new yorker piece on the michelin ratings
Sticking with the food theme, let me call attention to John Colapinto’s great article on the Michelin Guide in the recent New Yorker food issue. There’s a lot in this article that should be of interest to org theorists and institutionalists, especially given former guest blogger Michael Sauder’s important work (with Wendy Espeland) on the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools. In the piece, Colapinto gains access to a covert Michelin inspector, a task that fell to him after the famously secretive Michelin dragged its heels on letting another reporter talk with an inspector. In it, he describes a lunch at Jean Georges shared with “Maxime” (the inspector) and Michelin managing director Jean-Luc Naret, which he uses as an entry point for describing the way that Michelin recruits and trains its inspectors, its very French orientation to judging the quality of the cuisine and ambiance of the establishment, and the way that chefs and restaurant owners respond to the rankings.
The piece inherently raises a number of organizational questions, such as:
- How well do the cultural understandings inherent in an institutionalized rating system translate into new environments? The more populist Zagat guides (or crowd-sourced websites like Yelp.com) seem to be much better suited to the U.S., although they too suffer from worries that interested parties will try to game or cheat the ratings. On the other hand, the role of the disinterested, anonymous expert Michelin critic seems to encourage a sort of standardization. A dish is either “right” or “wrong,” in true French form. Indeed, as Rao has pointed out, French cuisine went through considerable changes associated with the rise of the insurgent nouvelle cuisine form, and in which those chefs who borrowed from a rival form of cuisine in their dishes became significantly more likely to lose a Michelin star as a result. Consider the following case in which Maxime describes why famed Upper East Side restaurant Daniel scored only two out of three Michelin stars until very recently:
[It lacked] consistency — and accuracy… It’s just technical. I mean, cooking is a science, and either it’s right or its wrong. And that’s something that’s very objective. Either a sauce is prepared accurately — or it’s not. A fish is cooked accurately — or it’s not. There’s the talent, the creativity that has to be applied to get a three-star — he has to be a very talented chef — but there was just a lot of inconsistency.
- Further, consider NYT food critic emeritus Frank Bruni’s thoughts on what gets lost in applying a universal standard:
… I wonder if a certain sort of chromosomal stodginess can ever really be completely leached out of the Michelin guide and the system. [...] The other thing that has always made me wonder about Michelin rankings is that they claim a lot of science to them, but is there a lot of soul to them? When Michelin describes its own system, I think, where is the allowance for just a visceral, emotional response to a restaurant?
- As Surowiecki notes about the worries many have about the impact of health reform, anxieties about losses tend to overpower the pleasures associated with potential gains. Losing a Michelin star can be catastrophic for a restaurant in a concentrated market, even though being rated at all remains a considerable status marker. Colapinto recounts the story of former La Côte d’Or chef Bernard Loiseau, who threatened that he would kill himself if he ever lost one of his Michelin stars. Shortly after losing the star, Loiseau made good on that promise.
- Do the judgments of one rating system tend to spill over to others? There’s indication in the story that the Michelin Guide has been struggling to build its legitimacy in the U.S. market since its arrival here in 2005, and that its editors feel considerable pressure when its ratings are inconsistent with those of Zagat or the Times. They may, therefore, be more inclined to give an additional star to a restaurant others have rated quite highly, or to take one away for a negative reputation.