History was made in San Francisco this past week when Michelin unveiled its first ever guidebook to the SF Bay Area and wine country. There was much hype about the premier, followed by stunned patrons, food critics and restaurateurs who gawked in disbelief at the renowned guide that failed to include some of their most beloved eateries.
The city was outraged. Newspapers and internet communities blasted the guide for having no understanding of San Francisco cuisine. Oversights, misquotations and blatant wrong information found in the guide were blazoned across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday. People out here are mad.
I attended a panel discussion Wednesday evening consisting of four San Francisco food writers (one of them also a chef/restaurateur) and the infamous Jean-Luc Naret, the director of Michelin Guides.
Msr. Naret held his own among a panel of skeptical (and some downright outraged) local food writers and the audience members who supported them. Msr. Naret, although clearly outnumbered by Americans, carried himself with authority, dressed impeccably in a dark suit, hair slicked back and styled.
“We do not come here with French arrogance,” he finally said in defense to the numerous accusations from panelists and audience members that his inspectors (food critics) had a French bias.
It was invigorating to see San Franciscans up in arms about, what they felt, was a disservice to their cuisine. “Does it make sense to have Europeans come to America and judge San Francisco cuisine?” was a question brought up more than once.
Msr. Naret pointed out that 3 out of the 5 inspectors were San Franciscans, so our local opinion was, presumably, represented. According to Naret, the inspectors are directed to rate restaurants based on a global criteria, one that is designed to find merit in cuisines from all over the world, not just France.
People weren’t buying it. Audience members took the mic to defend their favorite restaurants that earned too few, or no, stars. What about Zuni, Chez Panisse, Globe, Canteen, Bodega Bay? Food lovers wanted answers.
During this charged rant, I looked down at my copy of the Michelin guide and saw it in a new light. Instead of seeing a bible, I saw a funny little marshmallow-like creature waving at me from the cover of the book. He could easily pass for a cousin of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. This funny little character followed me inside the pages, slurping his tongue over his upper lip to tell me about a restaurant of particularly “good value.” Is this Michelin Man the authority on food?
When it comes down to it, we do not need a guidebook to tell us how we should eat. Where we eat is based on personal instinct, referrals from friends, and sometimes simply what looks and tastes good at the moment. There are several guidebooks out there, many of which are written with opinions from locals. So there’s something out there for everyone.
Although it was clearly not the most popular opinion of the evening, a few audience members ventured to say that the Michelin guide offers an outsider’s perspective of San Francisco cuisine, which is not to be seen as a bad thing; it’s merely an opinion. Also, they argued, it’s an opinion that people outside of the area may find very useful.
San Franciscans will continue to patronize the restaurants where they like to eat, no matter what rating they receive in a bound book. If anything, I think they will become even more loyal to their favorites. From what I’ve observed around town this week, it’s evident that locals believe that cuisine has helped define San Francisco. And now these same San Franciscans are choosing to define their cuisine themselves, instead of deferring to the opinion of an outsider.
For those of you outside of the New York or San Francisco areas, Michelin plans on covering more U.S. cities in the near future. So, stay tuned.