The Michelin Guide's release of the California edition on Tuesday was met with plenty of thanks and congratulations across social media this week. But for a couple of prominent San Francisco restaurants, it's a year of undeserved sour grapes, and there remain some major questions about why the inspectors did what they did in San Francisco.
Octavia and Frances chef-owner Melissa Perello, who has had to contend with an undeserved loss of a Michelin star before (Frances, which gained a star after its 2009 opening, lost it in the 2013 guide and has never gained it back), remained gracious in a post on Instagram.
"To even be open after what we’ve all endured over the last year and a half is a blessing that really puts things in perspective," Perello writes. "While losing your star doesn’t ever feel good, I am so proud of our entire team at Octavia and Chef [Nico Pena]... The work being done across the board at @sf_octavia - stars or no stars - is something I feel proud of every day."
Octavia held a Michelin star from 2015 until this year, and the restaurant reopened "incandescently" according to Eater's Becky Duffett and many other fans after its pandemic closure in late June, partly under the helm of new chef de cuisine Nico Pena. It's possible the inspectors decided that the closure and the chef change meant that the restaurant needs a year to regain its footing — something similar seemed to have happened when chef Joshua Skenes left the kitchen at Saison, and the restaurant was demoted from three stars to two. But it seems equally possible that this was a subjective decision based on little evidence of a decline in quality, and because the inspectors are anonymous and offer no explanations, we'll likely never know.
The same can be said of Rich Table, which has been a mainstay of best-of lists since it opened a decade ago, under the co-chef talents of Evan and Sarah Rich. But while Michelin stars are great for business, the Riches have been vocal in the past about their discomfort with Michelin, and Evan Rich was among the chefs quoted in the Chronicle in a September 2020 piece about how meaningless such ratings felt during the pandemic, as so many restaurants across the country sat dark.
In that piece, Rich said that in reopening for takeout and ultimately for outdoor dining, he and his team were no longer striving for perfection, in a Michelin vein. "I won’t say our food has regressed, but I’ll say we’re just cooking now to soothe the soul," Rich said, pointing to a pork schnitzel dish that remains on the menu in differing preparations (and is wildly delicious). In many ways, though, the joys of the Rich Table menu, from the porcini doughnuts to the uni carbonara pasta, have remained entirely consistent, so why would Michelin inspectors be so harsh as to strip the place of a star?
And this year, after the year every restaurant has been through?!?
Chef-owner Pim Techamuanvivit, whose still-closed Union Square restaurant Kin Khao retained its star — but whose more upscale Nari strangely failed to earn one — told the Chronicle last year, "Imagine you had one star and then that star was taken away, right now of all times. I would lock myself away in the bathroom for a year if that happened to me. I wouldn’t be able to take it."
As Techamuanvivit tells Eater this week, there's no questioning Michelin.
"We’re happy with any recognition," Techamuanvivit says. "Michelin is like any other review or critic. We don’t have a say. We’re just grateful."
One has to assume that the inspectors are fallible — every critic is, and maybe the great veneration that many foodies place on the Michelin Guide deserves to be questioned. The inclusion of two closed restaurants, Kin Khao and Bar Crenn, put alongside the stripping of stars from Octavia and Rich Table, is just non-sensical. And what about their suddenly discovering 3rd Cousin in Bernal Heights after it's been open for five years and calling it a "New Discovery"? Or the fact that they left In Situ on the star list up until Tuesday morning, despite it having permanently closed?
One anonymous inspector told Forbes in 2019, "The inspectors take every decision concerning a star—whether it’s an award or a suppression—very seriously, because we respect the time and energy that this chef devotes to mastering the craft."
Were these particular star-removals so well vetted and justified? How serious and careful were they being when they missed In Situ's closure? And shouldn't a year of pandemic upheaval in the industry count for some sort of forgiveness in all but the most egregious of cases?
Notably, the 2021 update for the New York Michelin Guide contained no star-strippings for any restaurant that had not closed. Not one. Blue Hill at Stone Barns held on to two stars despite the fact that it had shifted to featuring a rotating cast of guest chefs! Maybe the inspectors were in a kinder mood back in May when that guide came out? Or maybe the SF inspectors are just bad at their jobs!
Chef and restaurateur George Chen, who opened the Chinatown restaurants China Live and Eight Tables by George Chen in the year before the pandemic, says outright that he thinks the inspectors are biased against Chinese food. And with only two Chinese restaurants across the U.S., including San Francisco's Mister Jiu's, holding single Michelin stars, that certainly may be the case. (The techniques and ingredients that inspectors profess to prize above all may not include Chinese techniques and ingredients.)
Chen tells Eater that he was hoping for two stars for Eight Tables, and "To not even recognize us with one star is a joke."
"They think of [all] Chinese food with the same perception," Chen says. "You can’t charge that for Chinese. Maybe a Japanese or Korean tasting menu, but Chinese is relegated to a big dog pile of cheap Chinese food in big portions."
While every year's Michelin Guide release is met with some head-shakes and raised fists, if Michelin really wanted to critique itself into irrelevance, they may have taken a strong step toward that goal with the California guide.