipes to try and lift his moves; now, we’re in a hall of mirrors, looking at each other through Instagram or TikTok.) And in fact, the program is relatively unwilling to actually be more inclusive to great restaurants that don’t fit that definition, though things are a little better in the Asia guides.
While it’s ostensibly meant to award the most exciting chefs – the ones who are thinking outside the box – Michelin seems more about conformity to a homogeneous kind of luxury experience. You can feel when a restaurant is going for Michelin stars by the way they plate food, or from the proliferation of ingredients such as caviar (a perfect food) or Wagyu beef (which I would happily never eat again). If there’s a bit of edible gold leaf on your dessert – which is of course a very dumb thing – you can be assured it is because the kitchen is shooting for that star.
Toronto has been thirsty for Michelin for years, and Michelin insists that it’s arrived thanks to the city’s “impressive culinary landscape.” And yes, it is a great eating town – but it has been for more than a decade. So what’s changed? Perhaps money from restaurant and tourism groups: According to Andrew Festa, who is in charge of PR for Michelin North America, “Destination marketing organizations cover some of the costs incurred in establishing the Michelin Guide in a new location.” The word “some” feels like it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting here.
Overwhelmingly, chefs across the country (with the exception of those in Montreal, where they know they deserve a guide just as much as Toronto does) seem excited that Michelin is coming to Canada’s biggest city, which says a lot about the kind of change that hasn’t happened in the industry. To hold on so lovingly to something so rooted in old-school kitchen hierarchy and the kinds of restaurants that mete out real punishments for lack of compliance or failure to perform under immense pressure is the microcosm of why change doesn’t happen. This is an awards system that is so tangled up in the lifting-up of white men with access to capital that even when it throws a bone at a street-food restaurant, it feels very much like that: scraps.
Of course, I have zero expectations that one of my restaurants will be offered a Michelin star, though I have said repeatedly that I would return it, if one won. But I think that might be incredibly selfish. Having spoken to chefs who work for me, of course I realize how much Michelin means to them; there is simply no bigger reward they can achieve in their field, one that demands so much of their time and energy. It would mean so much to the cooks and servers working in the restaurants every night – plus, I don’t think it would be a particularly wise long-term business decision, either. I have spent my career both participating in and pointedly criticizing the restaurant industry, which has earned me few friends within its walls – a price I happily pay. It’s obvious that if you want a certain kind of coverage or award, you need to play a certain kind of game that I’m unable and unwilling to play. But what does that mean for the people associated with me as partners and chefs? Do they suffer unfairly because of my battle-ready spirit?
We are so hard on ourselves in Toronto’s restaurant scene, to the point that we too often end up chasing homegrown talent out. Maybe being a Michelin town will give Toronto that last bit of world-class-city anointment we need to finally feel like we are good enough and that people actually like us. But that really shouldn’t be the thing, should it? After all, it’s like Anthony Bourdain told Canadians, in a 2016 interview with Maclean’s: “I think you’re doing it right if Michelin hasn’t come … you don’t owe them nothing.”
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