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The place of Michelin stars in life, universe and everything

A new set of restaurants makes it onto the vaunted guide. Better late than never

The number of black-owned restaurants has increased in the Michelin Guide.
The number of black-owned restaurants has increased in the Michelin Guide. (Pixabay)

In the restaurant cosmos, Michelin stars offer order and hierarchy. They certainly don’t calm the incorrigibly disputatious industry; instead, they provide a focus for rivalry, competition and debate as well as anxiety. Ferran Adria, the legendary Spanish chef whose legacy has just been spectacularly celebrated in Copenhagen, says that one of the comforts of shuttering his restaurant El Bulli in 2011 — at the height of its powers — was no longer having to worry about retaining its three Michelin stars year after year. Critics may shower praise (or not) but what counts is your place in the empyrean determined by that offshoot of a French tire company.

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That kind of artificial statistic has always irked me. Watching Adria enjoy his much-deserved accolades at Alchemist — the two-starred culinary dazzler headed by his youthful Danish admirer Rasmus Munk — I thought of how annoying it must have been to fret over the happiness of anonymous Michelin inspectors for the two decades or so El Bulli was the most difficult reservation in the world.

But rankings can have salubrious effects, if sometimes to highlight deficiencies. On Monday evening in Manchester, Michelin revealed its celestial statistics for restaurants in the UK and Ireland. In London, it was three stars for the Ledbury, the resurrected war horse in Notting Hill; the acclaimed Ikoyi in its new location on The Strand retained its two stars; there was a sparkler for Tomos Parry’s Beak Street charmer Mountain in Soho. Meanwhile, Planque, in Haggerston and one of my favorite spots in the city, still hasn’t gotten the attention of Michelin at all. Grumble, grumble.

Still, there were tidings of great joy, even for a Michelin sourpuss like me. Chishuru, the West African restaurant run by my friend Adejoké Bakare, was awarded its first star. She is now the first Black woman chef in the UK to be so decorated. She is also only the second in the world (the first was Mariya Russell, who returned to industry last year after a hiatus in the wake of winning a star for the Chicago restaurant Kiko in 2019). Nigeria-born Bakare is not just Chishuru’s chef but also co-owner. I’ve seen her go through the unglamorous aspects of the business: painstakingly moving her Brixton operation across the Thames to Fitzrovia late last year, negotiating for space and property as well as fretting over food costs. And then, she had to contend  with diners who felt that her cuisine was too expensive — a common complaint that minority chefs face from customers who can’t seem to comprehend that as much work and good produce go into African, Asian and Latin American food as French or Italian. Do you really want to know what overpriced means? Just break down the effort and cost that went into that £35 ($44) plate of pasta.

My colleague Kwaku Gyasi wrote last August that there were only six Michelin-starred restaurants run by Black chefs —  in the world! That’s now gone up because of Bakare’s Chishuru as well as Akoko, also in Fitzrovia, whose executive chef Ayo Adeyemi is of Nigerian descent. That all seems slow and belated, even with the echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous saying: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Across the Atlantic, it’s Black History month in the US. And I’d like to hope that the culinary turn toward justice will accelerate in a country where African-American men and women are at the heart of the country’s food culture. One of the more bracing anecdotes I’ve read comes from Alex Prud’homme’s book Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread in the White House. Long before Lyndon Johnson became president, he’d travel between his home in Texas and Washington DC, where he was making his national career. One day in 1948, he asked his long-time cook Zephyr Wright and her husband Sam to make another trip down to Texas from the US capital. “I’m not going to do it,” she said.

When Sammy and I drive to Texas and I have to go to the bathroom, like Lady Bird [Johnson’s wife] or the girls… I have to find a bush and squat. When it comes time to eat, we can’t go to restaurants. We have to eat out of a brown bag. And at night Sammy sleeps in the front of the car with the steering wheel around his neck, while I sleep in the back. We are not going to do that again.

Sixteen years later, President Johnson invited Zephyr Wright to a White House ceremony where he signed the historic Civil Rights Act. He handed her the pen he used to turn the bill into law saying, “You deserve this more than anyone else.”

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Written by Howard Chua-Eoan, columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business. 

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