Restaurant guides and food snobbery

A rushed piece before I drop off the edge of the internet-access world:

An article in this week’s New Yorker describes a secretive sit-down the author had with one of Michelin’s restaurant reviewers. My first impression while reading this piece was of how snobbish the whole restaurant rating business truly is. In today’s post, I try to pinpoint why it is snobby and how we could/are likely to do restaurant reviews better in the future.

Snobbery pervades everything in the Michelin ranking system. The guide explicitly prefer complexity to simplicity. As one Michelin inspector explains in the article, “You’re looking for something that really tests a number of quality ingredients and then something that’s a little complex, because you want to see what the kitchen can do.” That’s great, in my book. Make the kitchen perform a little. But then she goes on to say that “we would never order something like a salad. We rarely order soup.” Don’t turn to Michelin for where to get good soup or salad, because they wouldn’t know. foie-gras brûlée, yes;  a good cup of clam chowder, not so much.

This preference for the complex over the simple or traditional isn’t because the inspectors thinks that complex foods are inherently more delicious. As the Michelin inspector told the New Yorker,

“It’s a global food passion,” as she put it. Big Macs, tacos from “these divey little delis in Sunset Park,” Chinese food from “a Szechuan restaurant that’s a total dump,” even hot dogs from Papaya King’s grimy corner kiosks in Manhattan elicit groans of pleasure: “Oh, fantastic hot dogs!”

Fantastic hot dogs. Delicious. Apparently she loves to eat them on her own time. But good luck finding Papaya King’s in the Michelin guide. The reason, it seems is because it’s just too easy to make a good hot dog. Michelin’s key criteria are all about how difficult it was to make a meal. As the inspector explains:

“It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’ ” she said. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products. At this level, they have to be top quality. You’re looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?’ And then you’re looking at the creativity. Did it work? Did the balance of ingredients work? Was there good texture? Did everything come together? Did something overpower something else? Did something not work with something else?”

Forget whether it was enjoyable – apparently Michelin is running its very own culinary Olympics, an Iron Chef in print.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But it’s important to remember that three Michelin stars really just means that the chef can whip up a complicated sugar glaze over a foie-gras while making sure there’s just enough crunchy toast to balance the gras’ creamy texture. There’s no reason to believe, however, that eating the end result will be any more enjoyable than a double plate of enchiladas from the taco joint down the street.

Of course, at this point the true believers will say otherwise. In true Millian fashion, these food snobs would argue that only the initiated can enjoy the higher pleasure of haute cuisine, and it’s a clear sign of my low-brow upbringing that I can’t see Michelin rankings as clear delineations of culinary merit. There is no good way to argue against this view, since its very premise challenges my standing to engage in the debate. So I’ll leave it at that and instead counter with my view that the only reason harder has come to be seen as better in the food world is all about class and a pervasive Europhilia and specifically Francophilia amongst American cultural elites. Rich people like nothing better than finding ways to distinguish their consumption habits from the masses, and a good way for them to short-circuit the gut-level decisions of ‘delicious or not’ is to reorient the contest on a new axis of ‘complicated/expensive or not’. Haute cuisine from the continent happens to rely on more complex ingredients and preparation, so haute cuisine becomes the paragon of good food against which all other food is measured. Hence Michelin.

So what would be a better metric for creating restaurant guides? We clearly can’t go around listing everything that’s delicious because the list would be far, far too long to be useful. The Zagat guides eschew Michelin’s system of anonymous inspectors and instead rely on user-generated reviews. That’s a nice democratic step in the right direction, but is still caught up with the ‘complex and expensive = good’ foodie view that is expounded from Michelin and the NYT food critic on down the hierarchy of food criticism. And it’s not clear that Zagat serves its community any better when it comes to deciding what is actually delicious and what isn’t.

If I were redesigning the restaurant review process from scratch, I would have two different sources of information. First, there should be a list of most of the places to eat, with information on price ranges, types of food, and service. This is the kind of thing that Lonely Planet travel guides do really well for foreigners entering a city for the first time and trying to decide where to grab a bite to eat. Restaurant guides should serve a similar purpose for people moving cities, just entering the eating-out culture in their home city, or looking to broaden their horizons. I’d call these Lay of the Land Listings, not reviews. They just let you know what your options are.

The second type of restaurant review should be based on a web 2.0 social networking model. People generally trust recommendations most when they come from friends, who already know their arbitrary preferences. While it may be impossible to rank a good Mexican meal alongside a good Thai or (heaven forbid) French meal in any objective sense, your social network can help create such rankings in an entirely subjective sense. And those subjective rankings would be even more meaningful to you the consumer than Michelin’s snobbish focus on French food. This is, in effect, how people really make their judgments on restaurant quality. It’s just a matter of time before it gets systematized in a popular web 2.0 format (as is already starting to happen in some cities).

Does that mean there will be no room for Michelin and Zagat-type snobbery in the new world food order? Unfortunately, I think snobbery will be here to stay. Spending a lot of money on fancy-sounding dishes will always be a good way to signal potential mates your own financial standing and discerning taste. But we shouldn’t mistake the social rituals of eating out with actual, objective standards of better and worse. The most telling truth here could be that even those with relatively unlimited food budgets don’t eat 3 star meals all day. Their revealed preference is often clearly for pre-packaged ice cream cones and toasted sandwiches at home. Because those are good, too.


1 Response to “Restaurant guides and food snobbery”

  1. 1 lckelley December 3, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Lovely post, excellent writing. You tug at all my middle class heartstrings, Joe Busa. Here’s something for you to check out before you fall off that internet-access cliff!:

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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