The novel coronavirus. Recession. An indoor dining ban. Flash thunderstorms that threaten to wipe out an entire evening’s service. The city’s top restaurants have dealt with many challenges in the past five months, and they’re about to get one more.
“Inspectors have resumed restaurant visits in some areas, including establishments in the New York selection,” a Michelin North America spokesperson confirmed to me via email.
Since the beginning of the pandemic-related shutdown, the Michelin organization has had the unenviable task of updating their annual travel guide in an environment where there is little tourism. Their anonymous inspectors, who normally assess hundreds of restaurants a year each, and collectively dole out the highly coveted Michelin stars, have been sidelined by health concerns and lockdowns around the world. But that is changing.
According to recent data released by the Michelin Guide, 79 percent of the world’s starred restaurants have reopened as of July 22. In Europe and Asia, where the spread of the virus has been adequately managed, inspectors have been back on the road for weeks.
Here in the United States, only 8 percent of the starred restaurants have reopened as the country struggles to handle the spread of the virus. Restaurants have suffered through extended closures that have left most of them in a precarious situation — eight of the 76 New York State restaurants that started the year off with Michelin stars have since permanently closed, and only 40 of those remaining are open at all.
But the number of new cases in the state have been stable for two months, and although the 2021 edition of the New York guide will be delayed from its usual October release date, according to a spokesperson for Michelin, the show must go on.
“We thought maybe this year [the Michelin guide] wouldn’t be released,” says Ellia Park, co-owner of the Korean restaurants Atomix, which has two stars, and Atoboy, which is on the Bib Gourmand list, often considered a junior varsity feeder for the starred selections. “I don’t know if it’s going to be fair or not because some restaurants do delivery and some restaurants can’t do anything.”
“We are always trying our best here, but now we’ll be worried about [the inspectors] as well,” adds TJ Steele, chef-owner of Claro, a Oaxacan restaurant in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Steele has a huge advantage over his peers in that he has an outdoor space behind his restaurant that can seat up to 30, but admits “even with the backyard, the service is much different.”
Other owners and chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants that I texted asking for an interview about the return of inspectors had responses ranging from “Yikes lol” to “Oh shit.”
According to Michelin’s North American chief inspector, the guide judges a restaurant based on five criteria: quality of the ingredients, cooking skills and harmony of the flavors, the chef’s personality as expressed in the cuisine, consistency over time and across the entire menu, and value for money. Though a rubric that mostly focuses on the quality of the food theoretically works whether you’re sitting in a multimillion-dollar dining room or in a bike lane while trucks speed past your table, challenges for the inspectors are abundant.
Take, for example, the city’s five restaurants that have been awarded three stars, the Michelin guide’s highest honor. None offer sit-down dining: Masa and Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare offer takeout options, though 10 minutes on a delivery bike is not consistent food’s best friend. Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin have become commissary kitchens, unavailable to the general public. Per Se, located inside the Time Warner Center, has remained closed since the middle of March.
During a normal year, inspectors would revisit the starred restaurants at least once, with the three star tier receiving up to a dozen inspections to evaluate consistency. Now Michelin faces the challenge of either eroding the credibility of their ratings, or demoting many of their standard bearers in the middle of a pandemic while restaurants are going out of business left and right.
“There’s honestly a thousand things that we’re worried about before a Michelin,” says Nico Russell, chef-owner of Oxalis in Prospect Heights, which has one star.
In a pandemic that is testing the relevance of a travel guide, Russell has a point. But according to Contra’s Fabian van Hauske, tourists accounted for 40 percent of their business — largely due to the restaurant’s one star rating in the guide. Jeju Noodle Bar’s Douglas Kim says “Michelin saved us” from the lean initial year of the restaurant from 2017-2018 in a way that a two-star New York Times review did not.
The strategy for long term survival and recovery, perhaps, is to maintain a standing in the guide and capture the tourist business when it returns, which may be soon: Last month, President Donald Trump started the process of allowing travelers back into the States by easing restrictions on European students.
For their part, the Michelin organization has said that they are understanding of the unique situation. “Our inspection team is fully committed to support and promote restaurants by being flexible, respectful and realistic as recovery takes shape,” says Michelin’s North American chief inspector, who is anonymous.
“You can read into it, but it’s basically saying, ‘We’re not gonna really ruin anybody,’” says Brad Steelman, executive chef at River Cafe in Dumbo, Brooklyn, which has one star. “We keep things status quo, and maybe we’ll get stars.”
The question remains: How does Michelin maintain the system’s credibility if it doesn’t eliminate half the restaurants — the ones that remain closed — from its existing list? The organization is notoriously secretive about its methods, but chef Daniel Boulud, whose namesake restaurant in the Upper East Side has two stars, has a simple solution.
“I am sure that they will come up with a takeout classification,” says Boulud.