The announced closing of Rene Redzepi’s Noma restaurant in Copenhagen attracted a lot of attention, but a broader trend is still playing itself out: Michelin-starred restaurants simply aren’t what they used to be, in my view, nor is the Michelin experience.
It started with the pandemic and the collapse of dining-related travel. Japanese customers in particular were important supporters of the Michelin experience, and until the last few months they hardly went abroad. A lot of the tourist business for Michelin-starred dining will undoubtedly come back — but the excitement is gone, and many people are comfortably ensconced in their new habits of home cooking, takeout and quick meals on the road.
A second trend working against Michelin is the continuing rise of interest in Asian food in the West. There are plenty of excellent, Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan and Singapore, but in Europe and the US Asian restaurants exist largely outside of the network of Michelin rankings. If you want to explore regional cuisine from India or China, for example, you can put your Michelin guide aside.
A Michelin exploration, perhaps during a trip to Europe, used to be a way to find culinary novelty. I had my all-time favorite meal at the Tokyo Pierre Gagnaire (it has only two stars), and have been to more than 120 Michelin-starred restaurants over the years. Now I need not venture beyond the Washington suburbs to sample new dishes from Chennai in India or Wuhan, China.
And then there is the spread of the Michelin brand. There are now Michelin guides for many US cities, which has caused the brand to lose some exclusivity. Michelin has awarded stars to 24 restaurants in the Washington area, for instance. I like many of these places, but I suspect Michelin is grading on a curve.
Social media are another part of the market evolution. Instagramming your meal is a popular pastime, and it suits some restaurants better than others. A lot of people, understandably, are reluctant to pull out their camera phones in a haute Parisian establishment, whereas they will gladly do so in a creative and more casual spot for Indian nouvelle cuisine in London or Singapore. El Bulli (now closed) and Noma have been amazingly good at attracting publicity and inducing pilgrimages, but apart from the very top of the market, Michelin-starred restaurants are operating at a publicity disadvantage.
Another factor working against Michelin is growing time pressure — especially among its well-to-do customer base. Many Michelin-starred dining experiences are slow, and the fixed-price menus often are designed to take up the entire evening, especially if paired with wine. But people are increasingly busy, and the smart phone’s pull of texts and posts and tweets is only getting stronger. And maybe, because of the pandemic, we all want to stretch our legs more often. Speaking for myself, I am much less interested in the three-hour meal than I used to be.
The decline of alcohol consumption in many parts of the world may also be bad for the Michelin experience. Marijuana use, by contrast, is up, and that of course encourages snacking at home.
Finally, there are the restauranteurs themselves: Running a top-level Michelin-starred restaurant may not, in the long run, be the best business model for a celebrity chef. The hours are grueling, and even minor slips are penalized by the critics. Once you are famous, why not fly around the world, accepting commissions from the very wealthy to cook at their private events? You can travel, work less and avoid the glare of media attention. This is often the more lucrative path, and it helps you avoid burnout. You can also sell food products online, as the Noma group is planning on doing.
If Michelin-starred dining is losing some of its allure, it’s not all bad. The Michelin system is based on a fairly strict hierarchy and on the notion that the critic can compare restaurants across a relatively small number of dimensions. It inhibits innovation as much as it supports it, as chefs realize they might be penalized if they stray too far outside the box.
Michelin stars aren’t going away. But they are now just another part of the culinary and media landscape. These days it’s easy to find a food critic or website whose tastes match yours fairly closely. That website may even be called “Michelin,” and there’s nothing wrong with that — just don’t expect everyone else to follow suit.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”